Vegetarian cooking was introduced to China in the kitchens of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries more than 2,000 years ago. The practice of abstaining from eating meat was originally tied to a belief in reincarnation.
Over the centuries, Chinese vegetarian cooking has developed into a sophisticated cuisine in its own right. Cooks use a variety of protein-rich foods to simulate the flavours and textures of meat. Bean curd skin, for example, becomes mock poultry and wheat gluten stands in for meat.
From simple cabbage dishes to elaborate banquets where vegetables become the centres of attention, vegetables are, after grain, the dominant food of China.
Whether they are prepared in country households where a pot or two fills all culinary needs or in grand restaurants where they are served in the elegant court style, the selection, preparation, cooking, and serving of vegetables is always treated respectfully in China.
They are never served with excuses, because it would never occur to anyone that they are secondary to any other ingredient, except perhaps rice.
Buddhist cooking斋菜 (zhāi cài) - Casserole
Since 1991, the valleys of the river Panyang, in the Bama Yao Autonomous district of Guangxi in China, are known to have a percentage of centenarians with regard to the total population among the most important. Chinese gerontologists went to study there the reasons of this longevity and concluded that it was due to a participation in the works of the village, the purity of the water of the river and the air of the valley as well as to a vegetarian diet. Actually, with the exception of certain main feasts, the inhabitants of Bama usually exclude from their food any meat.
The dieticians of the whole world know that vegetables and fruits contain a strong proportion of vitamin C; beans are rich in protein, etc... For the Chinese, the edible mushrooms are not only a very nourishing food, but also they still have multiple uses in the medicine, as for example to make lower the blood pressure and the rate of blood lipids, prevent the cirrhosis of the liver and strengthen the heart and the kidneys; some would possess active elements against the cancer.
Vegetarianism is not uncommon or unusual in China, even if, as it is the case in the West, it is only practiced by a relatively small proportion of the population.
Historically, China was a major centre of Buddhism and the founding state of Taoism, two nature-oriented philosophies that promote vegetarianism. In temples, the monks ate and offered to the pilgrim’s only vegetables soups and tea. As from the dynasty of Qing (1644-1911), the vegetarian cooking became widespread and was not only practiced in temples, but also by certain city-dwellers, even in the imperial court. Cooks specialized in the vegetarian cooking appeared.
The base of the Buddhist kitchen is constituted by vegetables (e.g. Bak Choy, shiitake mushroom, sprouts, corn), by fruits, by flowers and by medicinal herbs. Some temples as Fayuan in Beijing, Dinghui Temple of Zhenjiang in the province of Jiangsu, Baiyun in Shanghai and Lingyin Temple of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, started to offer vegetarian quality dishes, which attracted a big clientele.
At Po Lin Monastery which is the most popular Buddhist temple in Hong Kong, you will be served a Chinese Vegetarian cuisine which is a culture heritage from ancient China
At the time of Qing dynasty, except the Buddhist kitchen itself, existed a popular vegetarian cooking which could be found in numerous vegetarian restaurants; the vegetarian cooks of the imperial court were able to make more than 200 exclusively vegetarian dishes. Today, the vegetarian cooking, which is represented by about 500 dishes, is a particular culinary school beside those of Shandong, Sichuan, the Guangdong or Jiangsu, China's four major styles of cooking.
Traditional dish – Minced Stuffing Serves with Pancake
A large number of famous vegetarian restaurants exists in numerous cities, such for example the Xingjutang restaurant at Yongquan Buddhist Temple located on the mountaintop of Gu Mountain in Fuzhou City -Fujian Province-; Caigenxiang in Guangzhou; the atypical vegetarian Restaurant Baihe in Beijing and Gongdelin in Shanghai.
Kung Tak Lam Shangai vegetarian Cuisine, Hong Kong
The Xingjutang restaurant at Yongquan Buddhist Temple is located on the mountaintop of Gu Mountain in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province and is one of the less numerous Buddhist restaurants existing at present. Although the temple has a history of more than thousand years, its restaurant was created only in the fifties.
In the Buddhist dishes, there is a difference between the ordinary dish which is only a mixture of vegetables simply boiled in the water, and the one intended for the offerings and for the receptions cooked in a more sophisticated way and which ingredients are carefully chosen. At the restaurant Xingjutang, you can mainly taste this last one. In the kitchen, the bonzes prepare vegetables, beans and mushrooms and make some cheese of soya, which is very digestive and rich in protein. The Chinese make a big consumption of it. Vegetables and mushrooms used by the bonzes are sowed and cultivated by them. The Buddhist dishes have very beautiful names, inspired generally by the colour or the shape of the used vegetables.
The Caigenxiang Vegetarian Restaurant in Guangzhou exists for a little more than 60 years. It is one of the rare vegetarian restaurants of Canton: Buddhist recipes of Guangdong Cuisine, more than 200 dishes and appetizers. Also chicken, duck, pig and fish completely reconstituted with vegetable substance.
By entering, the customer can read following maxim made by the restaurant owner Zhou Zhihong: "A vegetarian dish is fortifying, a meal with vegetables is delicious; A vegetarian banquet allows prolonging the life that is why the dinner guests flourish to Caigenxiang.” Caigenxiang means in Chinese the “flavours of the roots of vegetables ", which is a Buddhist saying meaning that the Buddhist acquires a quiet inside and is fine in a thatched cottage, happy to eat roots of vegetables.
To make a dish, this restaurant chooses only varieties of nourishing mushrooms, some cheese of soya and vegetables of season. Any animal fat is forbidden as well as strong spices as the ginger, the leek or the garlic.
Certain vegetarian cooks apply to prepare dishes of vegetables calling back the taste and the shape of meat dishes. Such imitation meat is created mostly with soy protein and/or wheat gluten to imitate the texture, taste, and appearance of duck, chicken, or pork. Imitation seafood items, made from other vegetable substances such as konjac, are also available.
For example, a dish entitled “Shark fines “is constituted in fact only by slices of bamboo shoots treaty in a special way. The preparation of this dish is the following one: make horizontal or verticals sections on the surface of the slices of bamboo shoots; dip them into beaten eggs and fry them in some boiling oil; cut finely mushrooms, spice them and saute them separately; place then mushrooms and slices of bamboo shoots so prepared in a bowl to steam them. This delicious dish is of a beautiful white colour looking finally like a dish of shark fines.
For 2,500 years, not only vegetables but vegetarianism has been touted by many. Some extol them without a philosophical view, simply finding it expedient and “natural” to eat vegetables.
Eventually Buddhist and Taoist teaching proscribed vegetables in various specific forms and degrees. To this day, some of the best vegetarian meals are cooked in temple kitchens by monks or nuns who combine tradition with modern means.
The soybean, which contains twice the protein of meat, has been a vegetable staple for ages. Not only the ubiquitous sprout, but the bean is processed into myriad forms of dofu (bean curd). It has a versatility that has put it on shopping lists all over the world.
In China dofu is prepared and served in many ways: soft and custardy, springy and chewy, dried and seasoned like meat or chicken, spiced and fried, and sweet or savory. The fu chu (bean curd skin) can be used for everything from spring roll wrappers to crisp duck skin.
Mushrooms are another large presence in vegetable cuisine. Fresh, dried, or preserved, they range from tiny baby mushrooms to the large black mushrooms that are frequently dried. Fungi are cultivated forms of mushrooms that have names that translate to “cloud ear”, “wood ear”, and more because of the shapes they have as they grow.
Sea-moss fungus is often mistaken for slivers of seaweed but fa tsai is related to the other fungi and is favoured in New Year’s dishes. One reason is that its name resembles fat choy, which means “to grow in riches”.
Nutrition and health have played an important part in the general preparation of vegetables in China. It is still rare to see them served raw. Instead they are usually well cleaned, trimmed, and quickly steamed or stir fried to retain their vitamins and minerals.
Often they are cooked with ginger and/or garlic, which have many healthful proprieties. Now, with the benefit of refrigeration, some are cooled and served as cold dishes. They are especially good this way with the addition of some Chinkiang vinegar and/or a splash of sesame oil.
Recipes for slow-cooked, braised vegetable stews and soups date back ages. In the Han Dynasty bamboo shoots, leeks, and turnip stews were recorded.
By the Tang Dynasty, bamboo was so appreciated as a food that large sections of gardens and cookbooks were devoted to it. Winter shoots are the smallest, followed in size by the spring shoots. The bamboo shoots of summer are the ones, no doubt, that Marco Polo praised as having the shape and texture of asparagus.
It is the central portion of the shoot that is edible, and it must be prepared with care, parboiled to eliminate the bitter and toxic hydrocyanic acid. It is often sold in markets ready to eat. Once it has been stripped of any leaves, its outer rind and base it should be boiled for about twenty minutes before adding to other dishes. It can then be refrigerated or frozen until needed.
Nasturtium, mow so popular in the West, was equally popular in China until it fell out of use. Contemporary chefs are bringing it back into favour.
Carved and shaped vegetables continue to decorate the plates of banquet and restaurant plates, as well as special home-cooked dishes. Carrots, melons, tomatoes, radishes, and turnips are carved, and other vegetables are sliced and shaped to form fantasies of flora and fauna. Many vegetables are dried, pickled and preserved in a variety of ways and are incorporated into many dishes as well as eaten as accompaniments.
One place to enjoy a monastery meal is in Hong Kong. The ferry from Central in Hong Kong to Lantau Island’s Po Lin Temple takes an hour, and the bus ride is another 45 minutes from Silvermine Bay. There, the famous large, outdoor bronze Buddha invites reflection as lunch is eaten in the refectory. This sort of Buddhist vegetarian food includes no onions, garlic, or related vegetables.
In Taiwan with guide and translator, why not drive to Kuanyin Mountasin and The Temples Between the Clouds. There is an unbelievable vista – on the one side is a panoramic view of Taipei and on the other is the top of the mountain, looking like the craggy peaks you could have seen in Chinese landscape paintings, and the beautiful temple.
You will find vegetable and tofu dishes like this one, sometimes called “Buddhist’s Delight”, all over southern China, where fresh produce is plentiful. Served over rice, it makes a complete, healthful meal that will delight you, even if you are not a vegetarian.
8 dried black mushrooms
½ package (7 ounces) regular-firm tofu, drained
¾ cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 small carrot, sliced
½ cup sliced bamboo shoots
1 can (15 ounces) baby corn, drained
½ pound napa cabbage, cut into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1. Soak mushrooms in warm water to cover until softened, about 15 minutes; drain. Trim and discard stems. Quarter caps. Cut tofu into ½-inch cubes. Combine sauce ingredients in bowl; set aside.
2. Place a wok over high heat until hot. Add oil, swirling to coat sides. Add ginger and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add mushrooms, carrot, bamboo shoots, baby corn, and cabbage; stir-fry for 1 minute. Add tofu and sauce; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until vegetables are tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add cornstarch solution and cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.