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The conscientious carnivores

In San Francisco, Ian Monroe sampled a range of vegetarian and vegan food. He and his girlfriend have cut back on meat, hoping they’re improving their -- and the planet’s -- health.

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There’s certainly a lot green in front of us: glistening mounds of fried Szechuan green beans, steaming Chinese broccoli and soy protein, and a small mountain of sliced celery, cucumber and bok choy-topped crispy noodles marinating in savoury broth. Carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, black mushrooms, brown rice, eggplant and tofu add to the culinary colour spectrum.

What’s missing is meat, or any animal product, for that matter. Loving Hut, in San Francisco, is a fully vegan restaurant; its menu is free of red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, even honey. With hundreds of locations in over two-dozen countries on four continents, Loving Hut claims to be the fastest-growing vegan restaurant chain in the world.

Six months ago, a Loving Hut in the Guomao district of Beijing had become one of my favorite eateries in China, and I’m curious how an American version compares. At first glance the similarities are striking. Both locations boast bright, immaculate interiors attended by friendly staff, with discreet stacks of literature expounding the benefits of a vegan diet. The menus look similar too, though San Francisco can’t quite match bargain lunch specials for 10 yuan (US$1.50).

The California locale also focuses a bit more on vegetables dishes, while its cousin in Beijing relies heavily on fake meat made from soy and wheat gluten, even adding descriptions like “beef” and “fish”. Menu diversity is apparently one of the hallmarks of Loving Hut, with each franchise owner encouraged to experiment to suit local tastes, although Chinese-themed concoctions are generally included worldwide.

My girlfriend Susan Tu – an educator raised on authentic Chinese and Vietnamese delicacies in the suburbs of Los Angeles and with a passion for pork -- agreed to accompany me on a sampling of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the San Francisco area. So far we haven’t been disappointed. The food has all been good, some has been great, and it’s made more delicious by the hope that we’re making a small contribution towards improving our personal and planetary health.

My first experiences with vegetarianism came early. I grew up on a small farm in northern California, surrounded by animals of all shapes and sizes. Some ended up on the dinner table, while others begged for scraps below. Our household was divided by diet. On one side was my grandmother, an unapologetic carnivore descended from a long line of farming pioneers. But my mother did most of the cooking, and several years before my birth she’d decided to eliminate meat from her diet entirely. The result was home cooking that tended towards vegetarian, though I was permitted to indulge meaty impulses on occasion.

In college I decided to give full vegetarianism a go, inspired as much by curiosity as underlying ideology, and spurred on by the vibrant vegetarian cooperative housing scene at Stanford University. In one of two fully vegetarian campus houses, I lived with a menagerie of idealists from diverse socioeconomic and international backgrounds, united by a veggie diet and desire to make the world a better place.

My vegetarian journey lasted three and a half years. Then a combination of competitive rugby and involvement in meat production on my family’s farm nudged me back towards being a carnivore. I also began to work and travel internationally, and often felt rude turning down local dishes because of self-imposed dietary guidelines.  

But my travels and current teaching position at Stanford have also made me acutely aware of facts that make meat less appetising. For one, livestock is responsible for nearly a fifth of greenhouse-gas emissions, with a serving of beef having nearly 25 times the climate impact as the same amount of calories from vegetables and rice. I’ve also seen agriculture encroaching into natural ecosystems in Asia, Africa and the Americas, and know that deforestation and other environmental degradation linked to animal products will continue as long as populations grow -- particularly if rising incomes in developing countries lead to more daily meat-eating.

So realising my own eating habits leave a bit to be desired in the realm of sustainability, I’ve been tempted to give vegetarianism another try. I’m lucky to be in San Francisco, where the city’s creative culinary tradition makes abstaining from meat relatively easy and delicious. Susan and I have sampled vegetarian options spanning a broad swathe of global cuisine and affordability.  

Asian choices are plentiful, for example -- from fusion restaurants (like Loving Hut) to Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian, Burmese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese options. The large local Buddhist population has spawned several fully vegan Chinese restaurants, where chefs also refrain from cooking with garlic and onions.

And there are Mediterranean and African options. Susan developed a particular fondness for overstuffed Lebanese falafel wraps, while I’ve found Senegalese mafé tofu, smothered in peanut sauce, to be just the thing to awaken tired taste buds. For less adventurous souls, there’s always the veggie burger or the vegan sausage.

People we talked with had chosen veggie food for a variety of often interconnected reasons: animal welfare, personal health, weight loss, religious or spiritual beliefs, reduced resource consumption and environmental degradation, global malnutrition and cost effectiveness. Some had experienced profound moments of dietary awaking. For my mother, the tipping point came while milking her cow. An overwhelming feeling of love and connectedness made eating the flesh of another sentient creature seem suddenly repulsive, despite the fact she’d already spent more than two decades raising animals for slaughter.

But can giving up meat really save our planet, as the Loving Hut slogan – “Be Veg, Go Green 2 Save the Planet” -- proclaims? Over 3% of Americans now classify themselves as vegetarian, while a bit less than 1% identify as vegan, and these percentages are growing, according to Vegetarian Resource Group.  But the average American or European still consumes two to 15 times as much meat per year as their neighbours in the rest of the world, and rapidly growing economies like China and Brazil are catching up fast.  

So while each strict vegetarian substantially reduces personal environmental damage, it seems unlikely a wave of meat-free eating will usher in a new era of Ecotopia. With better scientific understanding of the complex communicative and emotional lives led by other species, future generations may someday look at eating factory-farmed meat in the same way as we now view cannibalism, slavery and gender inequality -- but that culture shift has yet to harness much momentum.

What has been gaining traction, though, is a campaign to eat fewer animal products and to be conscious of where they come from, particularly high-impact meats like beef. Mindful meat consumption is a much easier sell for most people than eliminating it entirely, and it’s a mantra that Susan and I are trying to incorporate into our own lives, practicing omnivorous flexibility that honours culinary traditions while enhancing net sustainability.  

Less meat may sound like the easy way out, but it’s a tactic that can have real impact. University of Chicago research suggests that if each American reduced his or her meat consumption just 20%, it would be equivalent to everyone in the country switching from a standard sedan to an ultra-efficient hybrid-electric vehicle. With veggie cuisine as enticing as what we ingested during our gastronomical tour of San Francisco, your taste buds might even welcome the change.

Ian Monroe is a visiting scholar and lecturer at Stanford University, where he teaches courses that explore social and environmental trade-offs linked to climate-change decisions.

Homepage image by gnohz

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Sir Barlow's Ward

Yaar, not to mention a rightful helping o' greens fights off the seaman's red gums!

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an awkward habit

"it will be rude to reject local foods due to your own taboos on diet ." that's indeed a question...

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vegetarian restaurant “zaozishu”in Shanghai and Chengdu

The name“zaozishu” of this vegetarian restaurant is homophonic to “zaochisu”(means live a vegan life as early as possible).The restaurant offers a variety of delicious food which are exquisitely made.The staff, mainly youngsters, also volunteerily organize a few public benefit activities. Besides, I pretty enjoy the decorations of the restaurant and their values.

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一直认为伦敦是素食者的天堂。几乎每家荤餐馆都给客人提供素食选择。一般菜单上都会有一个绿色的小"v"字提示“vegetarian or vegan friendly”,这已经是大多英国人习惯看到的标记了。有些素食餐点还是荤餐厅的主打菜,吸引大量顾客慕名而来。然而在加州的时候发现素食已经开始往有机,纯素(无蛋奶制品)和生机饮食的方向发展, 并且还出现了很多日式,泰式,意大利式餐厅以及有机纯素生食冰激凌店等等。原来无论哪国菜式都可以做出地道的甚至更可口的素食版本。上海和北京更不用说,算得上是全球素食美味和健康理念发展最快的城市之一了。


Sun Yat Sen once said that the Chinese stomach is far better suited to a vegetarian diet.

It has always been known that London is a vegetarians paradise - almost every restaurant offers customers a vegetarian choice. There will be normally be a small green ‘v’ representing “vegetarian or vegan friendly”- something which the majority of British people are used to. There are some vegetarian dishes in restaurants that have gained a strong reputation which draw in the crowds. However vegetarian food in California was already moving towards the organic and vegan (no eggs or dairy products) diet. This has since appeared in Japanese, Thai and Italian restaurants, along with other things like the organic vegan ice-cream shop. Regardless of where you are, national cuisine can be authentically made in a vegetarian version, which can often be more delicious than the original. Not forgetting Shanghai and Beijing, two cities with the fastest growing healthy eating industry in the world.

In recent years, most people have been able to accept less meat and more fruit and vegetables in their diets. In work and life, we should be able to take friends and family to try the many different kinds of delicious and healthy food available. Vegetarian food is full of creativity and is a delight to eat - when people try it, they will not only think that it is delicious and healthy, but it is also encouraging a humane way of life.

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meat substitutes

Frankly I'm not eco warrior. I don't want to convert to any diet by giving up taste. But I initiatively like vegetables and tofu and I do enjoy more nice and creative food since became veggie. Besides there are loads of diverse meat substitutes for people on their transition.

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令人愉悦的饮食! 也是提升灵魂的唯一途径!

Fruits and Vegetables

Food that brings pleasure! And the only path to enlightenment!

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vegetarian diet across the world,awaiting

“With better scientific understanding of the complex communicative and emotional lives led by other species, future generations may someday look at eating factory-farmed meat in the same way as we now view cannibalism, slavery and gender inequality.” Yes, I believe with the advent of that day, the earth will turn to paradise. That's also the force driving us to rigorously promote a vegan diet at the moment.