The first time I went to Chu Chai, a vegetarian Thai restaurant in Montreal, I was looking forward to the luxury of having more than two token vegetarian dishes from which to choose. But when I opened the menu I faced page after page of meaty entrees: Chicken with eggplant and basil. Fish with three hot sauces. Hot and sour pork. Curried beef and potatoes in coconut milk. The menu read like a carnivore’s feast. I wondered if they were advertising their “vegetarian” orientation with the same sketchy understanding of vegetarianism I encountered when traveling in Thailand itself. (The pork bits are just a garnish! You can eat around the chicken chunks in the soup. Seafood isn’t meat!) I double-checked with the waiter that this was indeed a fully vegetarian restaurant, and then proceeded to order my first beef and chicken in ten years.
What arrived at the table was a feast that could have satisfied the most staunch meat lover, despite the “beef” being made from seitan, or wheat gluten, and the “chicken” being seasoned tofu, shaped and scored to resemble a tender chicken breast. The taste of meat was so convincing it brought back a flood of memories from my meat-eating childhood. And while I reserved some queasiness at the oddity of eating pretend meat, I was impressed by the clear culinary mastery that went into preparing my meal.
The popularity of Western vegetarian meat alternatives—veggie dogs, fake bacon, soy deli slices—belies the rich history and delicate gastronomy of “mock meat.” Also called “Buddha’s meat,” mock meat was first conceived over two thousand years ago in Buddhist monasteries in China. Vegetarian cuisine was a must in a religion that prohibited the taking of life, but at the same time, Chinese hospitality required that hosts defer to the tastes and wishes of their guests. The result was the creation of vegetarian foods that tasted and looked almost exactly like meat.
The quest to convincingly render soybeans or mushrooms into duck or fish spurred the development of mock meat. Scholars of Chinese cuisine note that the challenge of imitating meat with vegetables fell to specialized chefs. In Chinese Gastronomy, Hsiang Ju Lin and Tsuifeng Lin wrote that, “The school of cooking which originated in the temple kitchens expanded and was taken up by the Yangchow cooks, specializing in delicate pastries and noodles. The challenge of simulating textures and appearance was irresistible. They were, in fact, able to reproduce even the intricate diamond pattern of duck skin, by lightly scoring smooth bean curd and filling in the cuts with a soy sauce mixture.”
Bryanna’s Buddha’s Chicken
This is a traditional yuba, or bean curd skin, recipe used by Chinese Buddhist vegetarians. It makes a delicious hot or cold appetizer. Leftovers can be chopped and used in stuffings or rice or noodle dishes.
3 large (about 16" in diameter) round sheets fresh yuba (bean curd skin), cut in half
1/3 c. vegetarian broth
1 and 1/2 T. light soy sauce
2 tsp. light unbleached sugar
1/2 T. roasted sesame oil
oil for deep-frying