Whether for health reasons, out of compassion for animals, or as a dietary exercise to cleanse mind and body, a person’s journey to becoming vegetarian helps them to develop their own unique philosophy on life.
Writing for all life
Li Hsin-lun published her first collection of essays, called Medicine Jar, in 2002, and later came out with works such as Sickness, Again, This Body, and As a Vessel. As the daughter of a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, she has always been a fan of TCM and has had the chance to witness life milestones such as birth and death. Her prose revolves around topics such as doctor-patient relations, diseases, and the human body, as well as travel and women’s multiple identities.
Her decision to become a vegetarian had its origins in 2003 when she traveled to India. This country of both great chaos and great beauty provided a kaleidoscope of vivid sensory experiences. After witnessing scenes of suffering, she began to realize that a meat diet is built on the victimhood of animals. Fortunately, India also has a large vegetarian population, and since she had not been particularly set on eating meat, it seemed only natural to set out on a path toward a new life as a vegetarian.
The majority of Li Hsin-lun’s writings on vegetarianism can be found in her book This Body, published six years ago. The title refers not only to her own body, but to the bodies of others and of all living things. Li breaks through the limitations of ego in this book by writing about her own body to convey a concern for all sentient beings.
This Body is arguably the most directly related to vegetarianism among the many books you have written. Please tell us about this book.
The book is a record of my ten years as a vegetarian up to that point. I write about my own story, and also the dietary choices my friends make. The argument for vegetarianism is based in many theoretical foundations, such as animal rights, environmental protection, and even lifestyle choices or religious philosophies and beliefs. But I write specifically from my own experience, seeking to focus on my personal experiences, feelings, and stories.
Do you have a personal preference for any one essay in this book?
My personal favorite is “Their Bodies Are on the Way,” a story about me riding a bike. The first reason I choose this essay is because it is the first essay in the book that I completed. The second is that, as I mentioned before, there are many different ways to go about exploring the topic of vegetarianism, and this essay approaches it through some bicycling anecdotes. While I was biking, I found myself reflecting on the roadkill and trucks packed with animals I saw along the way. The suffering caused by a meat diet is what motivates me to stay vegetarian.
Promoting the beauty of a vegetarian diet
Wang Pei-jen’s culinary studio lies at the foot of Mt. Xianjiyan in the Jingmei area of Taipei City. Despite the busy road running past outside, the space is enveloped in flowers and plants. As you enter this paradise seemingly secluded from the outside world, you come upon a stone path leading to a wooden space adorned with paintings and calligraphy on the walls and antique dishes on the dining table.
Wang likes to vary her dishes, and rarely makes the same twice. While she does draw up a menu, her style is not unlike that of a housewife cooking for her family, often making adjustments based on the ingredients she purchases that day and the inventory in her refrigerator. “Cooking is supposed to be a fun game where you can do whatever you want, but if you make the same thing every time, it turns into work again. What’s the fun in that?” she asks.
Wang’s former restaurant, which had been in business for 15 years, closed more than two years ago. However, Wang, whose daughter jokes she is a “workaholic,” did not become idle. Transforming the space into a studio, she has turned to making instructional videos and traveling all over to teach cooking classes to show people that vegetarian food is more than just vegetables and tofu. It’s about being aware of and making good use of seasonal ingredients, matching ingredients in creative ways, and complementing everything with a variety of seasonings. Like life, vegetarian food can be an ever-changing potpourri of flavors.
Was going vegetarian a struggle at first?
Definitely. In the beginning, I really missed the taste of meat, so I ate a lot of processed foods. At that time, I was particularly fond of Japanese vegetarian ham, which was good for slicing up and putting in a stir-fry with rice or vegetables. However, you eventually stop craving these foods. It’s just a transition. As time goes on, you start to want to eat something more authentic, and find those processed foods unpalatable and unhealthy.
Please share with us some general principles you focus on when cooking.
It used to be that you couldn’t find anything vegetarian when going out to eat, so I made my own meals when I first started eating vegetarian. I was already cooking most of my meals when I used to eat meat, so all I had to do was cook vegetarian dishes using the techniques I learned cooking meat. I replaced shredded meat with vegetarian shredded meat, mushrooms, and dried bean curd. The same went for braising, where I substituted meat with other ingredients, like the vegetarian meat we have today. If you don’t like these meat substitutes, you can use fried tofu, or chestnuts and beans. It's really just a matter of finding substitutions.
Home-cooked vegetarian meals don’t have to be just stir-fried vegetables. You can mix things up by adding dried bean curds, bean curd skin, fermented black soybeans, Cordia dichotoma, yellow soybean paste, or a variety of mushrooms. What I hope to do now is to show everyone how to make delicious vegetarian food in a simple manner.
Is there anything you look out for in the ingredients and seasonings you use?
Where my ingredients are sourced. I make sure they come mainly from organic sellers. I have a friend who has been growing organic vegetables on Mt. Wufeng in Hsinchu for 30 years. He sends them to me every week. For everything else, I go to the market, but I select my produce carefully.
Seasoning is simple. I just make sure to have good salt, oil, and soy sauce.
You used to run your own private restaurant and now you make videos and teach cooking courses. How do you vary your approach and menu design to suit these differing occasions, needs, and target audiences?
A private restaurant mainly serves creative dishes, which are more complicated and use many ingredients in different ways. The chef then marries them all together in the end. Plating is especially important, whereas in home-style cooking it is not necessary.
I wish the best for my students. I want them to improve their skills and open a restaurant. I want them to make something special, not just the run-of-the-mill stewed or noodle dishes typical of vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan. Things need to change, but change won’t happen if you aren’t capable, so you must learn the fundamentals. Without a strong foundation, the creative dishes you make won’t even be edible. Start simple, then move on to more complex dishes, but come back to simplicity in the end. It was the same for me. I used to try to be really innovative in my cooking, but I’m back to the basics, which is simply delicious.