Meatless eating in SH: some background

When I moved to Shanghai in 2009, I dropped about 4kg the first three weeks. Watching the numbers on my cheap IKEA scale gradually slip to the right brought great feelings of satisfaction. I was living by myself at the time, out and about every day exploring the city and lugging home new supplies for the apartment; internet hadn’t yet been installed in my sixth-floor walk-up so even checking e-mail forced me out of the house. Apart from a few over-zealous weeks in college during which I took the stairs to my 17th floor dorm room once a day, this was the first time I’d had to trudge up more than a few steps to get home. I’m going to lose my nutritionist-prescribed 15 pounds in no time, I giddily thought.

It was much more than the physical activity, of course. Even though they may feel endless when one is weighed down by bags of groceries, six flights take all but a minute to complete: far from a rigorous work-out. What I was also doing, with a greater effect on my results on the scale, was limiting my food intake in strange ways. My unfamiliarity with the supermarket, HK-bred suspicion of mainland produce and meat, and bare-bones array of kitchen supplies led me to limit myself to the following foods: boiled noodles with Swanson clear chicken broth, frozen 湾仔码头 jiaozi, spoonfuls of Skippy, and Pretz sticks. Even though none of the above were healthful foods by any standards, due to the lack of variety—and company—I was barely eating. It was probably the only time in my life where meals didn’t matter to me.

Enter my boyfriend Sean, who arrived three weeks after me and had started getting into healthy eating a year or two before. I quickly accepted that my laissez-faire food habits weren’t going to cut it, that it was time to invest in a frying pan and take some chances with “fresh” veggies. (“Fresh”, because it turned out that much of the produce at our local supermarket, which happened to be owned by Walmart, usually appears half rotten.)

Even when we were able to find decent-looking items, there was the question of insecticides (which, if you think about it, are probably directly proportional to the aesthetic appeal of the vegetable). Many of the dish detergents on the shelves claim to double as fruit & veggie wash, so I was doing that for a while until Sean remarked that I was just trying to wash off chemicals with other chemicals. I then found out online that some people use white vinegar & water as a good veggie soak, so that’s what we’ve been using as long as we have white vinegar around. But who knows if that actually works? When we run out, we just soak it in tap water. It’s one of those things where you just have to hope for the best and not think too much about it.

With vegetables already causing some concern, we decided upon a simple rule of meatlessness in the kitchen. This practice was justified by reasons relating to health, environment, cleanliness, and a desire for simplicity (a.k.a. laziness). Without meat, we wouldn’t have to worry about putting unused portions in our unreliable freezer and defrosting in bacteria-minimizing ways. We wouldn’t have to keep track of two sets of knives, scissors, sponges, and cutting boards to keep raw meat from contaminating everything else. (Is this a paranoia that exists only in my family or a general practice, I wonder?)

Since then, apart from very occasional exceptions concerning bacon, frozen dumplings and 叉烧包, and a meal of 可乐鸡翅 (cola chicken wings), we’ve relied on vegetables, tofu products, and eggs (and rice/bread/noodles, of course) to satisfy our hearty appetites. We discovered a vegetable market near our compound, which Sean visits regularly, though we still get our proteins and processed foods at the supermarket. We’ve still been eating meat when we eat out, though, partly coz it’s hard to avoid when eating with friends, and partly coz it too often comes in the form of appealing dishes like 三杯鸡, 生煎, and 红烧肉.

I gained most of that 4kg back, though, I suspect because I was back to eating more and and eating out more. We’ve often felt gross after eating at a restaurant (particularly Chinese ones), weighed down by what we’ve come to assume to be oil and fatty meat. The oil is hard to avoid; even when I specifically request less oil to be used, dishes will arrive soaking in it. So we’ve decided, in the spirit of Lent (which started March 9), to see if we can give up meat for forty days. For vegetarians/vegans and those who’ve given up meat for Lent all their lives, this is not at all a big deal. And it wouldn’t be a deal at all if we only eat at home for the next few weeks. But we do enjoy eating out and having some semblance of a social life through shared meals, so it will still be a bit of a challenge, especially in a country where vegetarianism and the awareness of cases against meat eating haven’t really caught on.

What I intend to start here is a sort of journal of food (ad)ventures, particularly in the kitchen. This kind of blog is nothing new, and I am shy about speaking with authority, especially as regards what’s healthy and what’s not (even researchers can’t seem to agree on anything, which makes the quest towards healthy food habits all the more frustrating). But I’m not trying (yet, at least) to be a health advocate, or even expect to turn into a permanent full-blown vegetarian—I still love to indulge when I can. While I try half-blindly to make good food choices, the focus is more on creating simple meals that maximize the amount of real Food and are nevertheless delicious and full of variety.

These forty days of Lent will hopefully be the start of better food habits in general. So what follows this post will likely begin as a sharing of recipes and experiences as I explore what can be created in a limited kitchen (no oven and no meat) as well as satisfying meatless options that can be found outside of the home. This’ll also motivate me to expand my culinary repertoire—beyond the eight or so vegetables that have come to feature regularly on our dinner table.

Many of our friends here eat out a lot, reasoning that it can be just as cheap, and more convenient, compared with cooking at home. While I do enjoy eating out as well, I’d like to emphasize the benefits of eating at home: the lack of rude servers and spit on the floor, the joy I derive from making a meal and having it be appreciated by Sean (I am a housewife at heart, sigh), the sense of security that comes with knowing how my food was prepared (even if I can’t be sure how the ingredients were treated prior to my purchase), and the amount of veggies we can fit into a single meal. Oh, and the proximity of my bed after consuming a food coma-inducing meal :)

Also, I need and want to get back into writing, and what better way than to write about what I love?

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