Yes, you can cook plant-based versions of authentic Chinese dishes!

After having made 1.000 different authentic Chinese dishes I needed a new challenge. A chat with a friend gave me a new idea: trying to create plant-based versions of some of these dishes.

Over the course of 5 years, I had cooked more than 1.000 authentic Chinese dishes (click here if you don’t believe me). What started out as a way to support my wife while she went back to university (link in Dutch) to obtain her formal teacher certification turned into a self-imposed challenge. Using Fuchsia Dunlop’s amazing cooking books, the 50 dishes that came out successfully quickly turned into 100. 100 turned into 250 and by the time I reached 500 and attempted to prepare every single recipe in her books it had turned into a mild obsession. I bought some more cooking books while I worked my way up to 1.000.

1.000 authentic Chinese dishes

To be honest, by the time I cooked my 1.000th dish, I had gotten quite fed up with it all. After having tried all the recipes of Dunlop’s books I could find the ingredients for, I often found other cooking books less pleasant and the results often less tasty. When I passed the 1.000th dish, having also made quite a few less memorable dishes, I called it a day … sort of. I have prepared less than 10 new dishes in the nine months since. Instead, I preferred sticking to our favourites among those 1.000.

But stopping trying new things did create a bit of a hole in my daily life. I was missing the challenge of the previous 5 years and I was missing the drive of having a ‘to-do list’ to work from. All of that changed with one phone call … 

Why plant-based?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all preachy and try to convince you why you should eat plant-based. That’s not what this article is about. 

I’ll gladly admit to having been quite ignorant as far as vegetarianism and veganism goes. Some 15 years ago I had tried using some meat replacements, but the limited range of alternatives quickly made me lose interest. Having cooked those 1.000+ Chinese dishes I’d found that various tofu-based products could be nice alternatives for meat, but it only occasionally helped me skip a meat dish. Mostly because I was trying a Chinese recipe that was based around tofu anyway. Despite the many forms tofu comes in, I was missing the bite and chewiness in most tofu-based dishes to make it a daily habit.

And then I had a phone call with one of my friends. Because of social distancing and COVID measures I hadn’t seen him and his wife in a while. While we were catching up, we naturally arrived at the topic of having dinner together. I was quite surprised to hear that since the last time we met up he and his wife had switched to an almost fully plant-based diet, seemingly inspired by watching some documentaries. He told me how they had found great alternatives for beef, chicken and minced meat among the many products that were available nowadays.

I’d always known him as a lover of a good meat or fish dish, so I was immediately inspired by his story. If he could do it and was raving about it, maybe I should also give it a try! It seemed like suddenly, I had a new challenge. What if I could create plant-based versions of some of the many Chinese dishes I’d made? 

‘But that’s not chicken!’

With a little help from my friend, I discovered the enormous range of plant-based meat alternatives from various brands that were sold by the supermarket we frequent. I started buying various items by different brands and trying them out in some of our favourite Chinese dishes. It was a bit hit and miss and I quickly learned what worked and what didn’t. 

A few of my findings about plant-based meat replacements:

  • Texture is everything. One of the most important things when switching from being a carnivore to eating plant-based is recreating the same mouthfeel as a traditionally prepared dish has. If what you’re eating ‘feels’ like the chicken or beef you’re used to in a dish, the other ingredients will often do the rest of the work.
  • The plant-based meat replacement should be as unflavoured as possible. Not only shouldn’t they have a strong flavour of themselves (something which turned me off when trying tempeh), but also that they have no added flavours. While some products have flavourings and spices added – which works fine if you are cooking a Mexican dish and the chunks are already spiced that way – they tend to clash with the flavours used in Chinese cuisine. Since cooking authentic Chinese is all about creating your own flavours with cooking wines, soy sauces, Chinese vinegars, chilli oils, chilli bean paste and other ingredients, the less flavouring is added to a meat replacement, the better.
  • The meat replacement should have a high level of absorption for marinades and sauces. Chinese cooking depends for 90% on the used marinades, sauces, spices, etc. The product should be able to absorb the flavours of Shaoxing cooking wine and soy sauces when you marinade them. They should also blend well with any sauce you let it simmer in, without disintegrating.

When all these requirements are met, I have found that dishes with plant-based alternatives are just as good or sometimes even better than the originals. I have had guests over for dinner that complimented me on the ‘excellent chicken dish’ even though I had told them they were being served plant-based dishes. ‘But that’s not chicken!’

Some brands work better than others. Take for instance the various options for minced meat imitations. They had varying levels of success. Some of them have too much of an aftertaste, while others are too much like a paste and miss the ‘chunkiness of minced meat’. I have found Beyond Meat to work best, we’ve even used if to make plant-based ‘pot-sticker’ dumplings (锅贴, guo tie). We’ve also used various ‘pre-stir-fried’ minced products that worked very well in noodle dishes like zhajiang noodles or mapo tofu, again, as long as they are not flavoured.

There are many chicken meat replacements that work very well. I have found that they are often very interchangeable, and that price becomes a more important driver of choice than brand. For some fine private label brands, you can get twice the weight in plant-based ‘chicken’ than with a branded alternative. Sometimes Quorn also worked nicely as an alternative with some poultry dishes.

Some challenges remain. I have not found an alternative for fish yet, nor for pork fillet or pork belly, which are used in favourites like ‘fish fragrant pork slivers’ (鱼香肉丝, yu xiang rou si) and red braised pork (红烧肉, hong shao rou). If good alternatives exist at all, do let me know your suggestions. I have thought about experimenting with a product called Oumph!, which has the structure of dried tofu (腐竹, fu zhu) sticks but is only available in spiced flavours. I have however found mock ‘bacon’ products that work quite well in dishes like twice cooked pork (回锅肉, hui guo rou).

There are also oat-based products (e.g., Pulled Oats) that come remarkably close to beef and work really well in stir-fry dishes and stews. They are a bit harder to find and are not always unflavoured. For some reason, the supermarkets we frequent have stopped selling the Pulled Oats brand.

There’s also some soy-based ‘meatballs’ which work really well in red-braised dishes.

Meatless Chinese?

To make things clear, I do not consider myself a vegetarian nor a vegan. I still occasionally use some products that have meat in them if I can’t find a good alternative. I still find plant-based options at most restaurants so limited that I tend to fall back on meat dishes when eating out. Although I’ve largely switched to coconut and soy-based alternatives I still use dairy products and find it hard to quit milk and cheese. But I’m trying to use plant-based options wherever possible. Overall, I estimate that since a few months ago, we have cut 90% of our meat consumption, without making any concessions in the enjoyment of our food. I feel very satisfied knowing that I have contributed to a more sustainable consumption pattern and feel good knowing that no animals were hurt in preparing the daily food that I serve. 

Cooking plant-based Chinese food might sound like a contradictio in terminis, but nothing is further from the truth. Before the 1960s the Chinese were eating little meat and while consumption of pork began to rise in the 60s, beef and chicken only became more popular in the 80s. Many people were simply too poor to be able to afford meat and for most Chinese it was reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year. In 2019 the per capita meat consumption in China was 46 kilos. It was 101 in the US, 62 in the UK, while my home country The Netherlands consumed 76 kilos in 2017.

So, a plant-based Chinese diet isn’t as strange as it might sound, but increased wealth and with meat being considered a status symbol China’s eating habits have drastically changed. I hope that there is a way back for them as well as us, since I can’t imagine the impact when all Chinese would eat as much meat as we’ve become used to in most developed countries. All I personally needed was a new self-imposed challenge, just like when I started cooking Chinese in the first place. Again, I’m absolutely not trying to be preachy, but I’m sure that many readers of this article could take the same step. I hope they’ll find my experiences and suggestions just as inspiring as I found my friend’s.

Several people have asked me if I can send them the recipes of these dishes and what meat replacements I use. As far as recipes go, just use those from any of the books of Fuchsia Dunlop and replace the beef, chicken or pork ingredient with something that meets the three characterists I described (texture, absorption and unflavoured). In the table below you can find the products I’m using. Note that some of these are private labels (AH is a Dutch supermarket chain) or might not be available in your region. Products by the Dutch company Vegetarische Slager seems to be available in the UK as well (Vegetarian Butcher). Also note that some of these products are vegetarian, not vegan. Do some experimenting yourself.

Replacement forProduct/BrandMain protein sources
ChickenAH Vegetarische kip stukjes
Vegetarische Slager Vegan kipstuckjes
Quorn Vegetarische Stukjes (worked well with General Tso’s chicken)
soy & wheat
myco protein
Minced MeatBeyond Meat Mince (good for dumplings)
Vegetarische Slager gehacktmanschap (good for dumplings)
Roasted minced meatVivera plant mince (good in noodle dishes)
Vegetarische Slager Vegan rul gehackt (good in noodle dishes)
AH Vegan naturel tofu rulstukjes
soy, barley malt extract
MeatballsVegetarische Slager Vegetarische gehacktballetjes (work well as red braised meatballs)soy & wheat
PorkQuorn Vegan reepjes (work well for deepfried pork dishes like Sweet & Sour pork)myco protein, wheat gluttons, peas
BaconVegetarische Slager Vegan Specktakel (works great in Twice Cooked Pork)soy & wheat
BeefPulled Oats (Gold & Green) – doesn’t seem to be available anymore
AH Vegan Pulled Beef (not fully unflavoured but works okay)
wheat, peas, soy