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Chinese Vegetarian Cooking is IT
Deciphering the different styles with cook and food writer Hannah Che
“[When I got home from winter break], I realized that my [vegan] food choices weren't just a personal choice. They also encompass community, because eating in the Chinese style is family style, we all sit around a table, we share these dishes, and we have a lot of traditions that involve pork.”
When Kate and I first saw Hannah Che’s recent cookbook, we had the same reaction: we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, we were taken by the novelty of the recipes, and we couldn’t wait to cook from it. The book is called The Vegan Chinese Kitchen: Recipes and Modern Stories from a Thousand-Year-Old Tradition, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a completely wonderful selection of Chinese recipes, with stories woven throughout, and spectacular photography (by Hannah!).
The history of Chinese vegetarian cooking is complicated, with roots in Taoism, the Shang Dynasty, Chinese folk religions, and, of course, Buddhism, and that complexity continues today with, as we discuss with Hannah, the three types of Chinese vegetarian cooking.
Hannah, who was born and raised in Detroit, but who lived in China for several years and attended cooking school there — much different than cooking schools in the US — knows much about Chinese vegetarian cooking; she’s passionate about it, too, and her beautiful food reflects that. We hope that after you listen to this week’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman, featuring Hannah, you’ll check out her book and fall for it the way we did. Plus, what better time of year to talk eating more vegetables?
Please listen and subscribe, and please review on Apple if you’re so inclined. Today’s podcast recipe is Blanched Spinach with Sesame Sauce, from The Vegan Chinese Kitchen.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
Blanched Spinach with Sesame Sauce
Blanching transforms a mountain of spinach in seconds, reducing teeth-chalking raw leaves into juicily sweet, tender morsels. My mom would tuck the wet spinach into a ball, wring out the liquid between her palms, and chop the emerald-green pile into bite-size pieces. Soothed with a creamy sauce of nutty sesame paste, perked up with minced garlic, and brightened with rice vinegar, spinach becomes irresistible—my siblings and I literally chopstick-fought over who got to eat the last pieces. At restaurants, this dish is often served as an appetizer, and chefs will either mold the spinach into a column or pile it neatly leaf to stem and dress it just before serving. You can replace half the sesame paste with peanut butter for a creamier sauce.
Look for sturdy stemmed spinach that can stand up in your hand like a bunch of flowers, not the bagged baby variety, which tends to melt away when blanched. — The Vegan Chinese Kitchen
1 pound (450 grams) bunched spinach
3 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste, homemade (recipe below) or store-bought
1 teaspoon pale rice vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons crushed peanuts, toasted pine nuts, or sesame seeds
Fresh red chile, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)
Thoroughly wash the spinach, soaking the stems and leaves in water and using your fingers to loosen any dirt and grit. Rinse and repeat until the water is free of dirt. Drain in a colander. Bring a wok or large pot of water to a boil.
When the water reaches a rolling boil, add 1 ½ teaspoons of the vegetable oil and half the spinach and blanch until vibrant green and tender, 30 to 40 seconds. Remove the spinach from the water with a skimmer or slotted spoon and spread it out in a colander to drain. Bring the water back to a boil, add the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons vegetable oil, and repeat with the remaining spinach.
In a small bowl, combine the sesame paste, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, salt, and sesame oil. Add just enough water (you can use the hot cooking water from the pot) to thin the sauce to a pourable consistency.
When the spinach is cool enough to handle, gently press out the excess water until it’s not sopping wet. Lay out the pieces on a cutting board and cut them into 3-inch lengths. Pile the spinach in a serving dish, use a spoon to drape the sesame sauce on top, garnish with crushed peanuts and sliced red chile (if using), and serve.
Chinese Sesame Paste
Makes about 1 ½ cups
Chinese sesame paste is not the same as tahini, which is lighter in color, runnier in texture, and ground from lightly toasted sesame seeds. Using roasted sesame seeds results in a richly nutty flavor and deep peanut butter–like color.
— The Vegan Chinese Kitchen
1 ½ cups (210 grams) raw white sesame seeds
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
Pour the sesame seeds into a dry wok or skillet and set it over medium heat. Cook, stirring continuously, for 2 minutes, until the seeds are fragrant and starting to pop. Continue to stir for 5 to 6 minutes more, until the popping sounds decrease and the sesame seeds have darkened to a golden color and crumble easily between your fingers. Pour the seeds onto a plate and let cool slightly.
Place the warm sesame seeds in a food processor or high-speed blender. Pulse continuously for 5 to 6 minutes (if using a blender, start on low speed and then increase to high, and stir continuously with the tamper), until a crumbly paste forms. Stream in the sesame oil and process until the paste is smooth. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 months.
— Recipes reprinted with permission from The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che copyright © 2022. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.