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Vegetarian Practices in China, Kitchen Knowledge

by Irving Beilin Chang

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(1) page(s): 7

The largest vegetarian group in China are the Buddhists. Their religious beliefs are that one should not kill in order to eat. Therefore, they do not eat meat, fowl, fish eggs or dairy products. Although their dietary guidelines are strict, what is actually practice can be very different. Similarly, in this country, many religious groups have strict dietary guidelines but how individuals interpret them and how they are lived by varies widely.

Buddhists who strictly adhere to their beliefs not only abstain from meat, fish, fowl, eggs, and dairy products, they also abstain from vegetables of the onion family including but not limited to garlic, leek, onions, and scallions. Why this is so has not been fully explained. One story is that at the end of the Manchu Dynasty, the Dowager Tze Shi (1840-1912) summoned leading Buddhist monks to a meeting in the capital, Beijing. But suspecting some evil trick, the monks came prepared for the event. After a very solemn ceremony, The Dowager invited them to a meal at the royal palace. Therefore, the monks could not leave. The Dowager served them baotze (steamed bread) and stuffed it with dog meat. Because they were prepared, and had in their flowing sleeves, vegetarian baotze; they ate these hidden items that previously had been stuffed with vegetables and mushrooms. After eating their own baotze, they threw those filled with dog meat into the courtyard and then left. Later the courtyard grew wild onions, and thus the onion family was deleted from their diet. This story has never been verified. But one that has is if the onion family vegetables are consumed, breath and body can and often do exude strong odors. Perhaps, the odor detracts from the meditation and thinking of Buddhists.

There is a second group of vegetarians known as the twice-a-month Buddhists. They are strict vegetarians but only on the first and the fifteenth of the lunar month. Other days they may eat a normal Chinese diet with meat.

A third group of vegetarians are those that practice vegetarianism on a few religious days in the year; their interpretation of a vegetarian diet varies widely. Many of this vegetarian group not only eat vegetables of the onion family but also consume eggs, shellfish, and dairy products. Some of this and other less strict vegetarian groups brought up in the Buddhist faith have purchased lockers at a Buddhist crematorium. When they pass a temple, they go in to burn three sticks of incense and say a prayer for their family. For them, life can be full; it can also be full of contradictions.

The last group of vegetarians as interested in vegetarian food for want of a different taste or as a health diet alternate. Some in this group become vegetarians upon medical advise or seek a healthier lifestyle and hopefully, one with longer life expectancy. Some of this group are also interested in Chinese herbal medications and think of them as "tonics to improve blood circulation and general vitality," especially as they approach the senior citizen age group. Others in this category might be business people who wine and dine with their customers, friends and relatives on rich banquet food. At some point in their life, their whole system might be looking for a change-of-pace diet, something simple in taste and easy on the digestive system. At this point in time, they might pick a reputed and well known vegetarian restaurant to banquet on vegetarian food.

In the Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking, a Chinese publication from Hong Kong, author Chao Tsen Shien claims that shellfish and oyster sauce can be used in vegetarian cooking. He has many recipes that use these materials and condiments. I would think that the many vegetarian restaurants in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia would have a very difficult time producing their many tasteful and savory dishes without the use of some of these quasi-vegetarian sauces and condiments.

In conclusion, it is most important that a vegetarian understand all of their beliefs and the reasons for them and then learn all necessary tricks to enhance taste, flavor, color, and texture of their food. Otherwise, to live without the zest and happiness of life is not living at all.

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