A fresh look at traditional Chinese cuisinePublished on September 30, 2022

Photo by: Elizabeth Che

When thinking of Chinese food, the phrase ‘plant-based’ might not spring to mind, but Chef Hannah Che is working to change that. In her debut cookbook — published in September, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, she shares over a hundred fresh, flavourful recipes that showcase a blend of ancient traditions and modern interpretation.

You explain that food has always been central to many of your family traditions. Were you an eager or reluctant participant in the kitchen as a child? Both. I am the oldest daughter, so it felt like it was my role to help my mom make meals. But I came to love cooking with her and also with my dad. I progressed from peeling garlic to creating little menus and preparing dinner for us all, starting when I was about 10. I feel like, as a family, we were always in the kitchen.

What made you shift to a plant-based diet while in college? I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which taught me about factory farming and the environmental devastation that large-scale agriculture is causing. It opened my eyes to food as something broader than what we eat — it connects us and affects the world. After this wake-up moment, I chose to shift to plant-based eating for health, environmental, and ethical reasons.

What aspects of vegan cuisine resonated with you? I noticed early on that I was being creative and much more excited about food once I became vegan. I started exploring other culinary traditions, like plant-based Thai and Mediterranean cuisine. Being vegan was kind of freeing — I could experiment and found it easier in some ways, just playing with all sorts of different ingredients as I looked up vegan recipes online and in cookbooks.

Were you concerned that becoming vegan might alienate you from your heritage? I worried that I might not be able to participate in certain cooking or eating traditions and might miss out on the little experiences that you share around the table as a family. But I realized there are so many dishes I can enjoy, and my journey meant we had some great conversations about food we wouldn’t otherwise have had.
When I went to cooking school in China, it was validating to learn that plant-based eating is a long-standing tradition in Chinese cuisine and accepted as a matter-of-fact part of their lifestyle.

You have a master’s degree in piano performance. Do you see a connection between that discipline and being a chef? I love this question. I learned that cooking professionally is very much about practice and also performance which reflects what I was doing as a pianist. Practice is about building technique through repetition, which allows you to develop your craft. But it’s not just mechanical — there are elements of artistry and creativity. In food and music, I get to infuse my background, heritage, and sensibilities to tell the story I want to tell. A restaurant kitchen is just like the backstage bustle before a performance, and the food gets taken on stage for those who have gathered to enjoy the experience.

How has your cooking changed since you first embarked on your vegan journey? I am definitely a better cook. I had to do a lot of research. I used a lot more ingredients before, and now my cooking has become more refined and simpler, not overcomplicating things like I used to do. I enjoy simple, nourishing, and delicious dishes, which I’ve included in the book.

What do you hope people will gain from your cookbook? I hope people will learn about new ingredients and new ways of using certain vegetables and that they enjoy sharing their creations with their loved ones. There are some beginner-friendly recipes, but lots are geared for people who like to cook and are ready to explore new flavours and techniques to expand their knowledge. I also hope they can connect to the stories I share of my own experiences.

What tips can you offer people looking to decode Chinese restaurant menus to locate great vegetarian/vegan dishes? There are many delicious plant-based dishes on most Chinese restaurant menus. Northern Chinese cuisine, in particular, features many hearty vegetable dishes; there’s always a seasonal green on the menu, and Three Treasures of the Earth (made with potatoes, eggplant, and peppers) is a superb classic dish. Keep your eyes open for dishes made with tofu skin — it’s a thin layer of soybean protein that is soft, chewy, and very satisfying to eat.

Learn more about Hannah and her cookbook at theplantbasedwok.com

Hannah’s picks

Here are a few key ingredients for preparing vegetarian or vegan Chinese food:

  • Vegetarian hoisin and oyster sauce
  • Chinkiang black vinegar
  • Rice vinegar
  • Shaoxing wine
  • Toasted sesame oil
  • Chili oil
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms
  • Dried red chiles
  • Star anise pods
  • Whole Sichuan peppercorns

Local Love

While most Chinese and Asian-fusion restaurant menus include a good selection of vegetable dishes, here are a few spots in Ottawa that are well known for their vegetarian/vegan offerings:

  • Harbin (Kanata)
  • So Good (Chinatown and New Edinburgh)
  • Asian Stars (Nepean)
  • Wei’s Noodle House (Centretown)
  • Bambu (Hunt Club)

Paula Roy

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