Rosa Jackson's Edible Adventures

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On being vegetarian in France

A few months ago, my son Sam declared himself a vegetarian. Now, if we lived in California this might not sound unusual, but this is France, proud land of steak-frites and saucisson, andouillette and tête de veau.

Sam Zen
At the restaurant Zen in Paris.

A few months ago, my son Sam declared himself a vegetarian. Now, if we lived in California this might not sound unusual, but this is France, proud land of steak-frites and saucisson, andouillette and tête de veau. What made his decision even more surprising is that both of his parents are meat-eaters. If much of my cooking relies on fresh vegetables from the market, I also can't deny having a passion for steak tartare.

At first I wasn't sure how to react. He had been making noises about becoming vegetarian ever since watching a cooking show on the television channel Arte in which a group of 12 to 14 year-olds visited a rabbit farm to see where meat came from. Picture the poor bunnies dangling from hooks, then cut to the skinned rabbits a few seconds later, ready to be chopped up for lapin à la moutarde. Who could really blame Sam?

For two years (he saw the show when he was five) I persuaded him that eating a little meat and fish is not a bad thing if you choose it carefully. But, as he got older, he became convinced that anything with a heart and a brain shouldn't die in order to feed him. When he started to categorically refuse meat and fish, I decided not to fight it.

I quickly discovered, though, that becoming vegetarian in France isn't so simple. First, there was the school's reaction. The teacher and canteen supervisors came to me saying, "Is he serious?" When I assured them that he was, they frowned and shook their heads. In France, school canteens operate on the principle that every child should eat everything, or at least try everything, unless they have a religious or health reason not to. The upside of this is that France is a nation of unfussy eaters. The downside is that la différence is not welcomed.

I went to see the économe, the woman in charge of collecting money for the canteen, and explained the "problem." She gave me a sympathetic yet puzzled look.

"Vegetarianism is not a recognized diet in France," she said. "We'll have to put everything on the plate even if he doesn't eat it."

Thus, my son who doesn't want to animals to die for his sake still gets served meat or fish every day at school, and has to eat around it.

As any vegetarian who has travelled to France knows, eating in restaurants is also a challenge. Fortunately, I live in Nice where the Italian influence means that gnocchi and fresh pasta with pistou or tomato sauce are nearly always on the menu. Nice also has one of the best vegetarian restaurants in France, La Zucca Magica, where children under 12 eat for free. Paris bistros are a bit more problematic, but since Sam is not fussy in other ways he will settle for almost anything that doesn't contain animal protein (as long as goat cheese is not involved). He is also thrilled to eat miso soup and vegetable maki at my favorite Japanese restaurant, Zen.

Last night, as we were meeting a friend who has also gone off meat (or at least non-organic meat) after reading Eating Animals, I decided to see if we could find a good vegetarian restaurant in Paris. There are a lot more options for vegetarians these days thanks to places like Rose Bakery, Bob's Juice Bar and Cococook, which serve Anglo-style salads, soups and sandwiches, but I was curious to try a restaurant with strict vegetarian principles. For once, I thought it would be nice if Sam could order anything on the menu without having to adapt to a meat-eating world.

A little research on vegetarian websites led me to Tien Hiang, a Chinese Buddhist restaurant with two locations in Paris. The newest branch, not far from the Canal St-Martin, is open for the month of August when most Paris restaurants close for holidays. Though I was a little nervous about taking my friends to such a plain-looking restaurant, I made a booking for the four of us.

The first surprise was the dining room, which although simple was clean and pleasant, animated by the chatter of the French and Asian diners around us. We were handed thick menus listing an extensive selection of dishes, many of them made with "pork," "beef," "chicken" or "duck." As the menu explained, this was not real meat but soy protein designed to imitate meat. A lot of people might argue with the assumption that vegetarians crave the look and feel of meat on their plates, but Sam seemed quite excited at the prospect of eating "chicken."

Spring rolls
Papaya salad

Tempted by nearly everything on the menu, I ordered the green papaya salad, mini Imperial rolls, tofu stuffed with "minced beef" and  sticky rice, while Sam went for the vegetable maki roll and the "chicken" sautéed with onions. The papaya salad was suprisingly spicy, with extra flavor coming from strips of lemon zest. Almost overwhelming on its own, it worked well in combination with blander dishes such as the steamed ravioli. The fried Imperial rolls had a stuffing made of taro root, soy vermicelli, black mushrooms and carrot, with a meaty texture that I could have mistaken for pork.

Fake chicken
Stuffed tofu

My biggest success, though, was the stuffed tofu, which arrived bubbling dramatically in its little clay pot. A difficult dish to make, with a filling of "minced meat," bamboo shoots, mushrooms and cilantro, it cost €8 and was so deeply flavored that I found myself lapping up all the sauce with my sticky rice. Sam was equally happy with his chicken, whose texture he found amazingly like the real thing. Less of a hit was Erica's bun bi (similar to bo bun, a Vietnamese dish of rice vermicelli with vegetables, meat and fried spring rolls), which lacked the tangy fish sauce that normally gives this dish its character.

Desserts are of the sort normally found in Paris Asian restaurant: coconut balls, bananas in coconut milk, litchis in syrup, ice cream. Sam tried one of the more original desserts, a banana coated in sticky rice and steamed in a banana leaf, but handed it over after one spoonful. Drinks are more original, with a selection of organic non-alcoholic beers and slighly fermented juices (there is also Tsing Tao if you're craving the real thing).

I'm happy to have found a place that I can wholeheartedly recommend to vegetarians in Paris, even if I would also warn them that it probably takes a bit of time to discover the best dishes on the long menu. This very satisfying meal cost just €18 per person with drinks.

As for people who ask me whether I'm afraid Sam will be malnourished, I say: he eats eggs, cheese, milk, tofu, chickpeas, lentils, seaweed, whole grains and nearly every fruit and vegetable known to man. Will he be more poorly nourished than a child who subsists on hamburgers and pizza?

Tien Hiang, 14 rue Bichat, 10th, 01.42.00.08.23 and 92 rue du Chemin Vert, 11th, 01.43.55.83.88.

Tags: Healthy eating, Nice, Paris, Restaurants