I may have mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: Cantonese and vegetarian don’t mix. Cantonese food, compared with probably all the other regional cuisines in China, is terribly vegetarian-unfriendly. Sure, there are the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, but outside of those you are basically screwed. Tonight, the second time I’ve gone for Cantonese cha canting-style food since going off meat, was a disheartening reminder of that fact.
It used to be that whenever I was face-to-face with a menu at any Cantonese/Hong Kong style diner, my head would reel with indecision because everything looked so appealing: Char siu on rice? Greasy beef chow fun? Fujian fried rice? Soy sauce chicken? Hainanese chicken? Chicken congee? Curry beef brisket? One of each, please!
And that boring, overpriced plate of blanched lettuce/kai lan/choi sum that’s kind of a chore to eat but the only green item on the menu? I can go without if you can.
I grew up with this food (along with non-cha canting Canto cuisine), first as a tot in Hong Kong, then as an immigrant in uber-Cantonesey Vancouver, and then back in HK before I headed to Philadelphia for college, where I was able to get this stuff on the occasional trip to Chinatown (thank you Sang Kee). This food is a taste of home, a reminder of family, a source of comfort. It’s in my blood (perhaps literally).
I was brought up steeped in the food culture of one of the meat-lovingest regions on the planet, where roast duck and pork are ubiquitous but snake and cat and scorpion are all fair game, and the joy of eating revolves around meat. So it makes me very uneasy that my desire to positively contribute to the environment by rejecting meat necessitates a breaking away from this culture. Tonight at Uncle (表叔), a Guangzhou cha canting chain that recently made it to Shanghai (complete with Cantonese-speaking servers), I was faced with an inner conflict: the rational-ideological, that dutifully reminded me why I stopped eating meat, versus the cultural-emotional, that said HEY! This is home, this is what you love and crave. Are you sure you can give it up forever? Look, don’t these dishes all sound familiar and delicious?
They sounded familiar alright, but tonight I couldn’t dwell on their pleasurable properties. My eyes did not linger on the chicken and duck hanging by the window. Sean and I first scoured the extensive menu for savoury meatless dishes, which led us to a whopping three items under “Vegetables” and a plain cheung fun with hoisin/sesame suace. Then we looked for dishes we could “turn” vegetarian, and finally settled on a Fujian fried rice and a fried rice noodle, hold the meat. We don’t want meat. Is there shrimp in the rice? Put it on the side. Yes, talk to the cook.
The vibe at Uncle was casual and comforting, the toy model display of old-school Hong Kong buses and taxis endearing, but the food at this place wasn’t even great. The fried rice noodles, which looked crispy in the picture, was soaked in soy sauce and laden with strips of ham (c’mon, ham?!? if you’re going to ignore my request, at least do it right with shredded pork); the Fujian fried rice was over-salted and overloaded with squid, shrimp, and imitation crab; the pineapple bun was not crunchy or chewy (Tsui Wah still wins); and the greens in broth with preserved and salted egg was bland and one-dimensional — and topped with generic meat bits. The cheung fun was pretty good, though the sauces were watered down. Sean and I picked and danced our way around the meat, which likely made our friend at least slightly uncomfortable.
I dislike eating with picky eaters, but recently realized, to my horror, that I’ve become one myself. More so now than during any of my temporary diets in the past, I feel torn between my love of food — and the hearty, no-holds-barred meal– and the principles I’ve set up to guide my consumption. If we are what we eat, and eating meatlessly is shaping my current self, then my avoidance of the meat-centric food culture that has long been a part of me has also forged a dent in my identity. How much chipping away at a root before it can no longer hold up the tree?
Maybe I was just asking for trouble, dining at a Cantonese joint as a vegetarian. Thankfully there are other more veggie-friendly Chinese regional cuisines available in Shanghai, so I’ll let tofu and green beans and shredded potatoes keep me distracted until I visit my parents in Hong Kong this December…
456 Huichuan Lu near Kaixuan Lu