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Sichuan Cooking for Vegetarians

Although vegetarians are rare in China, the cuisine is undoubtedly veggie friendly. This particularly goes for Sichuan cooking where strong bold flavours are perfect foils for vegetables and tofu. And when you make it at home, the result is so unlike the gloopy MSG laden Chinese takeaways that we are habituated to. Here's a primer on cooking vegetarian Sichuan dishes at home, including essential ingredients and favourite recipes.

Mapo Dou Fou

Vegetarians in China

Vegetarians are rare in China, but at home they tend to eat a vegetable dominated diet with pulses and grains. The Buddhist monasteries are strictly vegetarian and cook dishes that imitate meat and fish in their appearance, taste and texture. They are made from wheat gluten, mushrooms, tofu and yam.

The largest vegetarian group in China is Buddhist; some are only strict vegetarians twice a month on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month. When I was in China this meant that every city had a vegetarian restaurant to cater for these vegetarian days. Now as the Chinese are becoming more health conscious new vegetarian restaurants are springing up in the big cities.

Essential Sichuan Flavours

Sichuan cooking is all about a combination of flavours; hot from chillies, numbing from Sichuan peppers, salty, sour, sweet, bitter and smoky. One dish can contain all these disparate flavours. Each dish has its own style, they say in Sichuan a hundred dishes has a hundred different flavours. The two Sichuan taste concepts that we use in our recipes are ‘ma la wei’ and ‘yu xiang wei’.

‘Ma la wei’ combining Sichuan peppers (ma) with dried chillies (la) is the most famous flavour combination which produces a numbing tingling mouth sensation! Sichuan peppers are native to Sichuan, but red chillies didn’t arrive from South America until the 17C. Sichuan chillies are red and fat and are used dried for a deeper richer potency. They are rounded at the end and are known as facing heaven chillies and have a citrus flavor and are often fried whole in oil to infuse the oil before starting cooking.

Special Sichuan Ingredients

  • Sichuan pepper is a Chinese spice made from the berries of a native ash tree. It has a spicy, mouth-numbing taste & adds a kick to curries in a similar way as chillies. It is the most important ingredient in 5 spice mix.
  • Chinese dried mushrooms are similar to shitake and have a robust smoky taste. You only need a few to impart a distinctive flavour.
  • Fermented black beans are small black soya beans that have been preserved in salt and are very pungent so use sparingly. Available from Chinese stores and Chinese sections in supermarkets.
  • Shaoxing Chinese rice wine is made from glutinous sticky rice and has an amber colour and nutty flavour. Available from Chinese stores and Chinese sections in supermarkets.
  • Chinkiang vinegar is made from glutinous black rice and is a dark colour and robust flavour. Available from Chinese stores and Chinese sections in supermarkets.
  • Chilli bean paste tends to contain MSG and a long list of additives so we make our own (see recipe)

Favourite Vegetarian Sichuan Recipes

Mapo Dou Fou

Hot Pot Style Noodle Bowl

Fragrant Spicy Sichuan Aubergine

Find more of Rachel's vegetarian Sichuan recipes in the November 2017 issue of Vegetarian Living Magazine.

For a hands on introduction to Chinese cookery, check out Lydia's upcoming Chinese New Year Feast.

Delicious food photography by Rob Wicks of Eat Pictures.

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