The first day of the lunar calendar also kicks off the most important holiday in China - The Spring Festival. This is the time for sojourners to return home to celebrate with families and friends, to relax and rejoice, to praise the gods for their blessings, to thank our forefathers for their guidance. This tradition has been observed by other Asian countries and Chinese immigrants everywhere. It is the one day when everyone is urged to refrain from consuming meat as a tribute to the animals who sacrifice their bodies to feed us all year round. In other words, we should all be eating nothing but vegetarian food on Friday Feb 16, as we welcome the year of the Dog.
The good news is, vegan cuisine in Asian culture involves a very broad spectrum of vegetarian ingredients. Take a look at the Buddha's Bowl as an example. The trendy version focuses on pulses, the traditional one known as Lo-Hon-Jai (Lo Hon refers to the buddha and Jai means vegan food) contains ingredients far beyond pulses and vegetables but piles high with tofu, sliced melons, lotus seeds, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, cooked in fermented red bean sauce.
And there is more.
In Lo-Hon-Jai, the tofu we use is deep-fried and may be in the shape of sticks, puffs or sheets. The choice of melon includes winter or hairy melons. Packaged lotus seeds can be found in the dried goods aisle but those that come in vacuum packs are in the fresh produce section. Choose straw, shiitake, oyster or king mushroom and if desired, choose all. Fresh bamboo shoots are not in season but canned shoots are always available. This is the epitome of the ample choices of vegetarian ingredients we can put our hands on even in Lower Mainland.
The ever-popular tofu has been playing a vital role in vegan cuisines, yet it is just one of the many soy products that can be dried or wet, hard or soft, plain or 5-spiced. There are soy milks, soy puddings and of course, fresh and frozen soy beans. Seasonal vegetables, Asian greens, pods and legumes come in different shades, sizes and shapes. It may be confusing but select smartly according to what the recipe is helps ease the task and better the appeal, flavour and texture.
In stead of eating them raw, we like to cook our peashoots, cabbages and even lettuces. Edible parts of the plant, and the tree, start from the roots and all the way up to tips and petals. Potatoes and yams are delicious tubers, so are taros, jicama, burdocks and arrowroots. Besides wheats and grains, we consume sorghums, sago, long and short rice. Funny-looking fungus, mosses and seaweeds do not require much cooking and often make their way into the vegan woks and pots. These are the few examples of ingredients we apply to vegetarian cuisine. Getting to know the arrays of ingredients surely makes cooking vegan as simple and fun as any other daily recipe, same goes for the seasonings.
Besides seasoning with herbs and spices, there are myriad variations of sauces and condiments to deal with. Most Asian sauces are meat-free, even oyster sauce comes in a vegetarian version these days. Preservation and fermentation play a key role in Asian cooking, their intense flavours can easily flare-up the taste. Fermented beans and olives, pickled vegetables and melons, preserved roots and gourds are all readily available in Asian markets. No matter what you are acquiring, make sure to read the label and the list of ingredients before buying.
By the way, almost all the munching items and viands we enjoy this time of the year carry auspicious meanings. Tofu is 'white jade' and is also regarded as a blessing of 'safe and sound' thanks to its never fidgety texture. Vegetables are 'choy', as in fortune. Green ones are even better because green is the colour of money. Seeds are referred to as 'fertility' and growth. Mushrooms resemble coins and ingots. Kabocha is dubbed 'golden squash'.
Another key component to escalate the palate pleasure during Sring Festival? Candies, snacks and pastries! Strips of winter melon (dongua), slices of lotus roots and whole lotus seeds are blanced, dried and sugared. Anything sweet symbolizes smooth and harmony. Since oil helps to lubricate any friction and discords in the new year, deep-frying is another must, resulting in the production of an assortment of golden, crunchy deep-fried pastries. There are sweet and savory New Year cakes (nen-go)which represent growth and achievement. Many Chinese families start the day with pan-fried sweet and savoury nen-goes.
To unveil the Year of the Dog vegetarian style, there really is no shortage of ingredients for vegan food-lovers and home chefs to cook one or multiple vegan meals. A walk down the non-meat dried goods aisle and the vegetable sections in Asian markets such as T&T and H-Mart will not only widen your vegan-cooking horizon, it will be an eye-opening cultural and culinary exploration.
Cooking tips for Asian ingredients:
1/ Rehydrate dried ingredients by rinsing them first and soak in water for appropriate amount of time before cooking.
2/ Brush dirts off fresh button, brown and shiitake mushrooms lightly with a towel.
3/ Dice ingredients to go with fried rice. Julienne them for noodles or vermicelli.
4/ Cut off approximately two inches off fresh enoki mushroom when still in the plastic wrap and loosen them immediately. Rinse under running tap water in a drainer for a minute or so, remove from tap and let drain.
5/ Silky or soft tofu is an exquisite salad ingredient, but mix in gently. Pressed tofu renders a meaty texture. Choose firm tofu for stir-frying or making soup.
6/ Soften tofu sticks and sheets by soaking in water first before cooking. Tofu puffs (pockets) are great for stuffing. Feel free to cut and slice them when necessary.
7/ Before removing cooked food from heat, mix cornstarch with a little bit of water into a paste, add to food and stir gently to thicken the sauce.
8/ Preserved roots and vegetables, mushroom caps, soybean sprouts, daikon, wood ear (crunchy julienned black fungi found in Hot & Sour Soup), burdock and lotus roots are great ingredients to make soup stocks.
9/ Use glutinous rice (short grain) to make sticky rice. Cook in a rice cooker or a pot first before pan-frying.
10/ When ready to cook a vegetarian meal, boil a pot of boiling, add salt and vegetable oil, turn to simmer and put aside to stand by. Blanching is a common first step and often the easy method to cook a number of ingredients. Blanching can also replace 'browning in oil' for those who do not fancy greasy food.
Stephanie Yuen's Lunar New Year Recipes:
1/ Trio happiness
Serves 4 – 6 (With plain rice)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 3 minutes
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. chopped garlic
1/2 tsp. chopped ginger
1 arm lotus root, about 6” long, peeled and thinly sliced.
1 cup gailan (or broccoli) stem, sliced
1 cup carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1 Tbsp. oyster sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white sugar
2 Tbsp water
Heat oil in frying pan (wok) on high, sizzle in garlic and ginger. Add lotus root, gailan and carrot, mix and cook for 1 minute. Add remaining ingredients except water, stir well. Add water, cover and cook for another minute. Ready to serve.