Three years ago, Seattle-based cooking instructor Hsiao-Ching Chou released her debut cookbook, Chinese Soul Food. Dubbed “the definitive primer on Chinese home cooking” by Seattle Magazine, the popular guide enabled household chefs to create authentic Chinese recipes in their own kitchens. Even with its many successes, Chou’s one wish was that the book had included more vegetable dishes. Now, with Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food, she brings these dishes together in a collection of their own. Writing in her usual welcoming style, Chou turns the spotlight towards mushrooms, greens, tofu and other meat-free mainstays as she explores the rich world of Chinese vegetarian cooking.
Since giving up meat more than 20 years ago, I’ve done my share of home cooking. Over the years, my culinary repertoire has grown to include regional cuisines from around the world. But despite Indian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern dishes regularly appearing on my dining table, I’ve never delved deeply into Chinese cooking. Perhaps I was put off by well-known dishes like Peking duck and kung pao chicken. I imagined trying to adapt Chinese cuisine to a plant-based diet as something akin to visiting a gourmet pizzeria and ordering a salad. No matter how good the salad, I knew I’d be missing out.
Yet vegetarian cooking has long been part of China’s culinary history. As Chou definitively declares, “Vegetables are essential in Chinese cooking.” Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food relates how the country’s Buddhist cuisine fostered a long-standing appreciation and acceptance of vegetarian diets. Meat substitutes made from plant sources have been consumed for over a thousand years, allowing people from all backgrounds to enjoy culturally significant dishes regardless of their dietary preferences.
The book’s 85 featured recipes include soups, noodle dishes, salads, stir-fries and more, including Mu Shu Vegetables, Hong Kong-Style Crispy Noodles and Hot-and-Sour Soup. Also included is a collection of detailed instructions for making Chou’s ever-popular handmade dumplings. There’s even a suggested menu for Lunar New Year, featuring a “Lucky 8” stir-fry recipe inspired by Buddhist vegetarian temple cuisine. Most of the recipes’ ingredients are readily available in major supermarkets, but a few items, such as fresh bamboo shoots, may require a trip to your nearest Asian grocer.
While Chou’s recipes are authentic, she streamlines cooking methods to allow chefs of all skill levels to enjoy their time in the kitchen. She includes helpful suggestions for alternate ingredients and notes time-saving tips for cooks eager to get dinner to the table in a hurry. She wants her readers to learn how to think like a Chinese chef, encouraging flexibility and experimentation, rather than strict adherence to a recipe. “There are few combinations in the recipes that follow that are sacred,” she writes. For readers unfamiliar with Chinese ingredients, an illustrated glossary will allow you to distinguish your bean threads from your rice noodles. And for anyone who thinks all soy sauce tastes the same, just take a look at the two-page chart comparing the flavor profiles of nearly a dozen common brands.
Devotees of the author’s previous book will be pleased to learn that Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food functions nicely as a companion volume. Satisfying in their own right, the recipes work equally well as side dishes to a meat-based main course. Although the book’s subtitle advertises “plant-based ingredients,” vegans should be aware that one chapter centers around eggs, which are also used in several other recipes. In some cases, the eggs can be safely omitted, but other dishes will require more extensive modification. In addition, one recipe makes use of gelatin, a product derived from animal bones.
Throughout the book, the author shares anecdotes from her childhood growing up in a family restaurant as well as information on key aspects of Chinese culinary culture. Cooking techniques, menu planning, and properly stocking a pantry are all discussed, with the author offering insightful suggestions based on her ample experience. Whether you’re wondering whether it’s wise to pick up a high-tech rice cooker or considering how much money to spend on a good wok, you’ll find advice written in Chou’s warm and encouraging tone.
Above all, Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food is another example of the author’s passion for sharing China’s storied cuisine. She’s committed to encouraging people to try their hands at creating exciting home-cooked meals that will leave them satisfied and perhaps a little surprised at their own abilities. Once again Chou proves that any kitchen can be a Chinese kitchen—even a vegetarian one.
Hsiao-Ching Chou will give a cooking lesson and presentation on Friday, February 3, 2021, at a Virtual Lunar New Year Celebration co-hosted by The Evergrey and the International Examiner.