China's food culture is both extensive and profound. Every region and ethnic group has its own distinct dishes, just like a walking food museum. Over years of development, "eight major cuisines" have formed that represent China. However, no matter where the cuisine is, vegetarian dishes are always a distinctive food culture that keeps pace with local specialties. Throughout Chinese history, vegetarianism has been the choice and practice of a large group of Chinese people, and is highly respected by literati, monks, and laypeople. So, what are the characteristics of Chinese vegetarian culture? What is the difference between a vegetarian diet in Ancient China and a vegetarian diet today? Let's explore the answer together!
Chinese vegetarian dishes have a long history which can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty, when tofu was first invented by Liu An, the king of Huainan. This invention made great contributions to the development of vegetarian dishes, and by the Wei and Jin Dynasties, many vegetarian recipes began to appear. The Northern Wei Dynasty, "Qi Min Yao Shu", one of the oldest agronomical treatises of China, has a special chapter on vegetarian food, introducing eleven kinds of vegetarian food, which is believed to be the earliest vegetarian recipe discovered in China. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, Emperor Wu of Liang advocated for Buddhism and in turn, vegetarianism, which further promoted the development of Chinese vegetarian culture.
Looking beyond tofu to vegetarian culture today, “future meat” has become a crucial part of vegetarianism in China. There are two types of biomimetic meat available, commonly known as artificial meat, which are plant meat made from soy protein, and test-tube meat cultivated from animal stem cells. However, due to the high cost of the second option, the artificial meat currently on the market is mainly made from soy. There are two industry tycoons behind the global embrace of meat substitutes; California-based artificial meat manufacturers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They have cooperated with well-known food brands to provide artificial meat that looks and tastes similar to real meat. To make artificial meat tastes the same as real beef, Impossible Foods extracted heme from soybean roots to replace the heme molecule in animals which can make artificial meat tastes meaty with a similar fiber structure.
China's research and development of local plant-based meat are not far behind. Stimulated by foreign markets, many Chinese meat companies have also started research and development of plant-based meat products. Among them, the plant-based meat company Zhenrou has launched plant-based mooncakes, which are mainly made of soybean protein and bean protein. Other products also include traditional delicacies such as Chinese soup dumplings, xiaolongbao. More and more local companies are developing plant-based meat products for Chinese consumers as well. A Shenzhen-based vegan protein maker called Qishan Foods has launched a vegetarian meatball stew that resembles the famous southern Chinese dish "lion head". Qishan is currently one of the main competitors in the Chinese market. Zhou Qiyu, the company's product manager, told BBC Chinese that although artificial meat is a new concept in China, vegetarianism has a long history, so it "has a good foundation" in the development of plant-based meat.
It is no coincidence that the most popular times of Chinese vegetarian culture were in the prosperous times. Vegetarianism is one of the pursuits for a more futuristic and sustainable way of life. The rapid and heavy development of modernization is no longer a simple way of eating and drinking, but also thinking about how people and nature can coexist harmoniously and sustainably. Let’s look back at the essence of the vegetarian food left by Chinese history for inspiration, and enter the world of vegetarian food!
Note: This article is contributed by Wawa Li, Summer Intern at CUSEF and Year 4 Communication Studies student at Hong Kong Baptist University.