Coaxing out flavors in vegan Chinese food

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For Chinese cooks, romaine lettuce is just another leafy green, which has a savory sweetness when cooked. Photo by Hannah Che.

When Hannah Che became a vegan, she worried that adopting a plant-based diet would prevent her from eating her favorite Chinese dishes, the ones that connected her to her family, history, and culture. Determined to make her favorite dishes without meat, she started a blog. It eventually led to a cookbook, "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen: Recipes and Modern Stories from a Thousand-Year-Old Tradition."

In Guangzhou, at the only professional vegetarian cooking program in China, she discovered a rich tradition of vegetarian cuisine. Developed primarily through ritualistic Buddhist practice, it had been practiced for more than 2,000 years.

The concept of coaxing flavors out of ingredients is known in Chinese as rěwèi. "You rarely get a dish that is just one thing," Che explains. Combining aromatics such as ginger, dried chiles, and peppercorns with vegetables create the foundation for a balanced dish. 

Blanched Lettuce with Ginger Soy Sauce 

(Jiāngróng shēngcài)

Serves 4

When I first encountered cooked lettuce on restaurant menus, I was skeptical, but I quickly changed my mind after eating dishes like this one. Chinese cooks treat lettuces just like any other leafy green, and varieties like sturdy-hearted romaine lettuce and the long papery fronds of stem lettuce are often stir-fried, blanched, steamed, or wilted in soups, with delicious results. Here a quick blanch intensi- fies romaine lettuce’s sweetness and flavor, and the delicate soy sauce dressing bathes the crisp, juicy stems and dimpled leaves with ses- ame oil and clinging bits of ginger.

This method is also tasty with other vegetables that have some crunch to them—young asparagus, green beans, snow peas, and broc- coli are all good candidates; just adjust the blanching time as needed. You can make this dish using minced garlic in place of the ginger, or a combination of the two.


  • 1 medium head (12 ounces / 340 grams) romaine or other ribbed lettuce, leaves separated
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare a bowl of ice and water. Blanch the lettuce in the boiling water for about 30 seconds, until its leaves are vibrant green but still crisp. Remove the lettuce and dunk it in the ice water to halt the cooking, then drain and shake it as dry as possible (or give it a whirl in a salad spinner). Place the lettuce in a large bowl.
  2. In a small saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Cook the ginger briefly until fragrant and golden, about 1 minute. Add the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring with a spatula until the sugar has dissolved, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat and stir in the sesame oil.
  3. Scrape the sauce out over the drained lettuce and gently fold to coat the leaves. Arrange the lettuce in a pile on a plate and pour on the sauce that has collected at the bottom of the bowl. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen" by Hannah Che copyright © 2022. Photographs by Hannah Che. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. 

"There is over a 2,000 year tradition of vegetarian cooking in China," says Hannah Che, who attended the only professional vegetarian cooking program in the country. Photo by Elizabeth Che.

Shiitake mushrooms stand in for meat as Hannah Che makes her favorite dishes in, "The Vegan Chinese Kitchen." Photo courtesy of Clarkson Potter.