In 2019, blogger and cookbook author Hannah Che packed up her life in Portland, Oregon and headed to the Guangzhou Vegetarian Culinary Institute in China. Che wanted to immerse herself in the art of Chinese plant-based cooking, a journey that has culminated in her first book, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen. The pages are filled with the rich histories and traditions behind the many recipes and ingredients used in the cuisines of China today.
While the book offers veganized versions of classics like mapo tofu and sweet-and-sour pork, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen is meant to be a celebration of a “wholly different culinary tradition that’s inventive, satisfying, and delicious in its own right”—one that Che hopes will dispel the common misconception of Chinese food as being meat-heavy, an idea shaped by the dishes served at both Chinese American and traditional Chinese restaurants.
“When you go out to eat, you’re usually going to celebrate something or an event, so you’re going to order these more expensive meat, fish dishes,” Che explains. “Everyone at home is just eating dishes based off vegetables. Even the word for dishes, ‘cài,’ is ‘vegetable,’ you know? It’s based around that.” For her, this means simple dishes like Three Treasures of the Earth, a simple stir-fry of eggplants, potatoes, and bell peppers, and a refreshing Napa cabbage and vermicelli salad her mom makes.
Though Che has been a vegan since 2015, she didn’t develop a strong interest in preparing Chinese food until 2018, when she began to yearn for the cuisine she grew up with. “It hadn’t occurred to me until then that my decision to go vegan wasn’t just about food or even a personal choice,” Che writes in her book. “I wondered if my commitment to eat more sustainably meant I was turning away from my culture.”
As Che dove deeper, she realized just how much of Chinese cuisine was inherently plant-based. Buddhism, the dominant religion in China, has influenced much of the country’s fare, and vegetarian cookery, inspired by the Buddhist practice of nonviolence, has existed in China for more than 2,000 years. And it was Buddhist monks who encouraged the use of chopsticks, a utensil essential to both the development and enjoyment of Chinese food throughout history and today.
Hungry to learn more, Che flew to China to attend the country’s only vegetarian culinary school in on Changzhou Island in Guangzhou, a city in the Pearl River Delta just north of Hong Kong. “I had to go and learn from people who had been living with the tradition for their whole lives, who knew about the philosophy behind it,” Che tells me. With her peers, Che notes, she didn’t have to explain her eating choices or defend her cultural identity. “I really found the people I wanted to find,” she says. She realized that—like her classmates—she, too, could be both Chinese and vegan.
In between early morning runs and watching government-mandated CCTV (China Central Television) in the evenings, Che absorbed the fundamental techniques of Chinese cooking. She mastered knife cuts, learned to highlight the natural flavor of vegetables (běn wèi), and took in how to cook with intention while listening to her instincts.