There is a common misconception that Chinese cuisine is not very vegan-friendly…and the truth is, it can be very heavy on chicken, pork and seafood. While it’s easy enough to swap out animal ingredients from most recipes, there are actually a fair few traditional recipes that are in fact 100% plant-based. So if you’re craving an authentic gastronomic experience, we’ve rounded up 10 traditional Chinese dishes that have always been vegan!
1. Chinese Pickled Smashed Cucumbers
This is one of the common cold appetisers you’ll spot in most Chinese restaurants. Originally viewed as a “poor man’s meal” as the dish contains no meat and only small amounts of oil, it has become a popular palate cleanser over the years both in restaurants and at home (it’s so easy to make!). And of course, it is 100% vegan – the typical ingredients include cucumbers, sugar and salt, black vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, coriander, chilli peppers and a dash of sesame oil.
2. Ma Lan Tou With Chopped Dried Spiced Tofu
This traditional Shanghainese dish, sometimes called Ma Lan Xiang Gan, is comprised of finely chopped ma lan tou leaves and tiny cubes of fragrant spiced tofu. It is a cold and refreshing dish, often enjoyed in the summer months, and is loved for its texture and herby taste. Containing only ma lan tou, dried tofu, seasonings like salt, sugar and sesame oil, this dish is plant-based through and through.
3. Braised Kao Fu (Wheat Gluten) With Mushrooms
Kao fu is a form of wheat gluten or seitan that has been cooked in this way in Chinese cuisine for years. It is usually a side dish or appetiser that can be served both hot and cold, and it tastes a little nutty and resembles tofu with a chewy texture. Braised in a thick sweet soy sauce with different types of mushrooms – usually wood ear – it is packed with protein and minerals all coming from plant ingredients.
4. Stir-Fried Eggplant, Potatoes & Peppers
These three ingredients are known as the “three earthly bounties” in Shandong cuisine, and when tossed in a stir-fry, they make up one of the long-standing home dishes in Chinese food culture. Just chop some eggplants, slice potatoes and green peppers, coat them in cornstarch and sauté with garlic cloves, soy sauce and onion. It’s that simple!
5. Chinese Scallion Shanghai Noodles
Another super simple but timeless recipe that is completely plant-based is Shanghai stir-fried noodles with loads of scallion and tossed in a sesame-soy sauce. This Shanghainese dish can be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even a snack – it is an age-old humble dish with a surprising load of flavour.
6. Braised Bamboo Shoots
During the spring season, many Chinese families cook up tender spring bamboo shoots that are only available at that time of year. Try throwing in star anise, mushrooms and siu tong choi (a green variety of pak choi) for a great dish that pairs oh so well with freshly cooked jasmine rice. It’s also common to top it off with some chopped chili if you’re up for a bit of a kick.
7. Tiger Skin Fried Peppers
These green heaty peppers are marinated in Chinese black vinegar then thrown in an extremely hot wok until their skin is all blistered up, crinkly and the insides are bursting with flavour. Leaving the vegetable to shine on its own, this Szechuanese side dish is traditionally plant-based and is usually enjoyed with rice or a cold beer.
8. Hunan Steamed Eggplant
Made with the longer and thinner variety of eggplant that is common in Asia, which are sliced into perfect rectangular sticks and glazed in a delicious marinade, this is a classic dish that requires zero tweaking. It contains only vegan ingredients – eggplants, minced garlic, red chilli, spring onion, sesame oil, sweet soy sauce and rice vinegar – don’t forget the scallion and chopped peanuts topping.
9. Lo Han Jai (Buddha’s Delight)
This traditional vegetarian dish has featured in Chinese cuisine for many years thanks to the country’s strong Buddhist cultural roots and is comprised of braised bamboo shoots, arrowhead, fat choy, water chestnuts, lotus seeds, pressed tofu or bean curd sticks, and different types of fungus such as wood ear and black mushrooms. The dish gets its flavour from its rich broth-marinade of soy sauce, cooking wine, pickled cabbage, ginger, peanut oil and varied additional seasonings.
10. Vegetable Dumplings
We saved the best for last! Who doesn’t love a steaming hot bowl of veggie dumplings? While many (ok, most!) dumplings in Chinese cuisine are pork-based and sometimes contain shrimp and egg, there are also lots of veggie-packed dumplings in Shanghainese and Cantonese cuisine. Usually, they are filled with chopped pak choi, Chinese celery, diced fungus and jicama and sometimes rice noodles too! And you can have them in so many ways – fried, steamed, boiled, with soup noodles…the list is endless!
Lead image courtesy of Lazy Cat Kitchen.