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From the Earth, Chinese Vegetarian Cooking

by: Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

New York NY: Macmillan 1995, $34.95, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-02-632985-9

Reviewed by: Susan Asanovic
Winter Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(4) page(s): 15 and 20

Western food writers might well heed the advise of Eileen Yin-Fei Lo in her headnote to Chai Sai, Vegetarian Chicken who advises that "the aim is to fool the eye and please the taste." Many of us do not want beef, sausage, or chicken taste-alikes yet fine ones appear in From the Earth. Actually, the food may appear similar in shape and texture, but it has its own flavor--which is very pleasing to those that do not care for meat or fish, or who simply prefer the delicious Chinese tastes and aromas applied to vegetables, grains, or beans.

As a vegetarian who has delved quite deeply into Chinese vegetarian cuisine and evaluated too many bad and few truly good cookbooks on this subject, I can appreciate the excellence of this intelligent work from one of our most respected Chinese food authorities. Ms. Lo is a careful teacher; her recipes are easy to understand and fairly simple to prepare, although some experience and judgement is helpful. Vegetarians will especially value the explanations which clear up the mysteries of bean curd in its myriad of forms: skins, pressed blocks, fresh and soft, sheets, sticks, and fried. These are often poorly explained or described in confusing terms elsewhere.

On the other hand, it is astonishing not to find any mention of gluten, as a meat replacement. I could find no reference to this very important vegetarian protein alternate in the glossary, index or recipes. All the more curious, since it is found in any Chinese market in several forms, and under many brand names. Gluten analogs for animal foods are prepared in Chinese vegetarian restaurants and featured in other cookbooks. Regrettably they appear to be omitted in From the Earth.

Lo admits to not being a vegetarian. Her inspiration comes from her maternal grandmother, Aw Paw, who observed Buddhist traditions and abstained from animal foods twice a month. Happily, none of the recipes contain eggs, nor the ubiquitous chicken stock, which some authors inexplicably forget comes from an animal, not just a can or container. Unfortunately, the book does use oyster sauce, which I find objectionable. There is an entire chapter of fish dishes, which for a pure vegetarian, has no place in this book; that subject is covered adequately in this author's other cookbooks.

Many recipes are quite wonderful and delicious. The technique of using sun-dried tomatoes in lieu of roast pork strips in fried rice is truly original, delectable, and a clever blend of new and old world foods, as is Stir Fried Corn. And the vegetable stocks are especially good--which is a real boon to the vegetarian.

One of my favorite recipes is the Vegetable Hot Pot (Cantonese Style), which we made several times with pleasure. Vegetarians can enjoy cooking and serving from that beautiful brass pot. And finally, I learned that 'egg rolls' do not exist in China, but are a Western travesty of their delicate 'spring rolls.' Ms. Lo offers several versions, but all except the Rice Paper Spring Roll are deep fried. Which reminds me to advise that there is too much deep frying in this book. The Vegetarian Eggs would not appeal to anyone, vegetarian or not, concerned with health, and fat intake.

Other (vegetarian) beefs: For $34.95, the publisher could have included splendid photography and more careful editing. The latter would have changed the unhappy title Stewed Hairy Melon, which sounds disgusting, but is really flavorful, eye-pleasing, and nutritious. One ingredient list specifies five cups of oil, but the directions call for six. Also, it is not necessary to 'temper' Pyrex. And, keeping her minced garlic in oil six weeks invites botulism, as we are now warned. Notwithstanding, this is one of the best books on Chinese vegetarian cooking in print, certainly innovative and written by a gifted and native professional.

Note: This review appeared in the column: Book Shelf.

Vegetable Hot Pot
6 ounces bean thread noodles
8 cakes bean curd, cubed
1 pound spinach
3 bunches water cress
1 pound romaine lettuce
1 head fennel
2 cups broccoli stems
1 pound cabbage
8 cups vegetable stock
1 piece of ginger, about two by two inches
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup chopped coriander
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon scallion oil
1. Soak noodles half hour in warm water then drain and cut into five-inch lengths.
2. Cut all the vegetables into two-inch pieces.
3. Heat half the stock in a hot pot or deep pot (an electric one allows use at the table). When it boils, add ginger, coriander, garlic, sesame oil, and scallion oil (made by cooking ten scallions--mincing the whites and cutting the green part into two-inch pieces in two cups of oil until they turn brown, then drain and store in your refrigerator).
4. Cook the vegetables of your choice and the beancurd in the boiling broth until it wilts and is done to your taste. Use strainer-like spoons or the baskets made for hot pot to remove items from the broth. Do not put these into your mouth, they will be too hot, and it is not a sanitary way to share the food, if you do.
5. Replenish the stock as needed. after all is consumed, pour used stock into each persons bowl and enjoy it.
6. Many dipping sauces can be used for the vegetables when cooked. The author recommends her Ginger Soy Sauce.

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