If you told Hannah Che when she was studying piano performance in college that she would go on to publish a vegan Chinese cookbook, she would have been shocked. Yet Che is the author of recently released The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, which derives recipes from her vegan food blog The Plant Based Wok. Despite the drastic change of career choice, she is able to draw parallels between her time spent getting her master’s degree at Rice University and her experiences with Chinese cuisine.
“I do see a lot of similarities between cooking and music, because they are both very technical while also being very creative,” Che explains. “You have to perform in a way, too, whether that’s a music concert or if you’re cooking in a restaurant; every night service is like a performance in a sense. Even when you go to work at other restaurants, it’s literally called a stage.”
Che first became interested in vegan cuisine her junior year of college, after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. “It was very hard to read, but I think I finished it in one sitting,” Che explains, “It showed me these issues that I was not aware of before regarding animal agriculture and the environmental impacts of the food that I had been consuming without knowing.”
With knowledge from the book, Che decided to commit to a vegan diet. She couldn’t see how she could possibly ignore what she had learned, and how it affected her. The problem, though, was getting her family on board and figuring out a way to still enjoy the classic Chinese dishes she loved growing up.
Surprisingly to Che, her mom was immediately supportive, and shared her own desire of wanting to eat sustainably. “She’s always been very knowledgeable about the food industry and animal agriculture but I just had never talked to her about it or realized it,” Che says. That’s not to say her mom is completely plant-based, but, “she is very conscious of these issues” and most importantly, encouraged Che to live her life the way she felt necessary.
Che immediately began seeking out resources and plant-based cookbooks, and though there was a wealth of information out there, all the recipes felt the same: grain bowls, smoothies, and salads, all developed by a white chef. “Don’t get me wrong, I eat a lot of that, but it just felt very much like vegan food is a specific food that has to look a certain way,” she explains. Nothing encompassed the rich culinary traditions Che grew up with Chinese cuisine, so she decided to pursue it herself.
When Che graduated in the summer of 2019, instead of continuing her career in piano performance, she made her way to a culinary school in China. It was there she witnessed how bountiful plant-based Chinese cuisine could really be. “I realized that tradition is not a thing that is set in stone,” she says.
There is this misconception that going vegan will separate a person from their identity and culture, but Che had the opposite reaction. “Saying there is only one way to eat a cuisine is saying that Chinese people can’t also be innovative and think about food through the lens of environmental issues,” she explains, something she affirms is patently false.
For naysayers that believe Chinese food has to include animal products to live up to a rigid sense of authenticity, Che points to her experiences in China. “I was in Chengdu province and I went to three or four different restaurants and ordered mapo tofu and I was so surprised by how different they all tasted,” she explains. “I had a mentor who was a Buddhist chef and had been eating vegan for 40 years. His mapo tofu used minced mushrooms—who is going to say that his is not authentic?”
Che returned from China with new recipes under her belt and a fresh perspective on what it means to cook vegan Chinese food. “I don’t like the word veganized because that’s assuming that you’re putting a spin on something from an outside perspective,” Che says. “Chinese culture has its own plant-based histories that are way older than the plant-based movement in the west. So it’s definitely possible to make something both traditional and vegan.”