TRY finding a vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai, or a vegetarian, for that matter. The odds are a hundred to one that you won’t. But China’s largest metropolis is home to both.
As the listings in any local English language periodical will tell you, the city has around 15 vegetarian restaurants. "Not enough," says Evelyn Lee, the proprietor of L’arbre de Provence, a premium vegetarian restaurant located in the Xujiahui shopping area. A vegetarian herself, she opines that the opening of more vegetarian eateries in the city will make life easier for non-meat eaters, and help the idea of vegetarianism gain acceptance among its residents.
Evelyn has an interesting story to tell about why she turned vegetarian. A couple of years back, while planning to open a restaurant, she happened to meet Mr.Tseng, owner of Zao Zi Shu (Jujube Tree), one of Shanghai’s best known vegetarian restaurants. He told her a tale which particularly touched her: Centuries ago, a Chinese scholar asked his cook to make a dish of eel. As the scholar watched, the cook struggled with the eel which kept lifting its stomach out of the boiling water. Intrigued, the scholar decided to find out why. He discovered that the poor creature was trying to save the eggs she was carrying in her belly. Moved, the scholar swore never to eat meat again.
Many such tales and Evelyn was convinced. But not everyone is easily moved. Vegetarianism is not very popular in Shanghai. Lily Wu, manager of the Huai Hai Road branch of Jujube Tree and a vegetarian, says her mother often forces her to eat meat. Taking friends out to a vegetarian restaurant is considered "cheap" in Shanghai, and then there is my Chinese friend who always giggles when I tell her what I’m having for dinner — don’t I think meat is food, she asks.
Attitudes are not very different in the rest of China.
In Beijing, the capital city which has restaurants to cater to every palate, the number of vegetarian restaurants is less than 20.
The reasons for this are many — China’s spectacular economic growth over the past couple of decades has meant that more and more people, especially in the cities, can afford to buy meat. Also, the fact that non-vegetarian food in one’s daily diet is bad for one’s health, which is steadily gaining acceptance in the West, is not acknowledged in China. Here, because of widespread poverty and food shortages throughout history, meat is considered a delicacy eaten by the rich. Religion, another important reason why people choose vegetarianism as a way of life, is slowly making inroads into the Chinese way of life. Hou Lu, a Buddhist, turned vegetarian as a form of prayer when her father fell sick. Mr.Tseng, also a Buddhist, stopped eating meat when his mother took ill.