Meat Your Dinner: My girl goes vegetarian in Southeast Asia

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During our very first week traveling, our girl M decided to try being a vegetarian in Southeast Asia, a decision she came to on her own. Keiko and I eat meat, but we have supported her on this. In many ways, Taiwan is an ideal place to go meat-free. For one, there are delicious vegetarian options everywhere — from cheap, pay-by-weight style cafeterias to high-end restaurants with items like fake swan meat on the menu.

The appeal of such herbivorous options stands in contrast their counterpart: in places like Taiwan, there is no aesthetic veil obscuring the fact that there is a dead animal on your plate. Food in the West — and if you discount some sushi meals, Japan as well — do a great job of obscuring the fact that your plate is adorned with flesh that was once alive. I’ve made my peace with this to some extent, but the cruelty and environmental damage that factory farming are responsible for are making me consider altering my diet in significant ways.

Our seven-year-old girl, however, had not yet made her peace with where her food comes from. In fact, like so many children, she wasn’t even fully aware that whenever she ate beef, bacon or fried chicken, an actual animal had been killed, chopped up and put over flame — killed and cooked for her. This is quite explicit in Taiwan: dead ducks hang in windows, and men behind the counter use big, blocky knives to whack at large chunks of meat and bone before placing some on your plate. Tables covered in ice are adorned with whole fish, headless frogs and pig organs, while wriggling live shrimp are lowered into boiling soups. Personally, I love the stuff — some of my favorite meals have been at restaurants like these — but I am not blind to how brutal the process is.

I think this was just too much for our girl. Like most kids, she LOVES nearly every animal she sees (insects notwithstanding). That includes snakes, but anything with fur or feathers gets bumped up a few dozen points on her love meter. On top of that, some of my oldest and dearest friends in Tainan have been vegetarian for years, so when we went out for dinner together, half the items ordered fell firmly in the veggie category. She had already told me she wanted to stop eating meat, but after one dinner with vegetarian friends, her mind was made.

In a sign of solidarity, Keiko and I chose to eat non-meat meals with her quite often, which was a pleasure in Taiwan — so much so that our boy joined in with gusto. He reads kanji better than his old man, and would point out the signs for vegetarian spots as we rode through town. We tried a new one each week, but kept returning to one particular cafeteria for lunch. The below pic is a common lunch, costing about $3USD/¥350.

Now in Penang, the vegetarian options are more limited, but still fairly common — with large Chinese and Indian populations, there will invariably be veggie meals on offer somewhere. The seafood and grilled items are SO good here that I give in to my carnivorous urges a lot (satay is hard to pass up), but I try to go meatless for at least one entire day each week.

Enter “Meatless Mondays.”

I started noticing my buddy Jesslee’s “Meatless Mondays” posts in my Facebook stream, and decided to join along. At times it’s inconvenient, but eating vegetarian in Southeast Asia isn’t that hard. Hell, if all options are exhausted, we just order a veggie pizza. I’m only doing this for a handful of meals each week, but it’s made me realize just how much meat I’ve consumed in my life.

I’m going to put some links below, but this isn’t advocacy — if it was then I’d be the biggest hypocrite. I still eat meat and love it, and I have no plans of forgoing barbeques for the rest of my life. Hell, I’ve even written about burgers for Bon Appetit Magazine. But it’s getting harder to justify my diet. A few things have happened lately that have made me wonder if my eating habits conflict with my morals.

For one thing, I’ve started reading about the many environmental factors. Then I also finally made myself watch some of those disgusting PETA videos of the abuse that goes on in factory farms/processing plants. I won’t link to them here, but just google “animal cruelty” with a few keywords like “video” and “factory farm” and you’ll find more unspeakable acts that you can stomach. I knew the videos would be horrible, and they were, but after reading about how the agriculture industry is trying to make whistleblowing illegal — even try to  link it to terrorism (I’m not kidding) — it became obvious that someone really wants these kind of videos permanently unavailable for view. I wanted to see why before they were.

I also listened to an interview with one of PETA’s leaders. Up to this point, I had thought of PETA as a bunch of well-meaning but misguided attention whores, but after that interview, a lot of their strategies made more sense. For example, in a media landscape where ratings are everything, no news outlet will run stories on animal cruelty because they are a HUGE downer and guaranteed to make the viewer turn the channel (I know I would). Sponsors don’t like that — they want you to stay on whatever channel they’re playing commercials on. But hey, what if you could offer “news” outlets a story about naked celebrities? Now you have everyone covering it on TV, and it’s the perfect click-bait for the web (did you click the link above? Oh right. SURE you didn’t).

With all this in mind, I just might follow my daughter’s example and go “part-time vegetarian,” as she calls it. As of now, she eats meat on Thursdays — not sure why she chose Thursday, but there you go. She does occasionally break down for certain meals — sushi will never be safe from her appetite.

As for me, I may just stick to the converse of her plan: keep up the Meatless Mondays, but also actively start looking for vegetarian alternatives on the menu. That seems like a reasonable stance for the time being. Our girl should have no problem being vegetarian in Southeast Asia, but it will be interesting to see what happens when we hit other parts of the world.

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