• INTRODUCTION •
Attractive appearance, pleasing fragrance, satisfying flavor—Chinese dishes have been measured by these three major criteria for centuries. Other important considerations are the texture and the intrinsic healthfulness of the food—any and all auspicious connotations are extrinsic added boons. The harmonious blending of these distinctive elements has made Chinese cuisine a veritable feast for the senses and an enduring source of sustenance. While many of China’s ancient inventions—paper, moveable type, and the compass, to name a few—have changed the course of history, its most popular contribution to the modern world is arguably Chinese food, enjoyed in restaurants and homes in every corner of the globe.
Now vegans throughout the planet can indulge their passion using The Chinese Vegan Kitchen. How is a vegan diet in China possible? It’s easy. As the world’s largest producer of fruits and
vegetables, grains such as rice and wheat, legumes such as mung beans and peanuts, and the inventor of tofu more than two thousand years ago, China boasts an impressive array of meat-free, egg-free, and dairy-free dishes that is highly conducive to healthy, plant-based eating. Additionally, the effect of Buddhist vegetarian practices upon Chinese culinary art is apparent in specific foods, namely seitan, the quintessential mock meat, which, like tofu, originated in ancient China. From tasty appetizers to mouthwatering desserts, The Chinese Vegan Kitchen is a comprehensive collection of easy yet authentic recipes from the Middle Kingdom’s various regional cuisines—such as Cantonese, Hunanese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Sichuanese—that you can prepare in your own kitchen with ingredients readily available in both standard and Western Asian supermarkets.
Diverse Regional Cuisines
In the Western world, it used to be that Chinese food called to mind a single, homogenous cuisine packaged in cute pint-sized containers known as Chinese take-out. These days, with the proliferation of Asian food markets, TV food shows, and Internet food blogs, it’s become increasingly obvious that there is much, much more to Chinese cuisine than egg rolls and chow mein. Moreover, it stands to reason that a country as large and as geographically and ethnically diverse as China would naturally have a wide range of culinary styles. While there are various ways of classifying these regional cuisines, an extensive variety of flavors, ingredients, cooking methods, and cultural influences has evolved over the centuries to distinguish the north, south, east, and west schools of Chinese cooking.
The northern school of cooking is largely defined by the refined cooking of Beijing (also known as Mandarin or Peking cuisine) and its former palace kitchens; the classic style of Shandong, where the wok is said to have originated; and the hearty, cold-weather food of Tianjin and cities bordering Russia such as Harbin, where a version of borscht made with red cabbage is quite popular. While the areas in the south, east, and west favor rice, the north is China’s bread basket—wheat-based noodles, dumplings, steamed buns, breads, and pancakes are popular fare. Foods are typically flavored with the liberal use of vinegar, garlic, scallions, leeks, and salt, and tend to be oily. The preferred methods of northern cooking are boiling, steaming, and stir-frying.
The food of the Guangdong and Hainan regions largely define the southern regional school of cooking. The Cantonese food from Guangzhou, located in the subtropical province of Guangdong, is
the most commonly defined cuisine outside of China—most Chinese restaurants in the Western world feature Cantonese derivatives. Cantonese food is known for its exotic ingredients and fresh, natural flavors.
Fermented black beans, hoisin sauce, and oyster sauce—available in a vegetarian form made with soy sauce and mushrooms—are popular condiments in a Cantonese kitchen. Steaming and stirfrying are the two primary Cantonese cooking techniques. Hainan’s tropical island cuisine, while strongly tied to Guangdong’s, combines special local characteristics with milder seasonings that make it lighter. Steaming, braising, and boiling are popular Hainanese cooking methods.
The regions of Jiangsu, Zhenjiang, and Shanghai largely define the eastern school of cooking, which is typically characterized as sweet and oily. Sugar, vinegars, and wines are frequently employed to create this sweetness as well as to impart subtlety of flavors. Salt is another common ingredient, particularly in the dishes of Jiangsu, which are often described as salty-sweet. Zhenjiang is famous for its fragrant black vinegar, a popular condiment throughout China. Because of Shanghai’s status as the world’s largest port and its sizeable international population, a variety of dishes with French and Russian roots dominate menus, as well as dishes originating from China’s other three regional cuisines. Favored cooking methods in eastern cooking include steaming, stewing, braising, and frying.
Sichuan and Hunan cuisines are the most well known in China’s western regional school of cooking, with Yunnan cuisine increasingly gaining recognition. Both Sichuan and Hunan cuisines derive their notably spicy flavors from the use of chili peppers, both fresh and dried, and the famous Sichuan peppercorn—which is not really a pepper, but a dried berry. Also common in Sichuanese cooking are garlic, ginger, and star anise; broad-bean chili paste is a staple seasoning. Hunan cuisine’s liberal usen of fresh chili peppers makes it even spicier than Sichuan’s; it also tends to be oilier, fresher, and simpler in taste. Pickling, salting, drying, and smoking are used extensively for food preservation in the hot, humid climate of both provinces.
Stir-frying, steaming, and braising are common cooking techniques in Sichuan, while stewing, stir-frying, braising, baking, pot-roasting, and smoking are popular in Hunan. The cuisine of Yunnan Province is a unique blend of the different cooking and preparation styles of its numerous ethnic minority groups with the spicy foods of neighboring Sichuan Province. Mushrooms and flowers, namely chrysanthemums, figure prominently in local dishes, while clay pot stewing is a popular cooking method.
Hot in Hunan
Hot, spicy, sweet, sour, bold, beautiful—Hunan cuisine embodies all the enticing facets of Chinese cooking. For me, it also conjures up home—I lived in Changsha, Hunan’s modern and bustling capital of 7 million-plus people and skyscrapers, for eleven exciting months. (Indeed, as of this writing, plans to construct the world’s tallest building by 2013 are awaiting final approval!) Yet not far outside the city limits, a land of gentle hills and fertile valleys morphs into view, blessed by a subtropical monsoon climate, promising an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables the whole year through.
In fact, Hunan is China’s third-largest producer of oranges, second-largest producer of tea, and numberone producer of rice—a veritable embarrassment of riches by global standards. Ask the locals what Hunan’s greatest agricultural accomplishment is, however, and most of them will proudly answer it’s the hot chili peppers, which grow prolifically throughout the province. After all, what would Hunan cuisine—or Chinese cuisine, for that matter—be without them? Known for its exquisitely hot dishes, Hunan cuisine is even spicier—or ―la‖—and hotter than Sichuan cuisine, to which it is often compared.
It is also purer and more simple, relying almost exclusively on fresh, not dried, chili peppers. While the peppers may burn your palate, they load your system with more vitamin C per gram than citrus fruit and more vitamin A than carrots—and contain compounds that can kill harmful bacteria in the digestive system to boot. Blasts of capsaicin, the active ingredient found only in the
pepper family that causes the feeling of spicy heat, release endorphins, the body’s biological painkillers, for a natural high. Common physiological effects also include a metabolic boost and heavy
sweating—explaining the paradox of how hot chilies can actually cool the body and, as a result, why they are so popular in tropical climates. To the uninitiated, Hunan cuisine is an intoxicating
contradiction of pleasure and pain. To the initiated, like me, food simply doesn’t get any better. Like it or not, it will always take your breath away!