Chinese meat demand overtook that of the United States in 1992, and according to the Earth Policy Institute, the Chinese were eating more than double the amount of meat that Americans were consuming last April.
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Traditionally, Chinese cuisine demanded far less meat than today’s Western diets as it was often used sparingly for stocks and sauces, as flavoring or as garnish to add texture to veggie-based dishes. Meat, especially pork, has always signified wealth and thus, with rising incomes, Mainlanders in China have wholeheartedly embraced a meat-heavy diet to demonstrate success. Pork and also fish are particularly important at business meals, as conspicuous consumption is said to “give face,” or demonstrate prestige and respect, to guests.
Chefs teaching classic Chinese vegetarian recipes
Not all Chinese are moving in this direction, though. I recently attended a monthly cooking class hosted at Tianchu Miaoxiang organized by Sixth Step Buddhist Retreat, a program that invites Beijing residents to spend a weekend in nature, meditating and learning about the Buddhist lifestyle.
Each month, free classes are organized to help residents learn how to cook non-meat dishes using seasonal ingredients. This time, Chef Tian, a Sichuanese chef, taught us to cook with mushrooms, eggplant and Chinese yam, known in Mandarin as “shanyao” 山药 This tuber is grown in areas surrounding Beijing and throughout northern China.
Before winter comes to an end, head to your local Chinatown or Asian specialty food shops and take advantage of these two (translated) recipes.
I included the Chinese ingredient names for rare items so you can show this to the shopkeeper, assuming s/he can read Chinese characters.
Faux Coral Fish Rolls (珊瑚鱼卷)
The original recipe suggests imitation fish 素鱼一条 but I don’t like to cook with imitation meats and moreover this will be hard to find outside of Greater China.
For the fish rolls:
1 package tofu skins 豆腐皮
1 kilogram shitake mushrooms 鲜香菇
1 kilogram winter bamboo 冬笋
1 medium-sized carrot 胡萝卜
1 kilogram eryngii mushrooms 杏鲍菇 (or any other type of mushroom you enjoy)
1 bunch coriander 香菜
½ green and red bell pepper each 青红椒
1 celery stalk 芹菜(for garnish)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder (non-meat bullion works) 蘑菇精
Optional: 1 can of imitation ham 素火腿 (can be bought at Chinese shops)
1. Cut the tofu skins into squares about 3×3 inches (these will be used like taco shells).
2. Julienne the shitake, bamboo, carrot and eryngii.
3. Separate the coriander leaves from the stems and save both.
4. Thinly slice the bell peppers and if you’d like, the imitation ham.
5. Take the celery and slice thinly length-wise; flute the tail.
6. Steep all ingredients in water until ready to use (the celery tails will curl).
7. Take all ingredients out of the water and layer atop the tofu skins. Roll the tofu skins up (like a soft taco or burrito), then tie closed with the coriander stems; set aside.
8. Microwave the tofu rolls for 1 minute.
For the sauce:
3 grams oil
Minced ginger to taste
10 grams ketchup
5 grams tomato sauce
10 grams sugar
8 grams white vinegar 白醋
½ cup of water
1. In a wok, heat the oil and cook the ginger until fragrant, then add the ketchup, tomato sauce until bubbling then add sugar and white vinegar; cook until the sugar melts and add a ½ cup of water until it boils.
2. Take the boiled tomato sauce and pour atop the micro-waved rolls; use the bell pepper strips and fluted celery to garnish.
XO Sauce Eggplant Sticks (XO 茄条)
Serves 8 to 10 as an amuse-bouche, canapé or appetizer
2 Asian eggplants (the long variety not the round one), sliced into sticks (the size of French fries will do)
2grams minced ginger
XO sauce (a fermented and flavorful fish paste available at any Asian goods food shop; as it’s usually made with shrimp or fish, if you are vegan ask for 素XO浆)
2 grams garlic oil (you can make this by adding a few garlic heads to vegetable oil and letting it sit)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder
8 to 10 narrow cocktail glasses
1. Place the eggplant on a microwave-safe plate and cover with plastic wrap; microwave for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, place the cooked eggplant, ginger, garlic oil, salt, and mushroom powder together and mix together until ingredients are distributed evenly.
3. Spoon the eggplant mixture into the cocktail glasses and press down.
4. Spoon XO sauce atop the mixture, garnish with the coriander leaves leftover from the tofu rolls.
Crispy Chinese Yam (酥山药)
200 grams Chinese yam
Tempura powder (to coat)
Spiced salt (a dash)
Green and red bell pepper, minced (for garnish)
1. Cut the yam into ½-inch slices and blanch in boiling water briefly before dropping into cold water and leaving until ready to use again.
2. Pour oil into a wok until it is about 2 inches deep and heat until 250 F (or the surface is starting to undulate).
3. Take the yam slices and drop into the tempura powder until evenly coated, then drop into the oil and deep fry until the exterior turns a golden yellow; remove with chopsticks or a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to let dry.
4. Drop the minced red and green pepper and drop into the wok with the remaining oil, fry until fragrant and then add the fried yam slices, turning over in the oil until evenly cooked. 5. Sprinkle with spiced salt.
6. Remove with slotted spoon onto plate; eat immediately.
Top photo: Eggplants in cups. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein