In The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, chef, writer and photographer Hannah Che draws on the more than 2,000-year-old tradition of vegetarian cooking in China
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Our cookbook of the week is The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Stuffed cabbage rolls, mapo tofu and vegetarian roast goose.
It’s hard for chef, writer and photographer Hannah Che to pinpoint the moment she knew her career would be in food.
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Even when she began writing the proposal for her cookbook debut, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen (Appetite by Random House, 2022), she was motivated by understanding the rich, more than 2,000-year-old tradition of vegetarian and vegan cooking in China. Not making a career change from music.
But it all came together a few months after Che graduated with a master’s degree in piano performance. Instead of doing a doctorate — a common next step for pianists — she moved from the United States to China to go to culinary school in Guangzhou.
“That was when I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m really doing this,’” says Che, laughing. “Going full on into this very different career. And really jumping into the world of cooking professionally, which is very different from home cooking, too.”
It all started with home cooking for Che, who began sharing recipes on her blog, The Plant-Based Wok, after going vegan in 2015. She now works in restaurants full-time in Portland, Ore., but the type of homestyle dishes she makes for herself fill the pages of her cookbook.
Four years ago, she wouldn’t have expected to become a chef, but it’s been an exciting change, Che says. And though at first, music and cooking seemed like disparate disciplines, she now sees similarities.
“Cooking is an art form. There’s a lot of creativity in it, but there’s also a lot of technique,” Che explains. “In music, it’s the exact same thing. You have that technique, the practice, the hours you have to put into it. But then at the end of the day, it is serving this greater purpose of expressing yourself through food and then giving other people an experience.”
Cooking and music also share a similar backstage atmosphere, she adds. The chaos of the kitchen bumping up against the stage-like serenity of the dining room. “I started to see all these things, and I thought, ‘Oh, okay. It’s maybe not so strange that I decided to go into this other career that is actually very similar to music when you think of it in those terms.’”
When Che went vegan as a university student — leaning heavily into overnight oats, smoothie bowls and avocado toast — she wondered if her diet would create distance from her culture. As it turns out, it drove her to get to know it better.
Training as a chef, living and travelling in China and Taiwan, learning more about the history, techniques and traditions of Chinese vegetarian cooking has only deepened her understanding.
Through it all, Che has realized just how much of Chinese cuisine is plant-based by nature. (The accompanying recipe for mapo tofu is one of the few veganized versions of meat dishes in the book.)
“Learning about Chinese cooking in a systematic way was really helpful. Because in culinary school, the way the curriculum was structured was that you get a bird’s-eye view on what Chinese cooking is,” she says.
“It’s different if you go to, let’s say, a culinary school in Europe or in America or elsewhere. It’s very much focused on French cooking, a lot of the time.”
Chinese cooking is dependent on knife skills, Che underscores. Preparation of ingredients — especially for vegetarian dishes — is critical. Whether slivering or slicing, all ingredients must be a consistent size, so they cook at the same time. Then come the aromatics and seasonings.
Che was familiar with these elements of technique from watching her mother cook. But at culinary school, she learned how these methods could be applied to different kinds of ingredients and flavour profiles.
Her eyes were opened to the many forms Chinese cooking can take — from Cantonese, “which is a little milder, a little sweeter,” to Northern, “which is a lot heavier with flavour” — as well as the ways in which the cuisine is shifting.
“Chinese cooking isn’t just this traditional thing that has always been like this and will stay the same,” says Che. “It also is changing. And chefs are innovating, and people are developing new ways of cooking and thinking about their food.”
Seeing this change is exciting, she adds, because so many plant-based foods originated in China long ago.
Soy milk, tofu, tofu skin (yuba) and wheat gluten (seitan), for example, were developed as frugal proteins and introduced to Japan, Korea and Vietnam by Buddhist monks. Many grain and vegetable dishes also came about as a result of history and economy.
Just think of the Chinese dishes we know now. All of that was influenced by vegetarianism, and Buddhist vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism in China is often associated with an older, traditional way of eating, Che explains. But today, more people are starting to embrace plant-based foods outside of a Buddhist context.
“A lot of the cooks now are thinking, ‘How do I use these ingredients? How do I use these traditional dishes?’ But change them in a way where the food is not necessarily so aesthetic — aesthetic like temple cooking, temple food. But more like something that’s very flavourful and very accessible to every eater.
“And because there are so many building blocks — or so many ingredients and seasonings that are in regional Chinese cooking — there just seems to be endless possibilities of creating vegan or vegetarian meals.”
Che structured The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by plant type and ingredient category (with chapters such as leafy greens, tofu and mushrooms), and includes essays on the history of vegetarian eating in China, and some of the craftspeople who are carrying on this culinary tradition.
When it came to deciding on the more than 100 recipes to feature in the book, it was important to Che that they be doable. It just so happened that many of the dishes stem from her childhood in Detroit, Mich., where she was born and raised.
“I could have focused the book on more complicated, temple-style food, because there are so many dishes that are in that vein,” she says. “It ended up being these really flavourful, delicious dishes that I would see my mom make or I would see other home cooks make that aren’t really complicated at all.”
Before she went to culinary school, Che hadn’t realized how universal vegetarianism was in China. “Motivated by the Buddhist tenets of compassionate eating,” it dates back to the Xia dynasty (2070–1600 BCE), she writes. Buddhist temples were the country’s first public restaurants. This way of eating shaped Chinese cuisine as a whole by encouraging the use of chopsticks, for example, and not having knives at the table.
As a result, all the chopping is done ahead of time, so bite-size pieces can be eaten with chopsticks. “Just think of the Chinese dishes we know now. All of that was influenced by vegetarianism, and Buddhist vegetarianism,” says Che, adding that the evolution continues.
“The coolest thing is it’s all connected to these same values and philosophies that people had 2,000 years ago. But you’re seeing it develop. And while it’s developing, it’s also changing and influencing the rest of the food in China.”
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