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Chinese Vegetarian Diets

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(3) page(s): 19, 20, 21, and 34

Su or vegetarian diets are not new to the Chinese. A diet without meat, fish, and/or poultry or one missing any or every animal food may have come to China from India. In China, vegetarian diets were reported in use since the 4th century BCE, maybe even earlier. That is when a few restrictions against eating some or all animal foods began in Asia. Diets with no animal food came to China about the 1st century CE. They were not and are not the only food restrictions in Chinese diets. There are those without a drop of an alcoholic beverage, those without garlic, onions, leeks, and other related Allium foods said to raise sexual energies, and diets with a large variety of other assorted restrictions.

The Chinese say that people who do not restrict one or more foods and/or beverages are eating a hun diet. Su diets are basically limited to not eating animal flesh. The main reason to adhere to one of these diets is because not doing so means taking a life. Such diets derive from Taoist beliefs and are practiced as a means of gaining immortality. Many Taoists have respect for all living things. So these diets are popular both in respect for life and as a means of not interfering with bodily harmony. What is interesting, even different about them from meat-free diets in other countries, is that they can be practiced some of the time or all of the time. Different from most vegetarians worldwide, most Chinese who adhere to these diets do so only some of the time, such as one week a month or one month a year.

Confucius (551 - 479 BCE), known in his home country as Kong Fu-zi, did eat meat, fish, and poultry. He carried out sacrifices for the dead and their spirits carefully and correctly, but only sometime did he abstain from animal foods. Mencius (371 - 289 BCE), known to the Chinese as Meng Ke, did likewise.

Over time, different emperors provided sacrificial feasts for their Buddhist clergy and/or their Taoist priests. They did these on special days and in special ways. In general and less well known, is that more Taoists abstain from animal foods than do Buddhists. For those committed to Buddhism, the emperors held vegetarian feasts on the six monthly Buddhist holidays when all Buddhists did not eat meat.

Since Tang Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE), Buddhism has remained China's main pro-vegetarian force, however, their dietary proscriptions are not practiced on Chinese New Year, at weddings, nor at funerals. On those days, it is acceptable to eat animal foods.

There are some funeral principals who do sacrifice oxen, sheep, goats, even pigs on these occasions. Others feel doing so is wishing a curse or a sin on the deceased. Sacrificial behaviors are most commonly adhered to in temples, monasteries, and nunneries. In general, clergy do participate but not all of the penitents do so all of the time. Some Buddhists practice their belief about not eating animals foods only one or two months a year; a lesser number do so the entire year.

During the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1280 CE) the word 'Arhat' came into popular use as did a dish known as: Arhat Whole Vegetarian. This was a dish that included up to eighteen fresh vegetables. It was prepared in the vegetarian kitchens of many temples, and often was the dish eaten most often when practicing avoidance of animal foods. The emperor and many of his high-ranking nobles went to these temples and ordered and ate this famous dish. We have not found a good recipe for it, is there a reader out there who has?

People inquire about the health of Chinese vegetarians. Are they healthy if they get adequate protein eating lots of gluten, the protein part of wheat flour, and lots of tofu or another items made from soy beans? Vegetarians can and do use both of these foods and make them look like and taste like animal foods. Monks have told us they do this to please their guests. They do so not to please themselves with the looks and tastes of animal foods.

Worldwide, it is reported that vegetarians do have reduced mortality, less cardiovascular disease, lower rates of obesity, and that many live longer than the general population. Why is this so? Research indicates they eat a wider range of plant foods that contain a variety of potential cancer-preventing bio-active compounds. Non-vegetarians in China eat less animal protein than do non-vegetarians in the rest of the world. The meat, poultry, and fish they do eat only accounts for eight percent of their total caloric intake. This is true even with the current increase in the standard of living and higher incomes than ever. How long this will remain is an open question because caloric and animal protein intake is rising for them and among all populations, particularly those in urban areas.

Whyte, in 1972, and others before and since, have written that these and other food restrictions among believers of Buddhism and Taoism have limited impact in present-day China. Some say their beliefs never affected a large number of Chinese other than the Chinese Muslims. Others believe that famines impacted Chinese populations and this lack of food is the most important reason why the minimal impact of vegetarianism. Fasting and abstinence from meat in early China were honorific practices that have declined.

When Buddhism came to China, Taoism and Confucianism were the dominant beliefs. Taoists, in particular, felt that life is a prized possession, and to do things that help them as they seek immortality is very important. They believe in balancing yin and yang and if done perfectly, this can extend their life forever. They also believe that meditation, breathing exercises, elixirs, fasting, acts of virtue, and dietary practices are behaviors worthy of participation.

One of their food practices, an item less well known, is not to eat the five grains of rice, millet, wheat, barley, and beans. Why not eat these modern-day healthy foods? Because Taoists strongly believe these five foods feed the 'three worms' and as such, bring on sickness and frailty. They believe that eating meat is a 'no-no' because their gods do not like the smell of flesh.

Buddhism and not Taoism has remained China's most important pro-vegetarian practice. Buddhist believers still do not eat meat, onions, garlic, leeks, and other foods of the Allium family. And, though their temples do keep animals, they are often ones that were injured, so they gain merit by feeding them and not eating them. They like to keep these animals that were or are injured or malformed; old folk do likewise, especially widowed women. They and monks sometimes eat animal flesh, but not if they were killed especially for them or simply to be eaten.

Confused? You should be because newer vegetarians have many different beliefs. For example, monks are allowed to eat meat if it is put into their begging bowls; in temples they eat no animal food. Perhaps you have seen them eat beef in their temples. That is not beef but a food that looks like beef and made using Chinese black mushrooms or pieces of gluten. They make spare ribs using wheat gluten wrapped around pieces of hard bamboo, and they make pork using wintermelon slices that they stuff with sesame paste.

It is interesting to note that some of these practices came into being with Emperor Wu Di, a convert to Buddhism. Incidentally, his conversion is not new. It took place in the 6th century during what was then known as the Liang Dynasty.

For those who never had Buddhist vegetarian food which is known as fo zhai cai, get thee to a Buddhist monastery. It is available at almost all of them and at most of their temples. It is made from many different grains, legumes, and vegetables; and it is delicious.

BUDDHA BODAI VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT in Manhattan's Chinatown at 5 Mott Street; phone: (212) 566-8388, and one in Queens at 42-46 Main Street in Flushing; phone (718) 939-1188 are the two we like the best. Special Buddhist restaurants have been reviewed by this magazine and these two in the United States share the same name, but no longer are the same management. Why do they share the same name? At one time they were connected, the one in Manhattan an offshoot of the one in Queens. Kenny helped Chef Wong start his first restaurant. Now, Kenny owns the one in Manhattan, Chef Wong owning the one in Flushing. Both serve many of the same foods. We think they serve the best Buddhist vegetarian foods in the United States.

Strict adherence to a special diet has brought mental satisfaction to many people, not just Taoists or Buddhists who like to honor ancient beliefs such as adherence to sevens. Seven or qi is a yang number that in Chinese numerology relates to the development of the female organism. It is also important when honoring the recently deceased during the seven day period following their death. Ancient thoughts say the soul gradually severs itself from the living and does so completely by the seventh day. That is why on that day, many eat seven vegetarian dishes of their own choosing. Below are seven that have been used for that purpose.
Bean Curd Pancakes
5 pieces fresh soft bean curd, mashed somewhat
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided into four batches
1. Bring half cup water to the boil, reduce the heat, add the bean curd and simmer for ten to twenty minutes, then stir vigorously until almost pureed.
2. Add sugar, salt, and soy sauce and remove the pot from the heat, and stir once more.
3. Heat wok or fry-pan, put in one batch of oil, then take one large spoonful of the bean curd mixture at a time, and fry it first on one side, then the other, each until golden. Drain on paper towels, keep warm, and repeat until all are fried; then serve.
Fried Bean Curd
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons minced bamboo shoots
3 Tablespoons soaked bamboo pith, minced
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon soaked tangerine peel, minced
3 Tablespoons straw mushrooms, minced
1/4 red bell pepper, minced
1 pound soft bean curd
1 Tablespoon water chestnut, arrowroot, or all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon of sa cha or another hot sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1. Heat wok or fry-pan, add the tablespoon of vegetable oil and then the pieces of bamboo shoot and bamboo pith and stir-fry for one minute. Remove from the pan and set aside.
2. Add soy sauce, salt, and pepper to the fried items and stir well; then add the tangerine peel, mushrooms, and the bell pepper pieces and set aside.
3. Mash the bean curd and mix in the flour and cornstarch, and then the hot sauce. Mix this with the other ingredients and stir well.
4. Heat half of the rest of the vegetable oil and drop two tablespoons of the entire mixture in and fry first on one side then the other, flattening somewhat early in the frying process. Fry each side until golden brown, remove and drain, and repeat until all are fried. Then serve.
Bean Curd Spoons
1 square firm bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 piece tangerine peel, soaked then minced (about one spoonful)
1/2 cup soaked dried mushrooms (can be a mix of Chinese black, straw, and other kinds)
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped iceberg lettuce
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
several flat lettuce or spinach leaves
1. Mix mashed bean curd and cornstarch, then add the minced tangerine peel, mushrooms, fresh ginger, pepper, sugar, salt, and soy sauce and stir for one or two minutes. Next gently add chopped lettuce and stir in.
2. Using the oil, brush this on twenty ceramic soup spoons and fill each one mounding lots over the top of each spoon, gently tamping it down.
3. Put filled soups spoons in a steamer basket and place it over boiling water, and stem for twelve minutes. Allow these to cool slightly, then using a thin spatula, remove their contents and put these in a circle on a lettuce or spinach topped platter, and serve.
Mock Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
2 thin sheets bean curd
1 large potato, cooked until soft, then mashed
2 water chestnuts, minced
3 Tablespoons minced bamboo shoots
2 Tablespoons minced coriander leaves
1/2 sheet purple or black seaweed laver, moistened
1 cup cornstarch
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 very small Chinese black mushroom, soaked, stem discarded
2 cups vegetable oil
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 Tablespoon Chinese black vinegar
2 Tablespoons granulated or crushed Chinese brown sugar slab
1. Wet thin bean curd sheets brushing them with warm water, then spread mashed potato across the center, the long way. Top this sprinkling water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and coriander leaves evenly over the potato.
2. Roll the seaweed into a long thin roll making this roll the length of the potato mixture. Press it into the potato so it is centered down its length.
3. Beat cornstarch and flour with half cup of cold water until there are no lumps left.
4. Fold the edges of the bean curd sheet, one by one, over the potato mixture, wetting each edge with a little of the cornstarch, flour mixture, and brush some more on both sides of this potato package shaping one end to a point to resemble the head, and cut the other end in an inch and separate that to look like a fish tail. Using the cornstarch mixture, paste the mushroom at the fish head end for its eye. Allow to dry for half an hour, then add more of the cornstarch mixture to the other side and allow this to dry, as well. Now cut one-inch slits about one inch apart and down one side of the mock fish, as one would for a real one.
5. In a deep large fry-pan, heat the oil and deep fry the mock fish until crisp and golden in color, then drain on paper towels and put on a platter.
6. In a small sauce pan, mix the stock, vinegar, and brown sugar, and two tablespoons of the cornstarch mixture and bring to the boil. Pour over the fried fish, and serve.
Omelet Chrysanthemums
6 eggs, beaten well or the equivalent amount of vegetarian eggs
2 Tablespoons cornstarch, separated
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2 cups vegetable oil
1. Mix eggs with half the cornstarch and stir well.
2. Grease a pan with some of the sesame oil, and make thin for-inch omelets frying them on both sides. When set on both sides, remove to a plate, brush the top of each one with the remaining cornstarch mixed with one teaspoon of water. Stack them in batches of two, some cornstarch paste brushed only in the center of each batch of two omelets.
3. Using a scissor, cut partway in to the omelets all around each circle, not cutting the center inch of either of them.
4. Heat vegetable oil and deep fry these omelets just until the petal-like edges will curl, be crisp, and look like chrysanthemums. Drain well, then serve.
Monks Meal
1 cup chestnuts, peeled and cooked ten cut in half
1 small can lotus seeds
1 small can bambo soots, diced in large pieces
20 water chestnuts, cut in quarters
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup soaked and sliced Chinese black mushrooms, their stems discarded
2 cups cooked glutinous rice
1 cup napa cabbage, cut into quarter-inch slices
1/2 cup purple seaweed, cut into one-quarter-inch by two-inch pieces
1 quart vegetable or mushroom stock, or a mixture of both
1/4 cup thin soy sauce
1/4 cup rice wine or vegetable stock
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. In one pot, boil chestnuts for five minutes, in another pot do the same for the lotus seeds. Drain them both, and set the ingredients aside in small bowls. Do the same for the bambo shoots and the water chestnuts.
2. Heat wok or a large pot, add the oil, and then the mushrooms, and stir-fry for two minutes. Then add the chestnuts, lotus seeds, bamboo shoots, and the water chestnuts and stir-fry for two more minutes.
3. Add all the rest of the ingredients and simmer until the cabbage is soft, then serve in iindividual bowls or in a large tureen.
Straw Mushroom Casserole
1 Tablespon vegetable oil
3 Chinese black mushrooms, slaked, stems discarded, and minced
4 cups whole straw mushrroms
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinced and mashed
2 teaspoons sugar
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1. Heat oil in a casserole on medium heat, then add Chinese black mushrooms and stir-fry them for three minutes until they no longer sizzle.
2. Add straw mushrooms and themashed black beans, the sugar and obth soy sauces. Reduce heat, cover the casserole, and simmer for five minutes, then stir, and recover and simmer for fifteen minutes, then serve.

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