The grand centrepiece of our lunch is a bowl of paddy eels in a sea of spicy oil thick with scorched chillies and Sichuan pepper. Around it lie a pot of red-braised beef and bamboo shoots, a deep-fried fish in chilli-bean sauce, stir-fried bacon with green peppers and several other local specialities. It looks like a typical Sichuanese meal, and it is – except that the food is entirely vegan. The “eels” are strips of shiitake mushroom that look and even feel in the mouth like the real thing; the brisketty slow-braised “beef” is fashioned from wheat gluten; the “fish” is a package of mashed potato in a tofu skin. It’s a satisfying and ingenious lunch, served in a restaurant at the Buddhist Temple of Divine Light just outside Chengdu, capital of the western province of Sichuan.
In the last few years there has been a rush in demand for vegan and vegetarian foods in Western countries. Much of it is coming from flexitarians – people who have not renounced meat completely but want to cut their consumption. To satisfy them, companies are developing products that look, taste and feel as close as possible to meat and dairy dishes – most famously a plant-based burger made by Impossible Foods that appears to bleed like a rare beef patty.
Amid this flurry of innovation in the West, it’s worth remembering that the Chinese have been using plant-based foods to mimic meat for hundreds of years. In the time of the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), an official hosted a banquet at which he served convincing replicas of pork and mutton dishes made from vegetables; in the 13th century, diners in the capital of the southern Song dynasty (Lin’an, now Hangzhou), had a wide choice of meat-free restaurants, including those that specialised in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
The tradition is still alive in contemporary China. In Shanghai, most delicatessens sell rolled-tofu “chicken” and roast “duck” made from layered tofu skin. Restaurants offer stir-fried “crabmeat”, a strikingly convincing simulacrum of the original made from mashed carrot and potato flavoured with rice vinegar and ginger. Elsewhere, Chinese food manufacturers produce a range of imitation meat and seafood products, including slithery “chicken’s feet” concocted from konnyaku yam and “shark’s fin” made from translucent strands of bean-thread noodle.
Such dishes are in part a reflection of a sophisticated food culture in which wit and playfulness have always been prized. Just as Heston Blumenthal, a British experimental chef, amused guests with a dessert that resembles an English breakfast, China has a tradition of dishes that pretend to be something they are not, such as edible calligraphy brushes, or a facsimile of tofu made from finely minced chicken breast and egg whites. In the Song dynasty, restaurants served not only vegetarian temple food, but imitations of pufferfish, soft-shelled turtle and roasted venison made from other ingredients that were not necessarily meat-free.
This elaborate trickery is found throughout Chinese society, but it is most strongly associated with Buddhist monasteries. Buddhist monks tend to live on a simple diet of grains, tofu and vegetables, but many larger institutions run vegetarian restaurants that cater for visitors. At weekend lunchtimes, the restaurant at the Temple of Divine Light is a clamour of customers tucking into a vegetarian homage to traditional Sichuan cooking.
In a private room hung with calligraphic artworks, a group of male friends (none of them vegetarian) were enjoying their meat-free Sunday lunch when I visited. “Before China’s reform and opening up, people couldn’t even eat their fill, so of course when meat became more widely available we wanted to gorge on it,” says businessman Chen Mingqing. “But after this period of indulging in rich food, China has reached a new level of culture and development. People want to eat more healthily and prolong their lives, so vegetarian eating is becoming more popular.” The temple’s restaurant, once frequented mainly by elderly Buddhists, now attracts a mixed crowd including many young people.
The restaurant’s imitation-meat ingredients are mostly concocted from konnyaku yam, gluten and various bean products, says head chef Du Mingxue, who stopped cooking meat 13 years ago. Some, like the sliced “bacon” (appropriately pink and white and umami-delicious) are laborious to make, so the restaurant buys them from specialist producers; others, like the eels, are made in situ. “Vegetarian cooking is actually more complicated than meat cooking,” says Du, “because we have to work harder to create umami tastes. Here, we make flavouring powders from dried mushrooms and stocks from peanuts, soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes.”
Because this is a Buddhist restaurant, the food is not only free of animal products, but also of the “five pungent vegetables” (wuhun) traditionally shunned by Buddhist monks because they are thought to inflame carnal passions. These include garlic and spring onions, though, happily for the Sichuanese, chillies and Sichuan pepper are alright.
There was no explicit prohibition on meat-eating in early Buddhism. In the religion’s early days in India, mendicant monks were expected to eat anything that was put into their begging bowls, as long as they didn’t suspect an animal had been slaughtered for their benefit. After Buddhism spread to China, however, abstention from meat became the norm in monasteries, especially under the influence of the 6th-century Emperor Wudi, a devout Buddhist who became a vegetarian on compassionate grounds. Although monks had no need to make their own vegetarian dishes resemble meat, Buddhist institutions had to entertain patrons and pilgrims who normally ate meat, so they devised creative vegetarian versions of classic banquet dishes such as roast meats and Dongpo pork.
Outside Buddhist monasteries, strict ideological vegetarianism (sushi zhuyi) or veganism is rare in China, but a more flexible, intermittent vegetarian eating (sushi) is deeply entrenched in Chinese food culture. Until recently, most Chinese people couldn’t afford to eat much meat anyway – and, with a few exceptions, dairy foods have been largely absent from Chinese diets. Although meat is adored and a feast without it is almost unthinkable, Chinese people typically eat far more vegetables and much less meat than is usual in the West. Meat, lard or stock are used in small quantities to enrich dishes that are otherwise vegetable-led. Tofu has never been stigmatised as a mere substitute for meat and is a central part of Chinese diets. Fermented bean products such as soy sauce can lend rich savoury tastes to vegetable dishes.
The Chinese have an intellectual tradition that favours vegetable eating as a wise and healthy counterpart to eating meat. Gluttonous consumption of meat has always been regarded as unhealthy. Men of letters have traditionally viewed carnivorous excess as vulgar or even depraved; Confucius is said to have eaten meat only in moderation. In the 17th century Li Yu, a writer, suggested that eating vegetables brought people closer to a state of nature: “When I speak of the Tao of eating and drinking, finely minced meat is not as good as meat in its natural state, and such meat is not as good as vegetables in terms of the closeness of each to nature.” A preference for wild foods, vegetables and modest consumption of meat has long been understood as a sign of cultivation.
A new generation of vegetarian restaurants is sprouting up outside monastic settings to feed the appetite for such cuisine. One of the most successful is Wujie (No Boundaries), a chain run by Y.B. Song, a Taiwanese businessman and vegetarian Buddhist who moved to Shanghai 25 years ago. He opened his first branch in 2011; his most glamorous restaurant, on the Shanghai Bund, has just won a Michelin star.
“I gave up meat 20 years ago as a religious offering when my mother fell ill with cancer,” says Song. “If you come to the realisation that your own life is connected to nature and to the lives of animals, you will naturally want to eat vegetarian food.” He reckons health concerns are the driving force behind the new fashion for vegetarian eating in China, rather than concerns about the environment or animal cruelty. Wujie’s nine branches run at different price points: the luxurious Shanghai Bund branch offers vegetarian banquets for around £60 to £70 per head ($80-$90).
“Many people think vegetarian food is bland,” says Song, “I want to surprise them with a really delicious food experience. I also want to show them that eating vegetarian food can be a positive and fashionable choice, not one born out of poverty.” His Bund branch offers several imitation-meat dishes, including a version of a Sichuanese classic “man-and-wife offal slices”, glossy with chilli oil and made with slices of king oyster and elm ear mushrooms that perfectly evoke the appearance and texture of the tripe and ox meat in the original dish. Song, however, has broken with Buddhist temple tradition by avoiding any reference to meat on the menu: this dish, for example, is just called “Sichuanese man-and-wife”.
“If the food is seriously delicious”, says Song, “you don’t have to pretend that it’s meat. But I don’t want to judge people for wanting to eat vegetarian food that resembles meat. Trying to broaden acceptance of vegetarian food is like jumping over a high wall: you have to do it in steps, and one step is to give people delicious and familiar dishes that just happen to be vegetarian.”