My Chinese Impressions – Part 4

Being a vegetarian in China

I think, of all the things I want to talk about China and my experiences there, this should be in the top 10 and it is…so here we go:

The day I fell sick

2 days after I arrived in Shanghai, I had my stomach twirling in all kinds of wild ways that it could and my head aching from the constant pain. A quick snapshot of thoughts running through my head, “How hard can it really be? Food is food, rice is rice right? I have eaten Chinese food in India as well as in the US, I even like it! Then what went wrong?” After thinking a bit, I realized, I had eaten ‘sticky rice” the previous night and not being quite used to eating semi cooked rice, my stomach might have overreacted. I kept away from sticky rice, the entire trip and to imagine, I had packed up a lot of “allied food material” with me, thinking, worst case, will make a meal of it with sticky rice

Ordering vegetarian food in Chinese

Most restaurants in China carry pictures of the food that they have listed on their menu. It is so colorful and appetizing…except it is not vegetarian! Trust me, staring at menus that were wholly composed of exotic non-vegetarian dishes you cannot eat, attempting to ordering vegetarian dishes to a Chinese waiter (who either fall into the category of sympathizers – “Oh! what a shame” or assume all sea food is vegetarian!) and of course, not to mention that ensuring the oil used to cook the food is not animal based, was an adventure in itself..

However, I did find an elegant way out of this mess – I got flash cards written with information on specific vegetarian dishes, instructions on what is vegetarian and usage of vegetarian oil for cooking. Now I had eased the communication and hoped and prayed that they executed it – because, seriously, if I were eating alone, I wouldn’t even know the difference!!!

9 and counting…

Well…now, that is the different kinds of Chinese noodles I ate ranging from Shanghainese to Cantonese. There are, in fact, subtle differences in tastes too – but I got tired of ordering different kinds of vegetarian noodles and really, badly ached for some Indian food…(of all people, me who when outside India, always liked to try global cuisines…and avoid Indian food)

I did wonder about this later, when I was well fed, maybe the experience of eating global cuisines in, say US or India or Europe, is eased up by the cultural setting in which it is offered and in the restaurant’s attempt to attract a global crowd they offer their culture, menu, food and ambiance in a manner that suits a global palette.

But, to really enjoy Chinese food, one has to go with a local Chinese who would explain the intricacies of the cooking, eating and ingredients to you, even order an exquisite vegetarian spread which would have definitely missed your eye on the menu! And, I had the great fortune of having several of these experiences with some of my Chinese hosts.

Want to go HOME!

By now, my craving for Indian food had reached its peak and I really wanted to go home (just so I could eat food that I liked)….the only Indian restaurant I knew in Shanghai was about 45 mins away from my office and though I could make that trip for dinner, if I wanted, my lunch was still not taken care of. I started searching on the internet, in earnest in the hope that I will find a decent Indian place to eat and lo behold! what I found was Jian Qiao – it was way beyond what I had asked for. This was a mall right in the center of an expat settlement in Shanghai and catered to the global crowd – there was an Indian restaurant (Indian Kitchen), a Carrefour, a nice gelato place and even an American style “burger place” (although high end) – called Blue Frog – where I eventually spent many of my Sundays eating burger brunches and drinking chocolate milkshakes in the restaurant’s balcony.

“Sour Bites”

Sometimes an international experience teaches you some things that you take for granted about you or your life style and even some things that you didn’t even know about yourself. I realized that I sorely missed the sour taste commonly found in many Indian dishes, which seemed to be missing in most of what I ate in China!

This post has already been stretched too long and I wanted to write about a few more funny foodie experiences that I had in China…maybe in a later post…ciao for now.

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