Vegetables are essential in Chinese cooking. Whether a mound of stir-fried greens,
a burbling clay pot of tofu and cabbage, or a side of spicy pickles, vegetable dishes
are put together with as much thought as any meat or seafood dish. Balance of
seasonality, flavors, textures, and sometimes curative properties guides the preparation.
Even those who eat meat are biased toward having an abundance of vegetables.
Many dishes include meat only as an accompaniment.
Being vegetarian in the Chinese culture is not perceived as a character flaw. Not
only is vegetarianism accepted, but the industry for producing plant-based products
and meat substitutes has a long history. That is due in large part to Chinese
Buddhist monks and nuns who adhere to a vegan diet that also excludes pungent
ingredients, such as alcohol, garlic, onions, leeks, and chives. Not all followers of
Buddhism subscribe to a vegetarian diet, however. But temple vegetarian cuisine
is well known and even revered. Culturally, meat has always been considered a
luxury because it’s expensive. During Lunar New Year, serving a broad selection of
meats and seafood represents wealth, abundance, and good fortune. Historically,
the advent of meat and seafood substitutes made from plant-based ingredients
has meant that those who couldn’t afford meat or those who have chosen to be
vegetarian for health or religious reasons could also share in the symbolism, especially
when it comes to “lucky foods” served during the Lunar New Year reunion
feast. Using bean curd and wheat gluten to create meat substitutes goes back to
imperial China and has been around for over a thousand years.
I have noticed recently at the Chinese market where I shop here in the Seattle
area that there are more products marketed toward vegetarians. For example, the
same hoisin sauce that I’ve always used now has a bottle label listing it as vegetarian.
It’s the same naturally vegetarian sauce, just a different label. My mother
and I scrutinized the label and finally surmised that the “vegetarian” designation
potentially has to do with the fact that “hoisin” is hai xian in Mandarin, which
means “seafood,” and adding the word “vegetarian” was a clear message that the
hai xian sauce does not contain seafood. Likewise, a bottle of Chinese black vinegar
had a sitting Buddha figure on its label that also proclaimed that the vinegar is
vegetarian. Again, we suspect it’s a direct way to signal to vegetarians, especially
Buddhist vegetarians, that this vinegar is not flavored with any forbidden pungent
For me, a meal is never complete without at least one vegetable dish. My produce
drawers are always stocked with Chinese cabbage, baby bok choy, gai lan
(Chinese broccoli), Chinese mustard greens, yu choy, and a revolving cast of other
familiar vegetables—carrots, celery, kale, lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower,
potatoes, and such—that cater to our cravings. At a moment’s notice—or in the
time it takes to make a pot of rice—I can have a sumptuous meal on the table with
platters of greens, eggplant, mushrooms, and tofu. Delicate, hearty, savory, pungent,
and crunchy all coexist in their individuality and intersections.
The diversity of vegetables and plant foods is dizzying. On occasion, I teach
an Asian greens cooking class, where I display a dozen kinds of uncooked leafy
greens paired with their respective stir-fried versions. Students then sample each
vegetable, and the deliciousness is always a revelation. I will never not delight in
the looks on people’s faces when they taste discovery.
In the Chinese language, the word for “vegetables” is cai (also spelled tsai, choy,
or choi). It’s a broad term that covers a world of greens as a category, as well as the
specific members of this succulent family: bok choy, yu choy, gai choy, qincai, ong
choy, and so on. Cai is also a general term for “dish”—as in “What dishes should we
eat today?” or “What dishes should I cook today?”
I love the preciseness and expansiveness of the term cai: It means one thing and
everything, so context is important for determining whether you’re referring to a
specific vegetable or a meal. If you’re not used to such conciseness in language, it
may cause confusion. To me, there’s freedom in this ability to shapeshift, which we
certainly can extend to the versatility of the Chinese way with all forms of vegetables
and plant foods.
When I talk about a way with vegetables, my intention is to convey an approach
rather than rigid rules and recipes. The alchemy of a searing wok, a splash of oil, a
mess of fresh greens, and a dash of soy sauce delivers a quintessential flavor that
roots your palate in this approach. From that point of reference, a kaleidoscope of
dazzling combinations can emerge at the twist of inspiration. A recipe with specific
amounts isn’t as important as understanding the nature of vegetables and the
support characters that make them sing.
As I’ve become more attuned to the wisdom that comes from lived experiences,
I have realized that my taste preferences have shed thrill-seeking for more focused
flavors. I do enjoy adding a dollop of fire from my menagerie of chili sauces to many
dishes, but I also understand the value of restraint. I will always encourage you
to experiment with building complexity in your cooking, and I will also always
remind you to appreciate the elemental. Subtle flavors in food are not boring.
The way to cook vegetables, for me, is about exploring flavors without heroics
at the stove. I remain firm in my belief that everyday cooking should be accessible
and forgiving. As with this book’s predecessor, my goal is to ground you in everyday
Chinese home cooking, with hopes you will consider developing your own
Copyright © 2021 by Hsiao-Ching Chou. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.