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Authentic Chinese Cooking Is Easy

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

“Bring condiments,” everyone told us when they heard about our upcoming trip. “Northern Chinese cuisine is bland and boring.”

A friend of mine went on a tour of Chinese medical colleges as part of a lecture series, and I decided to tag along for two weeks. Luckily, we found these naysayers to be quite mistaken as we embarked on our cultural and culinary journey through this ancient region. We stopped at vegetarian noodle shops, ‘snack’ stands, and food kiosks in railway stations and found the “food of the people” was fresh, hot, and served more for the natural taste of the food than for creative spicing. The Northern China taste profile in winter is a combination of dark soy sauce, rice wine and vinegar, miso, garlic, and sesame oil — very warming, very homey, and very tasty. We could have left the mustard packets at home!

Since we were guests of the colleges, we had many chances to speak with professors, students, and their relatives, who introduced us to ‘authentic’ Chinese cuisine. When we visited in their homes, we found the food ingredients were generally purchased for the meal. Because lunch was usually eaten at work or school, breakfast and dinner offerings were quick and simple preparations of fresh vegetables and noodles or rice with the most common condiments, salt and dried hot peppers; common seasonings were minced celery, onions, and carrots. Cooking oils were ‘vegetable oil,’ a blend of regional vegetable oils, for everyday dishes and sesame seed oil for special dishes.

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When asked what a typical day’s menu was, the university students in Beijing and Shanghai listed leftover rice, fried or microwaved with pickled vegetables, and coffee for breakfast. They may also have a glass of juice or a fresh orange or tangerine. For lunch, they grabbed hot noodles in broth, which contains steaming water with some onions and celery for variety, or brought cold noodles or steamed rice cakes from home. If they lived at home, they ate a hot dinner, such as sweet-and-sour tofu with hot pepper cabbage or fried rice with onions, garlic, and minced vegetables. They also ate stir-fried rice with peas, corn, and tofu skin, which is made by skimming the top layer formed when cooking soybean milk. Available in fresh, frozen, or dried sheets, tofu skin is very chewy in texture and concentrates soy flavor. Other students purchased roasted white potatoes or steamed bread buns from a food stall rather than having to cook them at home.

Desserts were not very common but could include fresh or canned fruit and perhaps some walnuts or sunflower seeds. We were in Northern China during the Spring Festival, and farmers’ markets and food stalls were crammed with hothouse strawberries, lychees, kumquats, and many varieties of persimmon, including an ultra-sweet version no bigger than a cherry tomato. Snacks or treats included sunflower seeds, taro, or potato chips — lots of salt, not a lot of sweet.

Dairy, formerly not much of an issue in China, was becoming one. Baskin Robbins and American fast food chains were introducing nontraditional dairy items, such as ice cream sundaes and milk shakes. Nevertheless, the Starbucks and Baskin Robbins stores we visited did have soy or rice milk alternatives to dairy ice cream and coffee whiteners.

Many of the students who were trying to adhere to a vegan diet felt they could not rely on restaurants to be truthful about their vegan offerings. This was also the feeling of several members of Beijing and Shanghai Chabad, an international Orthodox Jewish organization. They said that many restaurants interpreted ‘vegetarian’ as allowing animal fats such as lard, broths made with meat, or minced meat as garnishes.

On the other hand, a monk who spoke at the Jade Pagoda in Shanghai said the Chinese are mainly vegetable eaters. He said that the average Chinese who continues to eat traditional foods lives on beans and soy, seasonal vegetables, and fruit. He said the quick cooking style helps to preserve nutrients and flavor, and cutting the food into bite-sized pieces prior to cooking saves fuel and is more artistic.

We found this to be the case as we proceeded on our journey. When we were in Xian, the breakfast offerings included congee with corn, baked tofu with rice syrup, vegetable fried rice, and a wide assortment of regional teas. One unique tea tasted and looked just like spinach. On the way to see an archeological dig, we joined 10 tour buses of Chinese school children at a ‘luncheon lodge’ and were served toffee potatoes (sweet potatoes served with caramelized rice sugar), red pepper fried cabbage, rice bundles, braised gluten with straw mushrooms, and quickly-braised greens with garlic.

Also, we attended a “T’ang Dynasty Feast.” T’ang, a vegan cuisine, was developed by Buddhist monks to make sure that the royalty and rich business people could both practice Buddhism and eat in the gourmet style to which they were accustomed. T’ang-era monks took taro and lotus root, wheat, yams and white potatoes, tofu and beans, and exotic fruit and magically transformed them into ‘vegetable’ roast pork, duck and goose, tangy fish, and minced shrimp. At the feast we attended, the menu included apple and pineapple salad, warm rice wine (with stewed rice in the bottom of each glass), rice cakes wrapped in lotus leaves, fried taro paste cakes, and sweet rice with red beans.

When dining in homes in Xian and later Beijing, we ate all available seasonal vegetables either stir-fried or braised; we had spinach, green cabbage, greens, turnips, or celery, either lightly seasoned with a very small amount of dark soy sauce or ‘hot!,’ seasoned with dried red chilies. Both the stir-frying and the braising were done as quickly as possible, so the vegetables maintained a great texture and color, had a light taste, and were very filling.

We took a plane from Xian to Shanghai, and we were served the economy class meal of a ‘veggie burger’ (done Chinese-style with four types of mushrooms) on a delicious cornbread bun, congee with ‘seafood’ (made from soy), and canned lychees. This was not a ‘special’ request but the typical meal served that day.

Once we arrived in Shanghai, one of our choices was a Japanese breakfast, including miso soup, two varieties of steamed rice, pickled vegetables, pickled plums, and fresh kumquats and pineapple. For lunch and dinner, the city offered lots of touristy ‘T’ang Dynasty’ banquets to show off this interesting cuisine. Although the restaurants that specialize in this cuisine are usually more expensive, we found several flourishing T’ang cuisine areas. We tried vegetarian ‘duck’ with almonds, vegetarian ‘chicken’ with dried lotus buds, and vegetarian ‘meatballs’ braised in pineapple sauce. We’ll have to go back to the lab to figure out the exact combination of ingredients, although we were told that gluten played a big part.

Our next stop was Beijing, on our way to the Great Wall. Our first breakfast there, at a three-star Holiday Inn, included a choice of vegan dim sum and plain rice congee, with pickled vegetable condiments; fresh, stewed, and dried fruit; and hot soymilk, along with ‘European’ corn flakes, tinned vegetarian baked beans, and toast. In addition, we were hosted at a business luncheon restaurant. All the items were simultaneously served on a turntable, with a selection of stir-fried spicy (chili) cabbage, spicy (ginger) steamed tofu skin, corn and peas, steamed rice, sweet-and-sour tofu, fried lotus root, and fresh watermelon.

Eating vegan in Northern China is not a difficult task, as long as you encounter welcoming homes and follow the guidance of reliable monks!

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Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is made from fermenting soybeans, water, salt, and sometimes wheat. Depending on fermentation time, soy sauce can be either light or dark. Light soy sauce is used for dipping sauces. When we were in China, we found very little light soy sauce in the neighborhood groceries we visited, but we did find a variety of ‘gourmet’ light soy sauces in several upscale department stores. Dark soy sauce ferments longer, is thicker, and tastes stronger than the light variety. It is primarily used for flavoring foods.

Soy sauce seems to be a staple in Westernized versions of Chinese cuisine, but it was not readily available in the restaurants or the homes where we dined. If you asked, some was poured from a large container into a small side plate. We found our hosts ate most food as it was presented, without adding extra seasonings or condiments. One of the older ‘aunties’ who cooked for us in her home explained that soy sauce will destroy the flavor of food. She told us that if you use too much of it, people will suspect that some of the ingredients are of poor quality or that you are trying to cover up a burnt dish. Others explained that ‘the cook knows what he or she is doing,’ and they were generally satisfied with the dishes. They also felt that soy sauce should be cooked into the food to develop layers of flavor, rather than being used like “ketchup at McDonald’s.”

Still, we did not find soy sauce to be indispensable in Northern Chinese cuisine. Cooks mostly reserve it for braising. Though they do not use soy sauce when stir-frying ‘white’ (giving food a light color), they employ it when stir-frying ‘brown’ (creating a browned texture). For example, they will coat ingredients with a cornstarch slurry first, then add some soy sauce to the dish.

When shopping for soy sauce, there are a few things you may want to consider. Although we could not find any low-sodium soy sauce in China, you can purchase this product in the West, or you can use your favorite soy sauce, cut in half and replaced with rice vinegar, lemon juice, vegetable broth, or water. Shoyu sauce is soy sauce made from a blend of wheat and soybeans, while tamari is made only from soybeans. This can be important information for people who are trying to avoid wheat products.

Boiled Rice and Mushroom Congee

(Serves 6)

Similar to rice porridge, this dish will warm your winter mornings.

  • ½ pound long grain white rice (approximately 2 cups)
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 cups sliced, soaked, and drained mushrooms
  • 1 whole scallion (white and green parts), chopped
  • ½ teaspoon minced fresh garlic

Rinse rice under cold running water and allow to drain. Place rice in a heavy-sided pot and add water to cover an inch over the rice. Cover and bring to a fast boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Lower heat and allow to slowly simmer, approximately 20 minutes, until just soupy. Do not allow all of the water to be absorbed.

Heat a small frying pan and spray with oil. Quickly sauté mushrooms, scallions, and garlic until just soft, approximately 2 minutes. Add vegetables to rice, mix, and allow to heat for 1 minute. Serve hot. Season with soy sauce, pickled vegetables, or another spicy or vinegary condiment to offset the congee’s mildness.

Total calories per serving: 236 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 49 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

T’ang Dynasty Cold Fruit Soup

(Serves 4)

The fruit in this recipe adds an authentic texture.

  • 3-½ quarts water, divided
  • ¾ cup pearl tapioca*
  • ½ cup rice syrup
  • 4 cups canned chopped fruit, chilled and drained
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Put 3 quarts water into a large pot and bring to a boil. Add tapioca to boiling water. Cover and cook over high heat for 30-45 minutes or until tapioca look like pearls that are slightly soft but not mushy. Remove pot from heat and keep covered. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Drain, rinse, and set aside.

Put remaining water into a medium pot and bring to a boil. Stir in rice syrup and allow to boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in tapioca, and refrigerate.

To serve, combine fruit with extracts and ginger in a large serving bowl. Add tapioca-syrup mixture, stir, and serve cold.

*Note: Whole pearl tapioca are sold in Asian markets. Buy the quick-cooking variety, if possible, so you won’t have to soak and cook for a long time.

Total calories per serving: 326 Fat: <1 grams
Carbohydrates: 83 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 72 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Cabbage Salad

(Serves 4)

This salad combines many Chinese staples in one dish.

  • 2 cups shredded green cabbage
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • ½ cup minced green peppers
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 3 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine cabbage, carrots, green peppers, and ginger.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, and oil to create the dressing.

Place the vegetables in a large, non-metal serving bowl, toss with dressing, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 51 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 7 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 101 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Citrus Snow Peas

(Makes 20 pieces)

  • 20 fresh snow peas, blanched*, or 20 defrosted snow peas
  • 20 sections of fresh tangerines or canned mandarin oranges, drained
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

Wrap one snow pea around each citrus section and secure with toothpicks or skewers.

Combine the remaining ingredients to make the marinade.

Allow the snow pea-citrus sections to soak in the marinade for at least 1 hour. Drain marinade and arrange snow peas on a serving platter. Serve cold or at room temperature.

*Note: Snow peas need to be bendable. If using fresh snow peas, drop them into boiling water for several seconds, then rinse under cold water and drain. Leave the snow peas in the boiling water for the shortest amount of time necessary for them to become flexible.

Total calories per serving: 15 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: <1 grams
Sodium: 17 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Street Side Tofu and Mushrooms

(Serves 4)

A truly authentic entrée!

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) extra firm tofu, drained and cubed
  • ½ cup dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked and sliced
  • 3 whole scallions (white and green parts), finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons water

Preheat a wok or deep pot and spray with oil. Slowly add a quarter each of the tofu, mushrooms, and scallions, stirring constantly over high heat, until the scallions are slightly soft, approximately 1 minute. Continue to add ingredients in this manner; this should not take more than 3-4 minutes.

When all of the tofu, mushrooms, and scallions have been added, mix soy sauce and cornstarch together and quickly stir into the wok to coat. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 130 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 172 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


Stir-fried Noodles

(Serves 4)

Cook the noodles until they are al dente, firm but tender.

  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) uncooked noodles, such as vermicelli or rice noodles
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup finely shredded green cabbage
  • ½ cup fresh bean spouts
  • ½ cup minced celery
  • ¼ cup minced onions
  • ¼ cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and chopped
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced fresh button mushrooms
  • 1 Tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • Vegetable broth, as needed (not more than ½ cup)

Put water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add noodles and cook until just soft, approximately 3-4 minutes. Drain.

Preheat a wok or deep pot and spray with oil. Add vegetables and quickly stir-fry, stirring constantly over high heat until just soft, approximately 3-4 minutes.

Combine noodles with soy sauce and add to the vegetables. Briskly stir-fry. If mixture is too dry for your taste, add vegetable broth by the Tablespoonful, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding more. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 430 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 98 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 488 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Sweet Walnuts

(Makes twelve ¼-cup servings)

This recipe works for whole almonds as well.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon dried orange zest or peel
  • ¼ cup sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 pound (approximately 2 cups) walnut halves or whole almonds
  • 2 Tablespoons silken tofu thinned with 2 teaspoons water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray baking sheet with oil.

Combine spices, zest, and sugar in a bowl.

Combine nuts with tofu mix ture to coat. Toss coated nuts with spices. Place in single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 40-50 minutes, stirring twice to avoid sticking or burning. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Store in airtight container until ready to serve.

Total calories per serving: 266 Fat: 25 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of Vegan Menu for People with Diabetes.

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