Care and Feeding: Comfort Food for Chinese-Australian Vegans

 

When I have a cold my mother recommends super spicy curries with lots of chillies and often lemongrass, and when she made them for me, this usually ended up being chicken kapitan. When I am feeling down, I desperately crave chicken noodle soup, with yellow mee and soft
chicken, simmered for hours in a stock made by floating a chicken carcass in water. My other comfort foods include CKT, heavy with lard and egg; Milo Ais; the hard egg in the gado-gado; a whole fish rubbed with ginger and shallots and steamed in the wok; sticky chicken; and laksa.

These are my comfort foods and I cannot eat them because three years ago I chose to become vegan. And I’m totally cool with that, but sometimes it’s hard to find a replacement, something comforting and familiar that will just turn up and make me feel better.

Family dinners and holidays are hard, too. Chinese New Year became an issue for a while: I don’t eat fish anymore, so how can I court abundance? I don’t eat duck, so how can I show prosperity? And more importantly, how can I share the meal with my family, which is
arguably the most important part of attending a reunion dinner?

Eating Chinese food and doing these Chinese holiday traditions has always informed a lot of who I am as Chinese-Australian (particularly as mixed race Chinese-Australian). Despite the invention of fake meat due to Chinese awesomeness (and a desire to not eat meat and yet still eat that familiar food), veganism is often constructed as a thing for white people. Even my family has made fun of me. My mother, when I first went vegan, asked in a voice tinged with horror how I could possibly be Chinese if I couldn’t eat meat. Chinese restaurants are often represented as places that are unsuitable for vegans, filled with eggs and fish sauce and secret chicken stock (never mind that a Chinese restaurant was one of the few places I could reliably find food I could eat when I was travelling around Japan earlier this year).

And then of course, there’s the flip side of that negotiation: not am I Chinese enough, but as a Chinese-Australian, am I Australian enough.  Never mind the hypocrisy and ridiculousness that surrounds the definition of what it means to be Australian, but having to put up with years of teasing and horror around what Chinese people eat, regardless of whether I ate these foods, I was tinged with the same brush. A work colleague, before knowing I was Chinese, told me with disgust that Chinese people pretended to be nice, by loving the panda, but were actually horrible because they ate horses. And yet we have campaigns about eating meat (thank you the lamb industry), and if I don’t eat those meats (or at least, the “right” meat), I’m still not Australian.

When I first became vegan, I felt like being a vegan was at odds with being Chinese. Sometimes I worried I couldn’t do both, couldn’t be both. I’m better at it now though. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll have to compromise and redefine what I think of as my
comfort food, my Chinese food; redefine what I think makes me Chinese, my visible markers of Chinese-ness. It’s just another facet of my identity, another negotiation to make as second-generation, mixed-race, hyphenated Australian growing up in an unhyphenated world.

The title of this post is a lie: I don’t have any care and feeding tips for your Chinese-Australian vegan worried that they’re breaking the rules of being Chinese by also being vegan. It’s new ground for each of us, and we have to navigate it in our own way.

Stephanie Lai

Author: Stephanie Lai

Stephanie Lai is a Chinese-Australian writer and occasional translator. She has published long meandering thinkpieces in Peril Magazine, the Toast, the Lifted Brow and Overland. Of recent, her short fiction has appeared in the Review of Australian Fiction, Cranky Ladies of History, and In Your Face. Despite loathing time travel, her defence of Perpugilliam Brown can be found in Companion Piece (2015). She is an amateur infrastructure nerd and is professionally working to save us in our climate change future. You can find her on twitter @yiduiqie, at stephanielai.net, or talking about pop culture and drop bears at no-award.net.

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