Being Vegetarian in China

And how I stumbled upon a feast to remember.  
Bei Yuan Men Night Market China
Noodles are more popular than rice in Shaanxi. Liang pi or cold noodles are served at several restaurants in Bei Yuan Men Night Market. Photo by Kylie Nicholson.

I had been dreaming about the ancient city of Xi’an for years. I longed to cycle atop its Ming-era city walls, and walk the streets paved with the history of the Silk Road. I wanted to see the thousands of statues that make up the archaeological site, Terracotta Army.

But eagerly anticipated holidays rarely turn out to be perfect. My husband and I land in Xi’an on a drizzly grey afternoon that sets the tone for the rest of our weekend. The Terracotta Army is stunning, but by the time we finish, our clothes are damp and our spirits low. We climb up to the city walls, but the panorama is hidden behind sheets of rain, and the cycle-hire shops are closed.

On our last night in Xi’an, we head to its Muslim Quarter in soggy shoes that squelch at each step. A turn leads us into the main street, with steam rising from hundreds of woks and grills of the Bei Yuan Men Night Market. The rain seems powerless against this onslaught. We close our battered umbrellas and inspect buns stuffed with beef, chunks of mutton swimming in soups, and the kebabs on sale. There is one catch, though. My husband and I are vegetarians.

Shaanzi cuisine China

Shaanxi cuisine is distinguished by its strong, savoury flavours and, in a nod to Silk Road influences, by the use of spices like cumin. Photo by Suchi Govindarajan.

Is it hard to find vegetarian food in China? The answer is like that Facebook relationship status: “It’s complicated.” This is our second trip to this country, and we can eat just about anywhere when accompanied by a guide or a local. At other times, we turn to apps like Happy Cow to find Buddhist vegetarian restaurants—there are 60 such restaurants in Beijing alone, and six in Xi’an.

Yet a market like this—where meat abounds at every corner—is a new challenge. One guidebook goes so far as to say that vegetarians might want to avoid the 1.5-kilometre-long Bei Yuan Men market altogether. But luckily, other sources reveal that it sells two famous Shaanxi vegetarian dishes—liang fen (jelly noodles) and liang pi (cold noodles). We decide to venture in.

Amid juice, bread and sweet stalls we find one selling a hot drink of pears, goji berries and jujubes (Chinese dates) for CNY2/`20. It’s too sweet for me, but my husband likes it and finishes my glass as well. We stop at a souvenir stall to look for little replicas of the Terracotta Army when a familiar smell wafts by. A woman in a teddy-bear apron tosses fried baby potatoes with chilli, cumin powder, garlic powder, and sesame seeds in a wok. Beside her, a man works a large slab of tofu on a griddle, topping it with spring onion and cumin and chilli powder, to make tie ban dou fu. The potatoes are fabulous as expected, but it is the tofu we love: crisp and spicy on the outside, soft inside. Our luck is definitely on the mend. Even our shoes stop squelching.

Rice cakes China

Walnuts, red-bean paste, rose essence, and jujubes are common ingredients in some of the rice cakes sold in the market. Photo by Suchi Govindarajan.

Ahead of us, a crowd is gathering around a sweet shop. Two men with mallets work away like drummers to flatten a batch of peanut candy, the chikki-like hua sheng tang. The men wave to the crowd to come try their hand. A sturdy Chinese woman volunteers and fails spectacularly—there’s not even a dent in the dough. She laughs and hands the mallet back. Meanwhile, another man hand-stretches sugar dough for the candy. He hangs the ball of dough on a large hook, pulls it back like an elastic band, wraps it around the hook again and repeats the process. The dough soon transforms into a glossy, multistranded rope. We buy a box of these assorted candies for about CNY20/`190. There are more sweets to try—flaky fruit and nut pastries stamped with Chinese characters, rice cakes coated with sesame seeds, bright orange persimmon doughnuts. We also eat feng mi liang gao, a yellow sticky rice cake topped with jujube jam. It tastes like a vastly improved version of semolina halwa.

We are full but I want to find the vegetarian noodle dishes I’ve read about. A brightly-lit shop attracts my attention, and I look closely at the Chinese characters, comparing them stroke by stroke to what I’ve saved on my phone. I have found the liang pi, the cold noodles, sold for CNY6/`55. We peer at the bowls lined up for assembly and see vinegar, chilli oil, bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers. “What’s that?” my husband asks, pointing at a black mass. “Sesame paste,” I say with fake confidence. A young man inside the shop smiles at me, as if in reassurance. “What is life without some foolish bravado?” I think, and hustle my suspicious husband in. Soon, two bowls arrive at our table, and we devour the silky noodles brimming in sauce that’s nutty, hot and tangy in turns. We share a second helping too, fighting over the last bits of sauced noodles. My husband has superior chopstick skills and wins easily.

It is now past 10.30 pm, and we should be heading back to our hostel. But another vendor calls out to us, and we cannot resist. His cart is stacked with ceramic jars of suan nai— yoghurt sweetened with honey or sugar, and mixed with ground nuts and raisins. My husband and I had it on our first trip to China in 2009, and it tastes exactly as we remember—a little sweet, a little sour; a little familiar, a little foreign.

My phone buzzes. It’s my mother messaging me on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp. “Are you eating well in China?” she asks. I text back, “Eating lots, Ma! Having yoghurt just like a good South Indian.”

ESSENTIALS

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi Province in northwest China. It is well-connected to the capital Beijing (1,100 km/11.5 hr drive northeast) by high-speed trains and flights. There are daily flights from Mumbai and Delhi to Xi’an, with at least one stopover at an Asian hub like Hong Kong or Seoul.

Stay Han Tang Inn Hostel is a good budget option near the market with friendly, English-speaking staff (www.hantanginn.com; doubles from CNY212/`2,000).

Getting There The Bei Yuan Men Night Market is located in the Muslim Quarter, behind The Drum Tower (open daily, 5.30 p.m.-midnight). The nearest metro station is Zhonglou (Bell Tower) Station.

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    Suchi Govindarajan works as a technical writer and pretends to be a photographer. She enjoys writing humour pieces, travel essays and the occasional dark poem. She hates brinjals.

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