PITTSBURGH – Hannah Che was a college junior studying classical musical performance when she decided to forgo the traditional Chinese cuisine she’d grown up on, and go vegan.
Struck by Jonathan Safran Foer’s graphic descriptions of factory farming in his seminal book “Eating Animals, “It just completely changed the way I thought about food, and the relationship with food and culture,” the 26-year-old recalls, “and the implications of what we eat for our health and environment.”
Little could she have imagined that the vegan recipes she started posting on Instagram to showcase her photography would become so popular, it not only altered her career path from concert pianist to plant-based chef, but kickstarted her journey as a cookbook author.
“The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, $35) features more than 100 simple recipes that transform frugal ingredients such as tofu, root vegetables, mushrooms and leafy greens into can’t-wait-to-eat dishes that Che says are actually “at the heart of Chinese cuisine.”
China has the world’s largest Buddhist population, and the Buddhist tenets of compassionate eating, she explains in the book’s forward, mean the country enjoys a 2,000-year-old tradition of plant-based cooking. More recently, the revival of traditional vegetarian cuisine paired with the growing influence of the green lifestyle in the West has led to an explosion of vegetarian restaurants throughout the country — today, Beijing alone has more than 100 vegetarian restaurants, compared to just two in the late 1990s.
Most meals Che herself ate as a teenager were largely vegetarian, though not intentionally so, because Chinese home cooking is largely focused on grains and plants centered around stir-frys, she says, with only slivers or chunks of meat added for flavor.
“Even the word for a cooked dish in Chinese — shúcài — is the same for vegetable,” she says, because that’s how you build a meal, with combinations of vegetables.
The perception that Chinese food is meat- and/or fish-heavy, she adds, is because when people dine out at Chinese restaurants, they’re usually celebrating and “they don’t want to eat what they eat at home,” she says.
From concert pianist to chef
Che’s world revolved around music until her food photos on Instagram found an audience hungry for authentic Chinese food. Home schooled in Cranberry Township, Penn., with dreams of being a concert pianist, the Detroit native performed with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra during high school, and her music has also been heard on The Saturday Light Brigade, WISR-AM Butler, and Pittsburgh’s classical music radio station WQED-FM.
All through college and grad school at The Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, “music was my world, what I knew I was going to do,” says Che, who now lives in Portland, Ore.
What’s funny about her cookbook, which was edited by culinary rock star Francis Lam, was she didn’t really cook for herself until she became vegan in college and was like, “OK, now what do I eat?” But given her background — her father, David, is Chinese and her mother, Sarah, is a Korean who grew up in China — it’s not surprising she gravitated toward Chinese home cooking, even if at first she was making and posting pics of other people’s recipes for vegan salads, grain bowls and pasta.
It was only later on, as she increased her repertoire of dishes, that she tried to recreate the foods she remembered from her childhood and posted the recipes on her blog, “The Plant-Based Wok,” and social channels.
Developing those recipes, she says, proved more difficult than expected because one of her primary sources — her mother — doesn’t use recipes when she cooks, and a lot of the traditional recipes she found trawling Chinese search engines weren’t very exact. “It is a taste-as-you-go and eyeball-it type of cooking, but I had to write it down in a way those not familiar with Chinese cooking could replicate.”
So the summer after grad school, in 2019, fueled by the success of her blog and with her parents’ blessing, she enrolled in China’s only professional vegetarian cooking school.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the number of her fans, she’d already been approached by a publisher to write a cookbook at that point. “But I was too busy and I didn’t really have the training,” she says. What she really wanted was to do more research in China. Still, a seed had been planted.
By the time she graduated from the Guangzhou Vegetarian Culinary School just north of Hong Kong in 2020, she was ready.
As one of just two women in her class of 12, and the only non-native Chinese, Che admits she had no idea what she was getting into. All the classes were taught in Mandarin and, along with lectures and countless hours in front of a sizzling wok, students were responsible for scrubbing the kitchen and dorm clean each day. “It was a big culture shock,” she says, adding, “Their main concern was ‘make sure you can survive!’”
Most of the book was written in Taipei, Taiwan, where she moved during the early months of the pandemic, “because they seemed to have COVID under control,” and cooked professionally for a year. Many of the recipes were tested and photographed by Che in her mom’s kitchen in Indiana.
In developing the cookbook, Che decided to draw recipes from her culinary experiences in Asia and at home, instead of highlighting the regional cuisines of the country. She also groups the chapters according to ingredients rather than type of dish (greens, tofu, mushrooms etc.), with personal stories and bits of Chinese history sprinkled throughout.
Because many of the recipes employ the same cooking technique — stir-frying in a wok — they can be modified to whatever is available. A favorite this time of year, for instance, is a salty-sweet braised winter squash with fermented black beans. You’ll also find plant-based versions of traditional Sichuan dishes like mapo tofu and kung pao chicken (made with mushrooms).
“I think of it as a template to inspire people,” she says, “with the flavors, seasonings and vegetables you have around you.”
Gorgeously photographed, the cookbook also includes an in-depth introduction to Chinese ingredients and basic equipment, and a chapter on stocks, condiments and pickles.
“I just want people to be excited about new ways to approach familiar vegetables, learn about the culture and then make it to share it with the people they love,” she says.
Che had so many recipes to choose from, she says a second — or even third — cookbook could soon be in the works. She already knows she wants to return to China to do more research on tofu.
As for her music career? She might go back to it in some capacity but, for now, she’s completely happy cooking.
“When I think back, it’s funny, because the art and craft of cooking reminds me of music in a weird way, because it’s all about creativity and technique.”
Saucy and silky, and wonderfully aromatic, this spicy tofu dish is made vegan by using fermented black beans and shiitake mushrooms instead of the more traditional ground beef or pork. Sichuan peppercorns give the dish its famed numbing sensation on the lips.
4 or 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
14 to 16 ounces firm tofu, cut into 3/4 -inch cubes
1 tablespoon potato starch
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons whole Sichuan peppercorns
5 dried red chilies, cut into 3/4 -inch segments and seeds shaken out
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon fermented black beans, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons Sichuan chili bean paste
1 teaspoon ground Sichuan chile or chili flakes
1 cup unsalted stock of any kind or water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced, for garnish
1/2 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns
Soak the mushrooms in hot water for 30 minutes to rehydrate, then drain, stem and finely chop.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Reduce heat to low, add tofu cubes and simmer gently for 10 minutes to refresh the tofu’s favors and firm up.
Make a slurry by combining the starch with 1/4 cup cold water in a small bowl. Stir until smooth and set aside.
Heat wok over medium heat until a bead of water evaporates immediately upon contact. Add oil, swirling to coat sides of the wok. Reduce heat to low. Add whole Sichuan peppercorns and dried chilies and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes to infuse the oil with flavor, until the chiles are slightly darkened in color and aromatic. Do not burn them. Remove from heat. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the spices, leaving behind the aromatic oil.
Return wok to medium-high heat and add mushrooms, ginger and garlic. Fry for 1 minutes, until mushrooms are beginning to brown, then scoot them up one side of the wok.
Add fermented black beans, chili bean paste and ground chile and stir-fry briefly for 10 seconds to release their fragrance. Pour in the stock, add sugar and soy sauce. Bring liquid to a boil.
Lift the tofu cubes from the hot water with a slotted spoon and place gently in wok. To keep them from breaking, don’t stir; instead, move the wok in a swirling motion, shifting the sauce as it bubbles under the tofu. Bring to a full boil.
Give the starch slurry a stir and drizzle about one-third into the wok, swirling the wok gently to mix slurry in as the liquid thickens. Repeat this 2 more times, until sauce is glossy and clings to the tofu, then remove wok from heat and transfer everything to a serving dish. Sprinkle with scallions and ground peppercorns (these provide the tingly mouthfeel) and serve.
BRAISED WINTER SQUASH WITH
Winter squash is cooked with fermented black beans and garlic until it’s soft and buttery in this seasonal dish. Any firm-fleshed winter squash works well; I used butternut squash.
To make scallion oil, cook 12 chopped scallions in 1 cup oil over medium-high heat in a wok, stirring constantly, until scallions start to darken and have a toasted aroma. Strain oil through a fine-mesh sieve set over a heat-proof bowl, using a spoon to squeeze out any remaining oil from the scallions.
1 pound winter squash
2 tablespoons scallion or vegetable oil
4 or 5 red chilies, snipped into 1/2 -inch pieces and seeds shaken out
1 tablespoons fermented black beans, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup unsalted stock or water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Ground white pepper
1 scallion, green part only, thinly sliced for garnish
Peel and core the squash and cut into 1 1/2 -inch wedges, then cut the wedges into pieces 1/2 -inch thick and 1 1/2 -inches wide; you should have about 3 cups.
Heat a wok over high heat and add the scallion oil, swirling to coat the sides. Add dried chiles and stir-fry until they begin to darken in color, about 10 seconds. Add fermented black beans and garlic and let sizzle until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add squash pieces and stir them around the wok to pick up all the fragrant oil, then pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Season with sugar and salt, then cover, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until squash has absorbed most of the liquid and is tender enough to pierce with a chopstick, 4-5 minutes.
Uncover and taste for salt and sugar; adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove from heat, stir in sesame oil and a dash of white pepper, scatter scallions on top, and serve.
BLANCHED SPINACH WITH SESAME SAUCE
This tasty side dish comes together in almost the same time it takes to chop the peanuts for the garnish. Look for sturdy stemmed spinach; bagged baby spinach will melt away when blanched.
1 pound spinach, well rinsed and drained
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons crushed peanuts, toasted pine nuts or sesame seeds
Fresh red chile, thinly sliced, for garnish
Bring a wok or large pot of water to boil.
When water reaches a rolling boil, add 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil and half the spinach and blanch until vibrant green and tender, 30-40 seconds. Remove spinach from water with a skimmer or slotted spoon and spread out on colander to drain. Bring water back to boil, add remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil and repeat with the remaining spinach.
In small bowl, combine sesame paste, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, salt and sesame oil. Add just enough water to thin the sauce to a pourable consistency.
When spinach is cool enough to handle, gently press out excess water so it’s not sopping wet. Lay out pieces on a cutting board and cut into 3-inch lengths. Pile spinach in a serving dish, use spoon to drape the sesame sauce on top, garnish with crushed peanuts and sliced red chile and serve.