After attending the opening of the Lonquan Buddhist Temple in Utrecht in December, we were invited to join lunch at the nearby Chinese restaurant. Rev. Xianda explained that the restaurant had never really cooked Buddhist vegetarian before, so they had brought in “a specialist” to come and help them.
Temple-style vegetarian cuisine in China is quite different to the usual fare one is accustomed to in Chinese restaurants. It avoids garlic and onions and for centuries has skilfully used plant-based proteins like tofu, seitan, soy and mushrooms as a “meat analogue“. This gives the food a special, delicate character.
The many wonderful dishes that came to the table that day echoed our earlier visits to temples in China where, during our travels, we’d often stayed for lunch. What was striking on both occasions were the single vegetable platters – wedges of Chinese aubergine (eggplant); fingers of fried cucumber with ground chillies; thinly sliced king sized oyster mushrooms; broccoli florets with tiny straw mushrooms; and cute, whole baby bok choi. There was even a startling dish with brussels sprouts and macadamia nuts (a curtsey to the Dutch kitchen perhaps?). The sauces were like a watercolour; a subtle wash of sepia and umber undertones with splashes of fiery red and the lingering, distinctive aroma of Chinese Five Spice. It was striking how the taste was at once both very subtle and demure, yet could deliver quite a punch!
Here is a recipe rendition that may catch a little of the flavour of that very interesting day.
Note: Chestnut mushrooms are about the same size as white button mushrooms, are a lovely tan colour and have much more flavour. When left to grow full size, they are more commonly known as Portobello mushrooms.
300 g (2 cups) firm tofu
250 g (2½ cups whole) chestnut mushrooms
1 red chilli
15 g (1½ tablespoons) fresh ginger
500 g (1 medium crown) broccoli
2 tablespoons corn starch
350 ml (1½ cups) water
Oil for frying
For the sauce: 1½ tablespoons soy sauce plus ⅛ teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder
For the tofu: 1 tablespoon soy sauce plus a dash of Chinese Five Spice powder
- Medium-dice the tofu.
- Clean and quarter the chestnut mushrooms.
- Mince the red chilli.
- Peel and mince the ginger.
- Cut the broccoli crown into small florets. Peel the woody stem and slice into thin fingers.
- Whisk the water, 1½ tablespoons soy sauce, and corn starch together in a small bowl.
- Have a pot of boiling salted water on the ready for cooking the broccoli.
- Heat some oil in a frying pan over a medium flame and stir-fry the chillies and ginger until they release their fragrance. Turn the flame to high, put in the chestnut mushrooms and stir-fry until they begin to brown. Sprinkle with a little sea salt and stir-fry a few seconds more.
- Whisk the water, soy sauce, and corn starch again to bind equally. Pour and stir into the mushrooms and keep stirring (to avoid lumps forming) until it begins to boil and thicken. Season with an ⅛ teaspoon Chinese Five Spice powder and more soy sauce if desired. Turn off the flame and cover to keep hot.
- Heat a little oil in a nonstick frying pan over a medium flame and stir-fry the tofu until it becomes golden on the edges. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of soy sauce and sprinkle with a dash of Chinese Five Spice powder. Toss the tofu to let the soy sauce evaporate.
- Gently stir the tofu through the mushroom sauce. Cover.
- Bring the pot of salted water to a rapid boil and drop in the broccoli, return to a boil and drain immediately. Thoroughly shake off any excess water or let it drip-dry for a minute.
- Just before serving, combine the broccoli with the mushrooms, tofu and sauce.
- Serve immediately alongside white rice or Chinese noodles.
Tip – if you need to wait, prepare everything else, but hold off cooking the broccoli until the last moment to keep its bright colour.