As Vegetarianism/Veganism is becoming more mainstream, popping up on cafe menus and amongst the health conscious; its roots in Asia gets buried deeper and deeper.
It's easy to overlook this deep-rooted value and take the belief that abstaining from meat is a foreign concept. Memes that go viral among Asian communities, often portray Asian food as heavily meat-based. There is a general consensus that ties Asian food and thus, Asian culture, with meat. This leads to the feeling that one cannot be Asian and vegan; or one cannot connect culturally to Asia while being vegan.
However, the danger of this view is—if continued to persist—distracts us further away from generational values; the only type of values where wisdom is found.
Asia is historically Vegetarian.
Contrary to the memes, Asian food is historically vegetarian and can be traced back to ancient Asia from the Indian subcontinent to China to Japan, long before western plant-based companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat make headlines. In fact, it's China who perfected mock meat or meat alternatives for Buddhist monks.
Japan even banned meat from 657 - 1872 due to Buddhism influence; although from 737, fish and shellfish was allowed. The ban was only lifted when Western influence began to spread.
Having tried many different varieties of mock meats over the years, Asian brands are ahead by far in terms of texture and flavor. It's interesting how the ingredients on most of the Asian mock products that I've come across, are cleaner and less processed; often integrating whole food ingredients. (However, this may also depend on the strength of each country's food labelling regulations).
There's the concerns and perceptions that mock meats are unhealthy and made from chemicals. Mock meats fall in the category of processed foods and thus is not as healthy as its whole food i.e beans and legumes and minimally processed counterparts i.e. tempeh and tofu. This is a very valid concern, albeit a bit disproportionate given that up to 85% of all antibiotics produced are fed to farm animals that account for the majority of the meat shares on the market. In other words, chances are—if you eat animals, you're eating antibiotics fed animals. Food safety is a global issue and definitely not unique to mock meat / plant based meat. There are so many different brands, producers and types so it's simply not fair to generalize and equate an entire food category as unhealthy.
Asia vs The Western World.
Compassion vs Academia.
Interestingly, vegetarianism in Asia emphasizes compassion first and foremost; the other positive aspects i.e. health and environment are mere (positive) by-products. In other words, they're just a bonus.
This value of compassion stems from the recognition that all beings are susceptible to suffering. No being is above suffering and for this, there was never a need to have ethical debates on the extent that a being deserves to 'live'. For Buddhists, the answer seems rather self-evident and blatantly obvious. If there was a compassionate way of living, that must be the chosen path. And the answer to that was the adoption of a vegetarian diet.
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of humankind. - Mahatma Gandhi
In contrast, for most of the early modern period in the West, there was a lot of 'intellectual' debate amongst highly educated leaders and philosophers on whether or not animals deserve compassion. They picked at whatever factors they could in order to justify the continuous abuse of animals i.e questioning the existence of animals (animals exist for human's use) to questioning animal's abilities and intelligence (are animals smart enough to deserve compassion). Among all the philosophers at the time, it seemed Jeremy Bentham was far ahead of his time for he argued —
“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” – Jeremy Bentham (1789)
I can't imagine how lonely he must have felt. Oh the pains of being woke! There were debates that went so far as to doubting animals' ability to feel pain. At the time, Science was unable to capture the existence of animals' ability to suffer; the possibility that animals felt pain was dismissed! Forget that they scream, yell and attempt their best to run away from sources of pain. It seemed if Science couldn't prove that animals suffer; nevermind that it may be Science's limitations instead of the animals' limitations!
Thankfully we now know
"Science ultimately reveals only what is the case; it cannot tell us what we morally ought or ought not to do" - David Hume.
Personally I think this is the dark side of Science, or more so, when knowledge is practiced without wisdom.
This is not to say that people in the West back in the day had little compassion. There was a history of influential advocates for vegetarianism out of pure love and compassion i.e Leonardo DaVinci; but rather, as a collective (or maybe the powerful few who ruled), there was a prevailing 'stiff upper lip' attitude where logic stumps emotion.
In the grand scheme of things, our introduction to meat is fairly recent and it's not as much cultural as it is economical. The rise of meat eating can be credited to the agricultural boom that led to an economical boom in the late 20th century. Fresh out of many decades of famine, our parents and grandparents finally no longer had to endure the uncertainty of having no food on the table, clinging onto all that they can eat. This clinginess persists even in the modern era of (over)abundance. I believe this is one of the reasons for Asian's cognitive dissonance & defensiveness towards eating meat. It's really hard to let go.
This is why it's important to learn history and the origins of all things; why things are the way that they are and improve upon them.
Product Placement & Its Influence On Our Subconscious.
It's no secret that movies influence our consumption behaviors. Brands spend billions of dollars to place their products in movies with the certainty that their investment will pay off; a method known as product placement. This is how marketing works, under the threshold of our full consciousness.
Who else finds themselves craving BB-Q after watching Crash Landing On You? Imagine if there's a character who's an activist for animals and brings awareness to the norms of animal cruelty in meat production. How different would we feel.
*After Crash Landing on You premiered, the sales of Olive BB-Q Chicken increased by 100%.
Yoon Seri did have one vegan moment—the moment when she refuses to eat the pig. That scene screams to me and I imagine to most of us how adorable and puppy-like the pig is. But for most viewers, the ability to relate to farm animals most likely stops there; few would make the further connection that there's no inherent difference between the puppy and the pig and the connection to the reality of meat production as a whole.
Unfortunately, it isn't Korean food culture as much as the modern food conglomerates that control which food to feature on an episode, knowing that their decision will shape our consumption behaviors. Kdramas are far from real life. If the main characters eat like they do in the show, they would not be looking full of vitality the way that they do.
On the other hand, In Raya and The Last Dragon, Raya is seen throughout the movie to be eating Jackfruit Jerky—Is it a stretch to perceive this as an homage to the role of vegetarianism in Asian culture? I literally cannot help but see it this way. Jackfruit is a superfood that's been dubbed as the 'miracle crop' that could 'feed the world & end world hunger'.
It's been described as having the consistency of pulled pork, the taste of pineapple, a good nutrient profile (magnesium, potassium, vitamins, iron and fibre)—where a single fruit can be prepared into a meal to feed an entire family. It's been used as common meat replacement amongst vegetarians and vegans. Even if this is a coincidence, I'd still take it as a vegan message! 😆
Through this piece, I hope to restore the value and wisdom found in Asian vegetarian traditions. For a deeper understanding on the history of animal ethics, I highly recommend the book 'Animal Liberation' by Peter Singer. Also, For additional evidence that being vegan doesn't subtract your heritage away from you, please join Subtle Asian Vegans group on Facebook 😬!
Disclaimer: This is an opinion column. It doesn't take into consideration the cultural nuances across different Asian countries but rather an overview of the cultural similarities across different Asian countries.
Note: Historically, Asian's value was vegetarianism not veganism. The term Veganism was coined in 1944 in the UK. Back in the day, animal by-products i.e. eggs and milk were from small farm holdings and not intensively produced. Therefore, there was no concern about eating animal by-products, only its products. However, if the egg and milk industry then was like the way that it is now, I strongly believe Asian's value would have been vegan.