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Vegetables: The Chinese Passion

by Angela Chang

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(1) page(s): 13 and 14

Adapted from a forthcoming book by Angela Chang

Once a student approached with this question: I heard the Chinese are wonderful with vegetables; do you have any advise for an American mother trying to raise her child to be a vegetable lover? Pleased with her enthusiasm, I suggested that she start exploring Chinese vegetarian products herself. Indeed, the Chinese are known for having the most varied and sophisticated ways of cooking vegetables, but that’s not the sole reason for their fondness for vegetables. The real reason lies in the marvelous variety of vegetables and vegetarian products which provide for wide ranges of taste and texture; both necessary for preparing casual and elaborate meals.

Without the presence of meats, producing a tasty meal can be a difficult task for novices, but not for a skillful vegetarian chef and for those trying to mimic them. Herbs and seasonings aside, talented chefs and home cooks employ greens (fresh, dried, and/or pickled), and saute them in hot oil to bring out their natural flavors.

Chinese people are attached to their native vegetables as American folks are to tomatoes and potatoes. Even when living abroad, Chinese will go out of their way to find available greens and other vegetarian treats. They have created a positive demand for Chinese and other vegetables. This seems to have had a positive impact on the eating habits of this country; the increasing addition of Chinese vegetables in supermarkets is definitely a highlight to shoppers. Many American vegetable lovers have taken a further step, they join Chinese who shop at Chinese markets and some have even grow Chinese vegetables in their own backyards. Although the Chinese people love vegetables and eat a great variety of them, except monks and nuns in Buddhist temples, most are not strict vegetarians as are many Westerners.

The Chinese know the ideal way to cook vegetables; they cook them with a little meat. After absorbing the rich taste from this meat, cooked vegetables become extremely palatable and more often than not, disappear faster than the meat in their very own dishes. Perhaps you can see why well cooked vegetables are such valued foods on a Chinese dinner table, and why meats have secondary importance in the Chinese diet. People of Chinese ancestry know how to flavor greens and other vegetables with meats and with various sauces and spices making their vegetables never boring.

When pressed for time, or too tired to cook an elaborate meal, Chinese home cooks resort to shortcuts to assemble a quick meal. These include opening cans of baby corn or straw mushrooms and readying a fresh vegetable such as snow peas or cucumbers. They stir-fry these together with slices of sausage or Canadian bacon for a fine rich taste. Another shortcut is to use frozen vegetables such as cut spinach, mustard greens, or french-style green beans. First squeeze out their water, then stir-fry them with marinated ground pork; add garlic, oyster sauce, and/or chili bean paste for additional flavoring. These dishes may be humble, but they certainly make for satisfying meals.

Chinese home cooks are adventurous in seeking out new additions to their vegetable repertory. Nothing with good taste is left out, whether domestic or exotic. Naturally, common American vegetables are on thier daily menus, as well. A brief glace at how Chinese cooks treat two ordinary vegetables can provide ideas for some of old favorites or new taste treats.

Carrots: They are both great decorative vegetables and basic ones in Chinese cooking. They are used widely in stir-fried and salad-type dishes, and as part of the filling for dumplings. When stir-fried with more tender vegetables such as snow peas or celery, always add the carrots first for even texture in the final dish. When used in Chinese-style salads, carrots should be marinated in salt and vinegar for some minutes to soften them, bring out a better taste, and an improved texture.

Tomatoes: Because of their high water content, tomatoes do not go well in all stir-fried dishes. However, they have many uses in Chinese home-cooking. The tomato is excellent in sweet and sour sauces or hot and sour ones, in a sour sauce with beef, in tofu, and in seafood dishes. It also matches well with eggs in stir-fried and soup dishes. The bight red color of the tomato makes this vegetable a beautiful garnish for both hot and cold platters, as well.

Stir-fried Tomatoes with Eggs
6 Tablespoons oil
1 Tablespoon chopped scallions, white part only
1 large tomato, cut in cubes
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
salt to taste
1 Tablespoon chopped scallions, green part only
5 large eggs, beaten well
1. Heat one tablespoon oil and sizzle scallions until light brown.
2. Add tomato and oyster sauce and a dash of salt. Remove and set aside.
3. Heat the rest of the oil and fry the green scallion parts a few seconds and then pour in the eggs. Let them bubble a few seconds, then stir allowing the egg to set slowly.
4. Add the tomato mixture, mix thoroughly, and serve.

Vegetarian Gold Coins
1 cup grated potatoes or taro root
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup grated carrots
1/2 cup Bisquick
2 large eggs, beaten separately
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cups oil for deep frying
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Steam potatoes or taro for fifteen minutes until tender, then squeeze out extra moisture.
3. In a large mixing bow, mix all vegetables, Bisquick, on egg, sesame oil, salt, and sugar. Blend well until a dough forms that is soft and smooth.
4. Line cookie sheet with aluminum foil and shape dough into small balls, about thirty of them. Bake them for twenty minutes or until firm. Flatten each ball into the shape of a coin.
5. Allow the vegetables to cool slightly, while they do, make a batter of the other egg, half cup of water, the flour and the rest of the sesame oil. Coat each coin-shaped piece with batter.
6. Deep-fry the battered vegetable coins in small batches until golden brown. Drain well and serve immediately.
Note: Cooked left-overs can be heated in your oven, uncooked ones frozen for future use.

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