October 03, 2011

Real Chinese Food part 1

My plate at Katrina's house

I was reading a fabulous post on Vegan Culinary Crusade about a dining extravaganza in San Francisco, and the question at the end of the post was, "What is the most mind-blowing vegan meal you've ever eaten?" Well, because the post was about a restaurant meal, it made me think about all the great vegan meals I've ever had in restaurants. There have been many, but the one that always pops into my head first was a wonderful and unusual Chinese dinner we had on one of our vacation road trips.

Celery and asparagus with marinated tofu

When the kids were younger and still at home, our favorite summer vacation was to pile the kids, cooler and camping equipment into the car and head far away to a beautiful National Park for a week or two of camping and hiking. Once we got to the park, of course, we lived in our tent and cooked and ate outside, but on the way, we stayed in motels, fixed our own breakfasts and lunches, and tried to find suitable vegan restaurants for dinner en route.

Wide rice noodles with tofu and vegetables

We tried to plan dinner stops in towns with vegan-friendly restaurants, but that wasn't always possible, especially back in the "olden days" when vegans and vegan-friendly accommodations were pretty scarce. We were driving through Montana on one of our trips, and I'd previously read a review of a Chinese restaurant in Butte that sounded good. I don't know what Butte is like now, but back then, well, it wasn't exactly a hotbed of vegetarianism. Nor was Montana in general. We weren't staying in Butte, but passing through at dinner time, and the Chinese restaurant sounded like the best option for miles around.

Bok choy with garlic

When we finally spotted the restaurant, we were a little uncertain. It seemed kind of remote from the town, and looked like it needed to be rebuilt, if you know what I mean. We hemmed and hawed, then, mostly out of the necessity of feeding five hungry people — three of them kids — we went inside. Our confidence was not restored when the first thing we saw was a sign from the Health Department warning customers to drink the water at their own risk, with a long list of contaminants. A Chinese dinner without water? Was that even possible?

Lotus root

Once at our table, we perused the menu, and things were definitely not looking up, but I am an optimist, and the waiter was so nice. I explained that we were vegetarians and wanted food with no blah blah blah. You know the drill.

"Vegetarians? Vegetarians?" he asked, with glee and a big smile. I didn't know how to interpret his reaction. Did he find this amusing? Then he said, "The cooks are all vegetarians six days a week. They eat meat on the seventh day, you know, to keep up their strength. They love to cook vegetarian but not many vegetarians around here, so they never get the chance, except for themselves. I asked him what we should order, and he said not to worry, the cooks would make us a good meal.

Tofu stuffed with mushrooms (much smaller than it looks here!)

We were giddy with anticipation and surprise. This was so unexpected. That night we were served an amazing dinner with dish after dish of what I think of as "real" Chinese food. It was unlike anything we had ever had in any other restaurant, and I dreamed about the flavors for a long, long time. I can't even remember what we ate that night, or even the name of the restaurant, but I'll never forget the delight of tasting each forkful.

Spinach and tofu soup

I have a similar reaction whenever I eat at the home of our friend Katrina, who is from China. The photos you're seeing (not so great ones from my phone camera) are from a meal we had at her home this past summer. Everything was exceptional as always. Sadly, I don't have recipes for any of Katrina's dishes from this past summer, but I'm including a link to recipes for two of her other dishes (spinach and tofu soup, and Katrina's cold noodles with ginger and nori), that appeared in a past post, and both are worth revisiting.

Cold noodles with ginger and seasoned nori


  1. Great food, it reminds me of a recent trip to Vietnam... great times

  2. That restaurant experience is so great! Aw, I love when people get excited to cook for you!
    All the dishes you're showing from yr friend look really interesting, too. I've probably never had real Chinese food but the bok choy, stuffed tofu, and fat rice noodles all look awesome.
    Are you totally ruined for ever eating out at Chinese restaurants now?

  3. Thank you for posting this, I'm totally in the mood for Chinese food. I'm going to make the noodles!

  4. It's as though that restaurant was in an alternate universe! These kinds of stories usually end with, "When I recoiled from the serving platter of octopus, the waiter asked in astonishment, 'Vegans don't eat fish?'"

    And aren't you lucky to have a friend like Katrina.

  5. Wow, Andrea, all of the dishes look absolutely amazing! That's awesome that you had such a great restaurant experience, too.

    I really want to try lotus root now. I'm intrigued!

  6. Vegan Be Happy,
    I've never been to Vietnam, only to Vietnamese restaurants. I'm sure there's a big difference in the food. :)

    It's all about expectations; I know that all dining experiences aren't equal. That said, there's a vegan Chinese restaurant here that I love going to, and certain dishes I think about until I'm forced to just go there and order some. (Tofu skin hotpot. Oh boy.)

    You're welcome. We love those noodles!

    The alternate universe theory has merit. Maybe that's why we could never find the restaurant again.

    I hate to say this, but I didn't like the lotus root as much as I thought I would. I like it in small doses as part of a dish, but not as much as the only item in a dish.

  7. "Our confidence was not restored when the first thing we saw was a sign from the Health Department warning customers to drink the water at their own risk, with a long list of contaminants"

    Wow--you are MUCH braver and more adventurous than me, lol! I am glad you were so brave because your meal sounds amazing, but I have to admit...I probably would have missed out on that great meal. I love this story--I need to be braver :-)


  8. All of the food looks absolutely amazing! Would love to try the mushroom-stuffed tofu.

  9. Wonderful recount of a favorite food memory...what a pleasant surprise it must have been, just when things weren't looking too optimal.

    As for the meals shown...what can I say? I'm in awe. It all looks so beautiful and delicious...that's a run of the mill description, but I'm lost for words! Katrina is so talented, and I think your phone camera pics are stunning.

    The mushroom stuffed tofu and the tofu/spinach soup are especially enticing.

  10. I love that you got such a positive response from the restaurant once they knew you were veg, that is great!

  11. Courtney,
    We didn't drink the water, but it was probably in the food we were eating. Believe me, I thought about it the whole time we were eating. Brave and smart are different!

    I think you should try to create a recipe for it since I don't have one.

    Thanks! We were giddy for days! Katrina is an awesome person and cook, and it comes through in her food. There's a skylight over the table and it's really fun to take photos of the gorgeous food — when I remember to bring a camera!

    I know. It's kind of unusual for restaurant cooks to be so happy to have a bunch of vegans in their establishment.

  12. Awww, the little cube of tofu! I need more Chinese friends, that is for sure. It all looks perfectly lovely. Last year I bought a hugely expensive "real Chinese" cookbook, but haven't experimented much with it yet. This is inspiring!

  13. Stuffed tofu? That sounds delicious!

    I actually haven't ever had Chinese food. Ever. I guess I get sucked into the "stick to what I like" mindset with food most of the time. Everything here looks like something I would enjoy, though.

  14. Look at all this beautiful food! And, yay! So glad you linked to those noodles again. We love them over here.

  15. Zoa,
    Maybe you could use the cookbook for mofo next year. Just trying to be helpful.

    I find Chinese food to be the most likely restaurant food to be vegan-friendly when eating out. And I like that it is so vegetable centric. Plus, we just like it and cook it often.

    I love the noodles and the soup — both are so easy to prepare and taste much more complicated than they are!

  16. Ooooh! Everything looks so good! Especially the lotus root... my favorite!

  17. Ahhh! That experience sounds awesome. I had a similar one once at brunch at a very not-chinese family style meat/potatoes style restaurant (I went with my parents)
    We looked over the options at the buffet table and found nothing to eat... so my mom went and talked to the chef, he got this sparkle in his eye and said not to worry, he'd make something for me.

    Somewhere in the restaurant he found tofu, and made me this beautiful carrot/tofu/ginger dish. Divine!

    That little tofu stuffed with mushrooms is too cute!

  18. Your description of your restaurant experience is funny. "you know, to keep up the strength" - haha. Also funny that you clarified about the size of that tofu because it did look huge. Lotus root is a new one for me.

  19. What a lovely story! It's such a treat when chefs look at the process of putting together a vegan dish as a way to flex some muscles they don't get to day to day. As a guest, it's a much better feeling to be treated as an escape from the ordinary rather than as an inconvenience.

    I had that kind of experience on a trip to the English countryside. The chef came to our table with bottles of vinegars and dressings to make sure it was all vegan before he used it, and he seemed charged to make something outside of his norm. We all took pictures together at the end of the meal, and it felt like we'd made a connection.

    How lucky are you having a friend who makes you beautiful, authentic Chinese food like Katrina?

  20. MAhealani,
    It was a wonderful supper — food and company!

    Don't you just love when that happens? A really good cook won't be intimidated by cooking with just plants, after all, that's what most of the world's food is!

    I think the tofu was probably about a 2-inch cube — not tiny, but not huge. Some things, like tofu cubes and babies, always look bigger in photos. :)

    Oh, I agree. No one likes to feel like an unwelcome burden. Your experience in England sounds wonderful — and I'll bet the food was just as lovely as the chef!

  21. I would like to place an order, Andrea. I'd like 5 tofus but all the size of the picture shown and two cold noodle with nori. When do you think it could be here by? Delicious. Thank you for posting.

  22. One my favorite meals ever was Chinese too. not in America, but over in China. Of course I had some not so good ones there too. I love lotus root if prepared right.

  23. I LOVE candied lotus root! And your photos look lovely :)

  24. GiGi,
    I'm so sorry. The items you have requested are out of stock. The large size tofu (serves 12) is discontinued. I'll let you know if they ever become available again.

    I've never been to China — you're lucky to have had that experience.

    Miss Jenny,
    I don't believe I've ever had candied lotus root — something to look forward to trying some day.

  25. Butte?!?! Who woulda thunk it?!

  26. Christina,
    Exactly, who wudda?

  27. Hi Andrea, these are good memories. I'm sorry I don't have recipes for you, but I think I should work on that. Maybe I should write a cooking blog as well. I need to learn from you how to maintain your blog writing so consistently.

    1. Hi Katrina,
      Maybe you should have a blog! I wish my blog writing were as consistent as you say. hard


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