Being treated to a hot pot meal is one of my most dreaded social situations in China.
Hot pot is like Chinese fondue. A large pot of meat stock bubbles in the center of the table, and fresh meat, fish, vegetables and tofu are dropped inside. You dip the cooked foods in a sesame sauce and drink the flavorful soup.
This is problematic for someone like me, since I’m not only a vegetarian but also kosher. I don’t eat meat or seafood, and I can’t eat vegetables cooked in a meat broth.
Traveling in America, Europe or the Middle East, I always was more comfortable saying I was vegetarian than saying I was kosher. Yet living in China, where vegetarianism for the sake of animals or the environment is rare, most people ask if my eating habits are religious. After all, they know that some observant Buddhists not only refuse to eat meat, but also eggs and milk.
If I am with friends who know I keep kosher, we will find a restaurant with individual hot pots and I can keep my meal vegetarian.
But at a recent dinner in Beijing, a colleague was introducing me to several people in the Chinese movie business. I wanted to make a good impression. That meant eating and drinking — a lot.
When I saw the communal hot pot in the center of every table in the restaurant, I groaned. Not only was I about to inconvenience my host, but a religious discussion was close at hand.
Our dinner host was the owner of a Beijing sound studio, and I told him I was a vegetarian. His first question, as expected, was if I was religious.
Then something happened I hadn’t encountered in China.
Zhang Qun, a Mandarin voice-over actress also at the table, gave me a sympathetic look.
“I have the same problem,” she said, “because I am Muslim.”
Zhang Qun is ethnically Han Chinese, so I was surprised when she told me she was from a Muslim community in Tianjin. She did not look like the stereotypical Chinese Muslim, whom I figured to be from China’s Western Xinjiang autonomous region, where the locals look more like they’re from neighboring Kazhakhstan — a country that is nearly 50 percent Muslim — than from China.
At first I was nervous that she might have a negative opinion about my being Jewish. Most Chinese are complimentary of Jews, saying how clever and rich Jews are without meaning to be at all anti-Semitic. Yet I had never had any extended interaction with a Chinese Muslim before. Would she have a different stereotype in mind?
Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. She even helped solve our food problem by taking charge and ordering a smaller hot pot containing only hot water, not chicken broth. It would be kept meat free.
Although the food problem was solved, there was still the matter of alcohol. As a Muslim, Zhang Qun could not drink alcohol. At each of the evening’s dozens of toasts, she clinked her water glass with our beer and baijiu, a strong distilled Chinese alcohol.
When she excused herself early, many of the men at the table complained. Why wouldn’t she drink with them? They felt it was impolite.
But the owner of the sound studio, Zhang Yong Mou, looked at me earnestly.
“I think out of everyone at this table, these two have the most in common,” he said. “If anyone can understand Zhang Qun, Alison can because they are both religious believers.”
The comments hit home for me. I rarely meet someone in China with dietary restrictions that exceed mine.
That night, fresh news from Israel about tensions between Muslims and Jews seemed far away. I felt an understanding with Zhang Qun. It was refreshing to find this interfaith connection in Beijing over a dreaded hot pot dinner.