Monday, December 5, 2016

Vegetarian hungers for change

The first time I ate meat after having been vegetarian for over ten years was at the Vietnamese Embassy in Canberra. The Vietnamese Ambassador was hosting a reception for volunteers being sent to Vietnam as part of the Australian Government aid programme, and I was amongst them. 
Beef pho
We all assumed that the reception would consist of a handshake with the Ambassador, a cup of tea, and maybe a snack, but upon arrival we were to learn an important lesson about Vietnamese hospitality: that it always involves enormous amounts of food. 

As a vegetarian, I learnt another lesson: that enormous amount of food almost always involves an enormous amount of meat. I ate the beef pho and pork spring rolls that were served by His Excellency’s private cook, and I wondered if this was a sign of things to come in my future life in Vietnam. Now I have lived in Vietnam for two years, I can tell you, it was. 

While Vietnamese restaurants in Australia are always popular with us vegetarians and offer huge numbers of vegetarian dishes, this is quite deceptive, as it’s not actually easy to be a vegetarian at a Vietnamese restaurant… in Vietnam. 

Outside of the country’s excellent dedicated vegetarian restaurants, a vegetarian diner can find themselves eating predominately potato chops, omelette and morning glory for almost every meal. Trust me, I know. I once went on a cycling trip in the Mekong Delta, and while my partner dined on an amazing array of local fish and meat dishes, I was left with no choices other than omelette and chips for three meals a day for four days straight. By the end of the fourth day, I was pleading with restaurants to make me some tofu.

I have noticed that Vietnamese people are firm believers in the strength-giving qualities of meat. While most people in Australia, upon learning of my vegetarianism, would ask me “Why are you vegetarian?” I was surprised to find that this question is rarely posed by the Vietnamese. Instead, since arriving here the question has been “Aren’t you hungry?” Where vegetarianism in Australia is associated with ethics, environmentalism and animal rights, the strongest association with vegetarianism in Vietnam seems to be hunger.

For example, when I visited a friend’s family last Tet, she warned relatives in advance that I was vegetarian and very kindly they prepared a meat-free omelette for me to eat. And then her Aunt added pork to it. 

Our friend asked her Aunt, “Why did you add pork? She is eating the omelette because she doesn’t want to eat meat!”
And her Aunt replied, “But without the pork she will be hungry!”

Since meat is the nutritional foundation of the Vietnamese population’s diet, it’s understandable to think that without it, you’re missing something. But vegetarians don’t just eat a normal diet minus the meat: they replace the meat with other protein sources like tofu, nuts, beans, legumes and whole grains. Until I came to Vietnam, it never occurred to me that anyone would equate vegetarianism with hunger! 

I found a friend’s story on this subject particularly funny. My friend, an Englishman living in Hanoi, is six-foot tall, and well built. Vietnamese people often come up to him to comment on how “strong” he looks, and flex their muscles to emphasise the point. Despite this, his Vietnamese colleagues have repeatedly told him that it’s dangerous for him to ride his motorbike around Hanoi. Why? Not because he could get run over by a bus, but because he’s vegetarian. Against all evidence to the contrary, his colleagues say that because he doesn’t eat meat, he must be so weak and feeble that he won’t be able to control his bike and will simply fall off. 

Maybe there are more vegetarians in Vietnam that I realize, but they’re just all too weak to get out of bed! In any case, I don’t see the Vietnamese giving up meat any time soon. I guess I’ll be eating omelettes and chips for a few more years yet. 
* Tabitha writes The City That Never Sleeps In, a blog about expat life in Hanoi.


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