Over the last Christmas holiday, I suddenly became aware of a growing vegan tendency in my own family. Sitting around chatting to my vegan sister, my vegetarian niece and my vegan-inclined sister-in-law, I understood that the rising number of vegetable advocates, not only in society at large but at home too, was going to have a profound effect on how everyone ate. A close friend of mine has come to a similar realisation: her son, a committed vegetarian, tells her that meat eaters are on the wrong side of history and that future generations will view eating flesh with the same revulsion as slavery. The arguments against the exploitation of animals for nutrition and — mostly — gastronomic pleasure have always been compelling, but now it’s becoming harder to ignore them. And although I have a strong personal and professional commitment to omnivorousness, the veganism in the zeitgeist is definitely affecting the way I eat at home.
Fortunately, my speciality is Chinese food, and traditional Chinese cooking offers a rich larder of possibilities that can make eating less meat in general and vegan cooking in particular almost effortless. When my vegan (and wheat-intolerant) sister came to visit recently, it was easy to rustle up a delicious supper that satisfied the meat eater present as much as her. This is partly because dairy products are largely absent from the traditional Chinese diet anyway, so with the exception of eggs, Chinese vegetarian food is usually also vegan. Moreover, vegetables are still regarded as a vital part of the balance of a meal and the Chinese excel at making them taste delectable.
There are also cultural factors, including a disposition among educated Chinese people to regard gluttonous consumption of meat as uncouth and vegetable eating as a sign of good taste, and an outstanding gastronomic tradition in which a delicacy can be made out of practically anything. So although most Chinese people are neither strict vegetarians nor vegans, elements of their culinary heritage are easily applicable to vegan cooking.
In place of dairy in their daily diets, the Chinese have the soyabean, containing all the amino acids essential for human nutrition. The bean, indigestible unless eaten young and green, is transformed into an array of delicious seasonings and myriad forms of tofu. Tofu, in China, is no mere meat substitute, but a ubiquitous food that is an integral part of mainstream as well as vegan diets.
Soy sauce is just one of a number of indispensable flavourings made from fermented plants. The fermented black soyabeans used in black bean sauce have a robust savoury flavour and have been made in China for more than 2,000 years: just a few can lift the flavour of a plain stir-fried green. Thick sauces made from fermented soyabeans or wheat flour are used in marinades, stir-fries and pickles, while the famous Sichuan chilli bean paste, which lends a gorgeous richness and glossy red colour to a whole host of dishes, is made from fermented broad beans and chillies. All these can be used to ratchet up the savouriness of a vegan recipe.
The Chinese also employ pickled vegetables to give an umami backbone to vegetarian dishes. Salt-cured mustard tubers can be cooked with plain vegetable ingredients or chopped and scattered over finished dishes, while the famous yacai from the Sichuanese city of Yibin, made from mustard stems fermented with salt, brown sugar and spices, is a key flavouring in many dishes such as dry-fried beans and dandan noodles.
The structure of a Chinese meal makes catering for different dietary requirements relatively easy. Most repasts consist of a selection of dishes served with rice, bread or noodles: people help themselves as they please. I’ve often cooked for mixed groups that include vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters, with each guest composing their own meal. (And, as well as being dairy-free, Chinese food can easily be made gluten-free if you use tamari soy sauce.)
From a vegan point of view, what’s perhaps most exciting about Chinese cuisine is the tradition of Buddhist vegetarian cooking. The kitchens of Chinese Buddhist monasteries are always strictly vegetarian, which generally means vegan. While most monks live on a simple diet, larger monasteries often have restaurants specialising in elaborate vegetarian dishes, many of which are cunningly designed to replicate the appearance, textures and even tastes of meat, poultry and seafood. In Sichuan, you can dine lavishly in a Buddhist monastery on vegan versions of Gong Bao chicken, twice-cooked pork and other old favourites, while in Shanghai, the renowned Gongdelin restaurant offers vegan “roast duck”, “stir-fried crabmeat” and “sweet-and-sour eels”.
Stir-fried spinach with chilli and fermented tofu
Jiaosi furu chao bocai
One ingredient every vegan should know about is fermented tofu (doufuru). It is made by allowing cubes of firm tofu to grow a fluffy coat of white mould, and then curing them for a few months in a brine flavoured with spices and a little strong grain liquor. The fermented tofu becomes soft and creamy, with a complex savoury taste that reminds me of Roquefort cheese. Chinese people serve it as a relish with a bowlful of rice congee or steamed bread for breakfast, just picking off morsels of the tofu to accompany every spoonful or bite (it’s also very nice on hot toast).
The tofu can also be mashed up with the juices in the jar and added to marinades or dishes like this one, which is based on a favourite Cantonese dish. The mashed tofu gives a sensational creaminess and an intensity of flavour to what is otherwise a very simple vegetable stir-fry.
The Cantonese most commonly make this dish with water spinach (a green vegetable with long, hollow stalks and pointed leaves that you can buy in Chinese supermarkets), but it also works beautifully with regular spinach.
Most Chinese supermarkets sell a variety of fermented tofus. This recipe calls for the plain white variety, which is just white cubes in a slightly cloudy brine. “Southern fermented tofu” (nanru), another common type, is preserved with red yeasted rice and has a dramatic pink-purple colour: it is normally sold in clay jars or tins. Other brands offer cubes of fermented tofu immersed in ruby-red chilli oil, which I highly recommend as a relish to eat with plain rice or bread: if I’ve made a simple vegan supper that seems to be lacking in oomph, I usually serve a few cubes of this tofu on the side.
- — Wash and trim the spinach, and cut the long leafy stems into chopstickable lengths. Finely slice the chilli.
- — Mash the tofu with the sugar and some of the juice from the tofu jar to create a liquid the consistency of double cream.
- — Bring a panful of water to the boil and dunk the spinach in it to wilt the leaves. Refresh briefly under the cold tap and shake and squeeze dry.
- — Pour the oil into a hot wok over a high flame and immediately add the garlic and chilli. Stir a couple times until the garlic smells wonderful (but is not coloured), then add the tofu mixture. As soon as the liquid has boiled, add the blanched spinach and stir-fry briskly.
- — When the sauce is incorporated and everything is piping hot, tip on to a plate and serve. (You can add a little salt but you probably won’t need it because of the saltiness of the tofu.)
Sour-and-hot silken tofu with avocado
Suan la e’li doufu
One of my favourite Chinese starters is sliced silken tofu and avocado dressed simply in soy sauce and sesame oil, which is easy to make and dazzlingly delicious. This is a jazzier version with a gorgeous sour-and-hot sauce.
It takes only minutes to prepare. Chinkiang vinegar can be found in most Chinese supermarkets; if you can’t find it, use a mild balsamic instead.
- — Drain any excess water from the tofu, then tip it out of the package and on to a serving dish and cut as evenly as possible into ½ cm slices. Press gently on the tofu to fan out the slices.
- — Scoop the avocado out of its shell and slice thinly or dice. Lay the avocado pieces along the top of the tofu.
- — Mix the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and pour them over the avocado and tofu. Sprinkle over the spring onions and serve.
Dry-fried ‘eels’ (shiitake mushrooms)
An example of Buddhist trompe l’oeil cooking, this recipe is based on a memorable version I enjoyed in the restaurant at the Temple of Divine Light, near the Sichuanese capital Chengdu. The “eels”, made from dried shiitake mushrooms, look strikingly similar to the real paddy eels used in the classic Sichuanese recipe. The original dish did not include garlic, which strict Buddhists avoid as one of the pungent vegetables thought to inflame carnal passion, but I’ve added it for extra deliciousness (you may omit it if you wish).
Dried mushrooms are particularly important in Chinese vegetarian cooking because of their enticing savoury flavours and satisfyingly meaty textures.
Because this dish contains negligible protein, I’d serve alongside a tofu dish, as well as a leafy green vegetable and plain white or brown rice. Dried shiitake mushrooms and Sichuan chilli bean paste can be found in any Chinese supermarket. Please note that the dried mushrooms must be set to soak at least half an hour in advance of cooking.
- — Place the mushrooms in a pan, cover with hot water from the kettle and set aside to soften for at least an hour. Then bring to the boil, season lightly with salt and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from the water and set aside to drain. When they are cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as possible.
- — Snip the dried chillies into halves or sections, discarding seeds as far as possible. Discard the stems, cores and seeds of the green peppers and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place the sauce ingredients in a small bowl with four tablespoons of cold water and mix well.
- — Cut the mushrooms into strips about 1.5cm wide. Place in a bowl and mix with the potato flour or cornstarch until evenly coated.
- — Heat the deep-frying oil in a wok over a high flame to about 190C. Carefully drop in the mushroom pieces, separately so they don’t stick together, and fry for a minute or two until crisp and a little golden. The oil should be hot enough to sizzle vigorously around the mushrooms. It’s best to fry the mushrooms in two or three batches to discourage them from clumping together. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain well.
- — Drain off all but three tablespoons of the oil, and return the wok to a high flame. Add the chillies and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until the chillies are darkening and wonderfully aromatic, but not burnt. Immediately move the wok away from the heat and add the chilli bean paste, stirring as it sizzles, until the oil has reddened. Then add the garlic, ginger and green peppers. Return the wok to the stove, stir-frying until everything is piping hot and smells delicious. Swiftly stir in the mushrooms, then give the sauce a stir and pour into the centre of the wok. Mix quickly to allow the sauce to coat the mushrooms as it thickens. Stir in the sesame oil and serve.
Photographs by Alexander Coggin
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