The following essay is an excerpt from Hannah Che’s “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen.”
“Ai-ya, I didn’t think my daughter would become one of those hippie types,” I overheard my mother say to a friend over the phone. I had decided to go vegan my junior year of college, and determined to learn to cook for myself, I looked up meal plans and recipes on Pinterest, followed popular bloggers, bought cookbooks, and stocked my pantry with lentils and chickpea pasta. I packed overnight oats to school and invited friends over to my tiny Houston apartment to make vegan pizza and grain bowls on weekends. I even started a recipe blog, posting photos on Instagram of the meals I made.
But it was different back at home, sitting at our scratched walnut table as my mom busied about the kitchen, preparing food for the holidays. My parents cooked mostly Chinese meals—a spread of shared dishes to go with rice—and they couldn’t understand why I would forgo a special dish of expensive seafood, or a stir-fry that had ground meat or a few pork slivers. “Just pick around and eat the vegetables, at least you still get the flavor from the meat,” my mom offered.
Over the winter break, I was determined to convert my family to a plant-based diet. I talked about the horrors of factory farming and the environmental footprint of meat and dairy. I pulled out my arsenal of recipes: Thai curries, walnut-meat tacos, creamy cashew pastas, and quinoa burgers. My siblings liked them well enough, but my dad gingerly bit into one patty and refused to eat the rest. “I’m cooking duck for dinner,” he announced. For Lunar New Year, our family gathered to make pork dumplings, as we did every holiday. It was my favorite tradition, and I usually helped make the filling, but this time, my dad looked up as he kneaded dough and saw me watching from the side.
“Rongrong, you aren’t participating?” he asked. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that my decision to go vegan wasn’t just about food or even a personal choice. My parents were immigrants; food was the way they taught us about our roots; certain dishes were central not just to my family’s memories, but also connected us to a lifetime of people and occasions and places and times that went before and beyond me. I wondered if my commitment to eat more sustainably meant I was turning away from my culture. It’s impossible to separate who we are from what we eat, and animal products are deeply ingrained in the food traditions of most cultures. How do you remove yourself from these traditions without a fundamental sense of loss?
But as I tried re-creating my favorite childhood dishes, I began to realize how much of Chinese food was inherently plant-based. And I learned that vegetarian and vegan cooking is its own cuisine in China, a rich tradition that had existed for more than 2,000 years, motivated by the Buddhist tenets of compassionate eating. On my trip to visit relatives in China one summer, I ate at temple restaurants, plant-based lunch canteens, and buffets, astonished by the flavor and ingenuity of dishes like clay pot tofu skin and delicate layered soups made with mung beans and shiitake mushrooms. This cuisine was beautiful, alluringly delicious, and rich in history—I wanted to learn more.
So, just a few months after I finished graduate school, I packed my bags and moved to China to go to culinary school. I trained as a chef at the only professional vegetarian cooking program in the country.
Almost everyone at the school was a practicing Buddhist, and they treated me as an anomaly. Many of the cooking teachers were upasaka, having taken the highest vows a Buddhist layperson could commit to outside of becoming a monk or nun. “You aren’t vegetarian because of religious observation?” they asked me, and I admitted that no, I hadn’t even known of the Buddhist history of Chinese vegetarian cuisine until a few months ago. I felt like an imposter, but as we discussed our family backgrounds and talked about various trends in vegetarian cooking, I couldn’t help but feel gratified, relief at our mutual understanding welling inexplicably like a lump in my throat. These were Chinese people to whom I didn’t have to explain my eating choices or defend my cultural identity.
“…cooking vegetables is about preserving and building.”
Chef Wen was our head teacher, a short and wiry man with a gentle, weathered face and a temper in the kitchen. He had a favorite analogy. “Cooking vegetarian food isn’t just about removing all the meat,” he said. “You can’t cut off the wings of an airplane and call it a submarine.” It required an entirely different approach to thinking about flavor. Since the flavors of vegetables are subtle and their cell walls more delicate, cooking vegetables is about preserving and building.
The first day of class, we were taught the “three virtues and six tastes” (三德六味 sāndé liùwèi), a traditional set of guidelines for the head of the kitchen at a monastery, as he prepared meals for the community. I’d scribbled down a rough translation in my notebook: If the food provided is not sanitized and clean, it loses its pure virtue; if it is not refined and has tough, sinewy, or inedible parts, it loses its tender virtue, if it is not handled appropriately and prepared with judicious cooking and timing, it loses its harmonious virtue. When applied to the cook, pure ( 清淨qīngjìng) means cooking with pure intentions, to make it about the food, not about your ego. Tender ( 柔軟 róuruˇan) means refinement, gentleness, and restraint of heart—a cook should not be careless with kitchen equipment, hasty, or rough, but work with intention in each step. According to order (如法 rúfˇa) means planning dishes in harmony with what is available in season, and judiciously using the appropriate method of cooking to bring out the beauty and flavor of the vegetable.
I used to cook haphazardly—going through the motions while my mind was elsewhere, or racing to get food on the table as quickly as possible, or focusing so much on rigidly following a recipe and worrying about the end results that I wasn’t fully experiencing what I was cooking half the time. But in Chinese cooking, you can’t fire the wok until every element for the dish is washed, chopped, measured out, and ready at hand: the prep work is the most important part. Cooking mindfully isn’t dependent on externalities in the kitchen or on silence, but on sharpening your sensory attention and fully inhabiting your physical movements. “When you wash the rice, wash the rice, when you stir the soup, stir the soup,” Chef Wen once said, quoting a Zen master.
“But in Chinese cooking, you can’t fire the wok until every element for the dish is washed, chopped, measured out, and ready at hand: the prep work is the most important part.”
It meant noticing the weight of a radish in your hand as you prepared it, its smooth, marble-like heaviness, and smelling its spicy, sweet aroma as you sliced into it with your knife. I learned to focus on my breath while doing repetitive tasks like stirring and folding peanuts as they slowly heated in a wok, and giving my wholehearted attention to subtle feedback, like the sound of peppercorns popping in hot oil. I learned to respond to the food as it talked back to me, and to trust my instincts.
At the end of the day, cooking was not just working on food, but working on yourself and on others. “Vegetarian cooking represents the beauty of Chinese culture, not just because of the food, but because it engages with a tradition of respect, modesty, restraint, and compassion for all living things,” Chef Wen said. “As a vegetarian chef, you do not just practice cooking, but make cooking a practice.
Over the years, my dad has decided to cut most of the meat out of his diet for health reasons, and he’s always asking when I’m coming home so he can eat the food I cook. And unsurprisingly, my knowledge of Chinese culture has deepened. Becoming vegan didn’t alienate me from my heritage, as I’d feared, but actually motivated me to understand it even more.
Reprinted with permission from “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” by Hannah Che copyright © 2022. Photographs by Hannah Che. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.