Food & Culture
Book Excerpt: Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food
Hsiao-Ching Chou offers up an ode to vegetables in her second cookbook
By Introduction by Rob Smith December 7, 2020
Hsiao-Ching Chou’s second cook-book, ‘Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food,’ is a follow-up to her popular Chinese Soul Food and will hit shelves Jan. 15. Hsiao-Ching is known for her sold-out classes that have made Chinese cooking accessible to home cooks, but with the pandemic she has shifted to social media to share her recipes and tips.
As with all her work, Hsiao-Ching’s goal with ‘Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food; is to ground readers in everyday Chinese home cooking, but, at the end of the day, she simply wants more people to cook: “We all have to find ways to incorporate cooking into our days because it’s the gateway to some of the most meaningful experiences in life: The satisfaction of feeding your loved ones a home-cooked meal and the richness of sitting around the dinner table in conversation.”
Hsiao-Ching is a communications and marketing consultant in her “day job.” She is a former food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and won the Bert Greene Award from the International Association for Culinary Professionals for excellence in feature writing. She has appeared on national TV and radio shows and serves as chairperson of the James Beard Foundation’s cookbook committee, which administers the prestigious annual cookbook awards.
Here is an excerpt from her book.
Vegetables are essential in Chinese cooking. Whether a mound of stir-fried greens, a burbling clay pot of tofu and cabbage, or a side of spicy pickles, vegetable dishes are put together with as much thought as any meat or seafood dish. Even those who eat meat are biased toward having an abundance of vegetables. Many dishes include meat only as an accompaniment.
In Chinese culture, meat has always been considered a luxury because it’s expensive. During Lunar New Year, serving a broad selection of meats and seafood represents wealth, abundance, and good fortune. Historically, the advent of meat and seafood substitutes made from plant-based ingredients has meant that those who couldn’t afford meat or those who have chosen to be vegetarian for health or religious reasons could also share in the symbolism, especially when it comes to “lucky foods” served during the Lunar New Year reunion feast. Using bean curd and wheat gluten to create meat substitutes goes back to imperial China and has been around for over a thousand years.
For me, a meal is never complete without at least one vegetable dish. My produce drawers are always stocked with Chinese cabbage, baby bok choy, gai lan, Chinese mustard greens, yu choy, and a revolving cast of other familiar vegetables—carrots, celery, kale, lettuce, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, and such—that cater to our cravings.
At a moment’s notice—or in the time it takes to make a pot of rice—I can have a sumptuous meal on the table with platters of greens, eggplant, mushrooms, and tofu. Delicate, hearty, savory, pungent, and crunchy all coexist in their individuality and intersections. The diversity of vegetables and plant foods is dizzying.
In the Chinese language, the word
for “vegetables” is cai (also spelled tsai, choy, choi). It’s a broad term that covers a world of greens as a category, as well as the specific members of this succulent family: bok choy, gai choy, yu choy, qincai, ong choy, and so on. Cai is also
a general term for “dish”— as in “What dishes should we eat today?” or “What dishes should I cook today?”
I love the preciseness and expansiveness of the term cai: It means one thing and everything, so context is important for determining whether you’re referring to a specific vegetable or a meal. If you’re not used to such conciseness in language, it may signal confusion. To me, there’s freedom in this ability to shapeshift, which we certainly can extend to the versatility of the Chinese way with all forms of vegetables and plant foods.
When I talk about a way with vegetables, my intention is to convey an approach rather than rigid rules and recipes. The alchemy of a searing wok, a splash of oil, a mess of fresh greens, and a dash of soy sauce delivers a quintessential flavor that roots your palate in this approach. From that point of reference, a kaleidoscope of dazzling combinations can emerge at the twist of inspiration.
A recipe with specific amounts isn’t as important as understanding the nature of vegetables and the support characters that make them sing.
The way to cook vegetables, for me, is about exploring flavors without heroics at the stove. I remain firm in my belief that everyday cooking should be accessible and forgiving.
Dry-fried Brussels sprouts
This recipe is one of my favorite discoveries. Dry-fried green beans is a popular dish in many Chinese restaurants—and at home. When I make the green beans, I add a small amount of ground pork, which caramelizes with the aromatics to create flavorful bits that punctuate the beans. I wanted
to apply the same technique to Brussels sprouts and use diced shiitake mushrooms instead of pork. The mushrooms already have a distinct flavor that only amplifies in this preparation. I like this dish with rice any night of the week, but it can also be a star side at, say, Thanksgiving dinner.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound Brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water, divided
2 stalks green onions, trimmed and finely
1 tablespoon peeled and finely minced fresh
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely minced
4 medium or 6 small dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water for at least 1 hour to reconstitute, and cut into ¼-inch dice 1½ tablespoons soy sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
To trim the Brussels sprouts, cut off the stem end and peel away any rough outer leaves. Set each sprout on the flat side and slice ¼ inch thick.
Preheat a wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from the surface. Add the 2 tablespoons oil and heat for a few seconds until the oil shimmers. Add the Brussels sprouts and stir-fry briskly for 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon of the water and continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes more, or until the edges of the sprouts start to char. Turn off the heat and scoop the sprouts into a medium bowl. Set aside while you make the sauce.
Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the wok over medium heat for about 5 seconds. Add the green onions, ginger, garlic, and mushrooms. Stir-fry for 10 seconds, or until the aromatics become fragrant. Add the Brussels sprouts and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the soy sauce, the remaining 1 tablespoon water, and sugar, and stir-fry actively for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the sauce caramelizes. When all the Brussels sprouts look sufficiently coated with the sauce and are well combined with the aromatics, turn off the heat and transfer to a serving bowl.