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Memories of Mock Meat

Way back when I was in college, and first starting to prepare meals for myself, I ate a lot of tofu and vegetarian foodstuffs. The most common university students' food was instant noodles. I didn't want to eat instant noodles, so I had to cook. Some of the cheapest, tastiest and fastest cooking things supermarkets stocked were vegetables, tofu, vegetarian mock meats and eggs, in that order. Soybean milk tasted better than cow's milk, and was also cheaper. Even organic vegetables didn't cost so far different from regular vegetables that I could go bankrupt from my groceries. I have really fond memories of my eating during university days as a result.

While looking through vegetarian recipe databases today, I began to wonder about the origins of mock meat, and how they relate to the native diets of certain noticeably vegetarian countries. By mock meat, I am referring specifically to Chinese mock meats, which are a gourmet food product, and habitually resembles real meat to often impressive extents. But why doesn't Japan, for example, have a similar gourmet culture, or India? Was there a specific eating culture that created a certain expectation for meat, and thus a meat substitute? I tried to think of it in terms of livestock available vs. vegetarian staples in ancient times, and I came up with some short thoughts:

India: Sacred cows and Hindus (and some Sikhs) don't eat pork. Their vegetarian food has a lot of cheese and milk. May have dietary concerns about strongly flavoured foods (onions and garlic). Inventors of paneer and asafoetida powder.

Japan: Beef (and dairy) was not a popular meat until the late 1800s. Consumption of four-legged animals was barred for around a 1,000 years prior to that due to strict Buddhist practices. So it was mostly fish and chicken. Vegetarians ate lots of root veges + rice (rice + sweet potato is a complete, balanced meal) and tofu. Inventors of konnyaku.

China: "The Chinese eat everything with its back towards the sun." - Ancient Chinese Proverb. Agricultural practices included small-scale animal rearing of pigs under homes (this is why the Chinese character for pig has the animal under a "roof"), and the rearing of poultry. Dairy consumption was not part of the regular diet except in Mongolia. Full vegetarianism was typically the domain of the religious. Vegetarian nobility only went vegetarian on specific holy days, as did most of the population except very strict Buddhists (and Taoists). There were plenty of hangups about not eating meat. Thus, mock meat (wheat gluten-based) became a kind of gourmet undertaking. (It still is.) Also inventors of tofu, soy sauce and soybean milk (legend has it tofu was created as a soothing health food; later became popular cheap protein).

Southeast Asia: Heavily influenced by China and India, and the Hindu and Chinese cultures. The introduction of Islam made for pork falling out of favour. Predominant source of protein was fish and birds. You only killed your cow as a sacrifice, because cows were for rich people, and cows tilled fields. Inventors of tempeh (as substitute during Dutch-run Indonesia, since meat was scarce) and agar-agar (agar-agar is a Malay word meaning "jelly"). People ate mostly things they could sprout from the ground because life was hard.

Although in all these cultures, meat was generally scarce for the poor, and this resulted in grain and vegetable heavy diets, the cultural norms differed based on what they kept. Meat was, and still is, largely a celebratory food. That is to say the traditional Asian diet was not generally vegetarian, but that protein came from seafood or poultry, supplemented with protein like dairy and soy. Commercial farming and higher per capita income allowed for meat intakes to increase, but the majority of Asians still adhere to a fairly balanced diet that is low in meat and high in vegetables, grains and eggs or aquatic produce. In an aside, obesity problems in Asia today are blamed on Westernized diets heavy in meat.

Whereas, in America, vegetarians are a new phenomenon. They haven't been raised on the more grain/vegetable diets from the other side of the world. They want meat. Their vegetarian food industry therefore caters to this preference.

It was quite an interesting train of thought.

And now, a word from my sponsor:

mokie: *invents vegetarian prayer recipe--all the taste of prayer without any of that pesky religion* *decides to call it 'spirituality'* Stupid hippies.