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Monk Bashes Chinese Cooking

Vegetarian Meat

I really just wanted to post an offensive title like that. Over at dhamma musings, Ven. Shravasti Dhammika, author of the well-known Good Questions, Good Answers has slipped on the food critic hat for a post. The monk does not like Chinese vegetarian fare, and he does not mince words. I’m vegetarian and sometimes cook Chinese food, and so his critique left me feeling a bit defensive…

I always used to think Chinese were good cooks – and they may be, at least as far as ordinary food is concerned. But when it comes to vegetarian cooking they are hopeless. All Chinese monks and nuns are strictly vegetarian as are many more serious lay people and many nominal Chinese Buddhists will eat vegetarian food on special religious days. But if you are expecting a fresh bright salad, a tasty veggie pie or baked stuffed tomatoes you will be very disappointed. Chinese vegetarian cooking consists of vegetables that have been boiled to oblivion, rubbery dried mushrooms, oodles of oil, tons of MSG and strangest of all, soya bean paste that has been prepared to look like meat. It is quite amazing how realistic they are able to make what they call ‘mock’ fried chicken, ‘mock’ shrimps, ‘mock’ sliced duck and ‘mock’ abalone. But while it all looks just like the real thing it is tasteless (and hence all the MSG). It also points to a rather strange attitude to vegetarianism. Why decide not to eat meat and then dress up all your food so that it look like meat? I used to joke to my friends that if I ever disrobed I was going to start a restaurant where all the food was made of meat but prepared so as to look like vegetables.

I think his last point is definitely interesting. What about fake meat? Why should we try to imitate what we’re avoiding in the first place? To make really good fake meat, you have to know how real meat tastes like, right? I admit it, I try to make dishes that taste like their meatful counterparts. I blend in fake fish sauce, fake fish paste and fake meat to my own versions of various Chinese and Southeast Asian foods. Should we vegetarians cook as though we’ve never seen a steak? I don’t intend to think about this too much more though. I’ve got to get home quick to cook up some fake meat and veggies before leaving for class in 90 minutes!

  • John

    I have a similar ambivalence with Chinese Vegetarian food – but my conflict is knowing that it is greasy, meat-like, and mostly void of nutrients while being completely delicious. I would much rather eat a plate of well-prepared phish or chikkin than any animal, all the while knowing I should be eyeballing the whole grains and leafy greens.

  • http://www.thebuddhistblog.blogspot.com James

    I don’t mind the meat taste–that’s not why I am vegetarian. I am a veggie because of the precept against killing. I adore animals and don’t think it is right to treat them as below us.

    So I like the fake meat…I especially like the fake ground beaf tacos. Mmm…

  • Doug

    I genuinely like the fake garden-burgers, veggie sausages, and other such goodies myself. But, I have tasted some real doggerel though, so I know what the monk is saying. On the other hand, my experience is that at least in japan, older generation folks eat meat, but not much or very often. They just eat a lot of veggies and other well-rounded meals. Instead of the lame-o substitutes, just eat some good veggies and tofu for a change.

  • http://sdhammika.blogspot.com shravasti dhammika

    Dear Arunlikhati,
    I’m really surprised that you got ‘defensive’ about my blog to the degree that you were tempted to write something ‘offensive.’ Goodness! I’m only talking about soya meat here. What happens when people express views different from your own on matters that really matter? Also, I would have thought that my ‘tongue-in-cheek’ joking was fairly clear. Try more meditation. It sometimes helps.

  • http://dharmafolk.wordpress.com/ arunlikhati

    John, James and Doug: Thanks for your comments! For some reason I expected to hear more from people who were against fake meat. Your comments are of course welcome as always! (Good to hear from you, John!)

    Dear Ven. Dhammika: Please forgive my ill-chosen words. I didn’t decide to post the “offensive” title because I clicked away from your article fuming at the ears; fortunately I wasn’t. Rather, in the past I considered titles such as “Monks Force Rock Opera Off Air” to be somewhat offensive, though I wondered what a similar title would look like on a post of my own. Your blog post gave me that very opportunity. While I regret any and all distress it may have caused you, please do keep in mind that my title is 100% factual, although admittedly it would have been more apt to include the word “vegetarian”. Would this entire post have been less offensive if I had omitted that first line (i.e. “I really just wanted to post an offensive title like that.”)? I ask this because I was sincere (not sarcastic) when I said “I think his last point is definitely interesting.” Although I am a vegetarian who eats mock meat, I’m glad you pointed out the irony of avoiding meat on one hand, while on other hand going through the effort to prepare and eat fake meat. It’s definitely a point worth thinking about. I don’t deny the irony; I just also wanted to note that I’m a happy eater of mock meat. Again, I’m very sorry for my poor communication.

    I am also sorry for not recognizing your joke. I was raised understanding that diligent Theravada monks take a vow not to lie, and so it was surprising to see you peddling falsehoods for amusement, especially when these falsehoods engaged in ethnic ridicule. In retrospect, I should have been well aware that as one who ministers to a Singaporean congregation, it would be a tall order for you to say as much about Chinese food without being “tongue-in-cheek.” My apologies.

  • casio

    “I’m glad you pointed out the irony of avoiding meat on one hand, while on other hand going through the effort to prepare and eat fake meat.”

    I understand the “joking irony” in this, such as when you joke with your friends just to mess with each other, but I don’t think it’s actually ironic. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this argument before and I still don’t get why people who eat meat think vegetarian meats are hypocritical (oxymoronic, sure, but not hypocritical). It’s like what was said earlier; many vegetarians aren’t opposed to the taste or texture aspect of meat, on the contrary most of us prefer it, but it’s the life it had before it became a “food.” It’s unfortunate when only bad vegetarian meals are available; it just reinforces a stereotype of veg meals we’ve all heard.

    I actually just found this site looking for recipes. I was looking for Mock Duck at a small local Asian market (much like the canned one in the wikipedia picture), but found Mock Abalone instead. I’m trying to mimic Vegetarian Duck Basil like I’ve had at a few Thai Restaurants in New York (which I sadly haven’t found since moving to Berlin). But since it was all they had, I’m going to see what I can do with it. I mean, as far as I can tell the Mock Duck and Mock Abalone are pretty much just wheat gluten, right?

  • Wen

    I agree with the fact that the ‘pretendciousness’ (even a word?) of having vegetarian food that look or taste like meat, but there may be someone out there (like me) who is not quite ready to go all vegetarian and would welcome something that reminds them of their normal diet……I LOVE CHinese food but would like to eat less meat, wouldn’t it be a good option to slowly ease myself into all vegetarian?

  • Leti

    I think it will help if the textured protein products are called “soy patties” or “wheat nuggets” instead of mock meat. I think it is all about naming the products honestly.

  • Bussaba

    Even though vegetarians dress up their food like meat, they still get their “compassion” message across. No blood shed is their main purpose not what the food should look like. Get over the minor detail and get on with the picture people.

  • Bussaba

    Even though vegetarians dress up their food like meat, they still get their “compassion” message across. No blood shed is their main purpose not what the food should look like. Get over the minor detail and get on with the big picture people.