A month ago, I decided to switch to a pescatarian diet, i.e., one that includes fish but no meat or poultry.
It wasn’t a gradual transition but a cold turkey decision. I have been trying to go vegetarian for years, but before this, I’d never lasted a week without succumbing to cravings. I grew up eating meat, and I liked eating meat. It was too hard to give up.
Ultimately, it wasn’t my willpower that won. It was biology. One day, I was cutting a large slab of pork into chunks. I rarely ate pork and had almost never cooked with it, but it was necessary for making zong zi, a traditional Chinese steamed rice cake wrapped in bamboo leaves.
As I touched the pork with my hands and cut into it, I felt a deep sense of revulsion. The texture of the skin felt both rough and tender to the touch, almost humanlike. And later, after I cooked the leftover pork in a pressure cooker and put the dish in the fridge, all of the fat congealed into this yellow, waxy, lard-like substance overnight. Just looking at it made me want to throw up.
Which was a very confusing feeling. I had been eating meat for three decades. Why was I suddenly so disgusted by it? The only explanation I can think of is that my body changed on its own. It decided that it didn’t like meat anymore, much like it had suddenly lost its fondness for sweet desserts a few years earlier.
It’s now been a month, and I have some thoughts.
1. Do I miss meat? Yes and no.
I am really surprised by the fact that I haven’t had strong cravings for meat since quitting. In the past, usually by the end of the week, I would have caved and picked up a rotisserie chicken in the grocery store. But now, when I’m grocery shopping and see meat, I don’t really feel that urge as strongly anymore. My desire to eat meat is 10% of what it used to be. And I have zero desire to touch raw meat and cook it.
2. Society seems to be more accommodating of vegetarianism these days.
Working in the environment sector and in international development, it seems half of the people I know don’t eat meat. That’s one reason why I had been trying to go vegetarian for so many years — I was inspired by other people around me. If we had a work event that required food, oftentimes we’d just order only vegetarian dishes in order to accommodate everyone. If I went out for a meal with someone who was vegetarian, I would always order a vegetarian dish for myself, too, out of respect.
I first tried to go vegetarian when I was in high school. At the time, it made my father very upset. He accused me of being difficult on purpose and told me to be grateful for whatever my parents put on my plate. This time, when I texted my parents about my new diet, they reacted very positively. “Red meat is bad for your health,” wrote my father, who hasn’t eaten meat for dinner for years and consumes mostly grains.
3. But there’s still a lack of decent food options.
This is probably more specific to Geneva, where I have been disappointed by the lack of good food as a whole. Because of issues with chronic fatigue, I don’t have the energy to cook at home every day, and restaurants here are too expensive, so in the past I’d relied a lot on pre-made meals from the supermarket.
So many of the things that I liked to eat were meat-based dishes. The last time I went to my favorite grocery store, I felt lost because a lot of the stuff I used to buy was now off limits, and I wasn’t sure what to get instead. Pretty much all of the non-meat stuff in the freezer section was shrimp, and I had already eaten a lot of shrimp and was pretty sick of it.
So now I am having to re-think my entire approach to cooking. Coming up with ways to save time, as well as recipes that require very little active work. What ingredients can I cut up and refrigerate the night before? Can I just throw everything in a pot and call it a soup?
4. Plant-based “meats” are unsatisfying.
I did try out some fake chicken filets and fake sausage from the store, and not only did it not taste like meat, it wasn’t very good, period. Come to think of it, the only plant-based meat I’ve ever had that was halfway decent was those Gardein crispy chick’n sliders that I used to buy from Whole Foods when I still lived in DC. They could pass for genuine chicken. It’s such a bummer that they’re not available here.
For now, I think I’ll stay away from the fake meats and just eat regular vegetables.
5. I’m undecided as to whether to stick with pescetarianism or go full vegetarian.
The other day, as I was cutting shrimp into smaller pieces, I felt that familiar sense of mild disgust, thinking about how the shrimps’ heads had been cut off. But then I felt annoyed at myself, too. My diet was already so limited. Was I seriously not even going to let myself eat shrimp?
At this time, I am not planning to give up seafood. Fish is a huge source of protein, so I would like to keep it in my diet. I haven’t been eating it very frequently, though. My diet is now mostly vegetables, rice, pasta, bread, and fruits.
6. I haven’t noticed any big physical changes.
Apparently a lot of people drop a few pounds when they switch to vegetarianism. I don’t have a scale, so I can’t say for sure, but just by looking in the mirror, I haven’t noticed any physical differences. My stomach was a little bloated before I started the diet. It’s still bloated. In comparison, when I tried the Whole 30 diet in early January and cut out sugar and carbs for a few days, I was able to see a physical difference almost immediately.
I don’t feel lighter or more energetic. My fatigue hasn’t gotten better; in fact, it’s gotten worse. I began having trouble falling asleep at night and going to bed later and later. However, this is also tied to my spending a lot of time working on creative projects at night, so I am not sure how much of it is actually related to my diet.
7. I am still open to occasionally eating meat.
Like I said before, I grew up in a meat-eating household. It’s a big part of Chinese cuisine and many other cuisines that I love, like Thai, Italian, and Indian. Food is an important component of culture and heritage. Chinese people have been making zong zi the same way for thousands of years. When I wrapped fragrant bamboo leaves around the sticky rice, I felt a strong connection to my history and culture.
If I were to go to my grandma’s house or my aunt’s house, for example, I think I would gladly eat whatever they put in front of me, not because I’m forced to show respect, but because I want to show respect. And if I’m travelling abroad and there’s an amazing local dish I want to try, I would be fine with eating meat in that context.
(Although for some reason, I can’t see myself eating pork ever again. It weirdly really bothers me now. Perhaps the Old Testament was onto something there?)
To close, here are some meals I’ve made recently.