Plant-Based Eating Is So Much More Than Grain Bowls and Carrot Bacon—As Proven by This Chinese Buddhist Recipe

Photo: Patricia Kelly Yeo
Whether driven by personal health or environmental concerns, it's undeniable that American consumer tastes have shifted towards plant-based eating. In response, companies nationwide have started listening: Carl’s Jr/Hardee’s, KFC, Burger King, White Castle, and other restaurant chains have started offering plant-based meat options on their menus. A 2019 industry report estimated that national plant-based food and beverage consumption totaled $5 billion that year, an 11 percent increase from 2018, with alternative meat leading industry growth. (The dominance of alt-meat was one of Well+Good's 2020 Wellness Trends for a reason.)

What the rise of plant-based eating doesn’t do, however, is encourage Americans to eat outside of their comfort zone. Judging by the plethora of animal product stand-ins like cashew cheese, carrot “bacon,” and, of course, Impossible and Beyond burger patties (and their many imitators) saturating the market, it seems that Americans have co-opted a centuries-old tradition from other cultures, morphing it to fit within a Western lifestyle and taste palate rather than acknowledging and respecting its many roots.

Of course, communities of color have been eating plant-based food for centuries. They just didn’t have the stamp of approval from a 21st-century white person calling it “plant-based.” Across the Indian subcontinent, adherents to Hinduism and Jainism have cultivated a long legacy of vegetarian cuisine, particularly in the state of Gujarat. In China and other parts of East Asia, Buddhist monks are typically vegetarian, and in Chinese cuisine, monks have cultivated an entire anthology of vegetarian and vegan recipes. Enslaved Black Americans historically ate primarily plant-based diets out of necessity, with meat being a luxury or special occasion food; sweet potatoes, greens (including collard, turnip, and mustard), as well as groundnuts became staple foods descended from West African plant-based eating. Mexican cuisine also has roots primarily in plant-based foods, a legacy that Mexican chefs and recipe developers in the U.S. are actively revisiting.

Whether vegetarian or vegan, foods from these cultures offer delicious, sustainable eats, without buzzwords, pretension, or signaling of higher virtue and healthfulness—two concepts that feel inextricable in the upper-middle class white world of wellness.

It's long past overdue for plant-based eating in the U.S. to mean more than alt-American standards. Plant-based eating’s most prominent culinary manifestations should not be limited to alt-meat burgers or whatever a white woman with a kitchen and an Instagram following can dream up. Nor should it cherry-pick from global culinary traditions to colonize certain ingredients and dishes, as the wider wellness world has done for years. Even turmeric, a promising nutritional supplement and cornerstone of Ayurvedic medicine, has been co-opted into “golden lattes” and #thestew (which recipe developer Alison Roman claims is not a curry).

Rather, plant-based eaters should know that entire categories of plant-based cuisines exist without requiring imitation or cultural exploitation of people of color. Though mere consumption of another culture’s food is not capable of changing white America’s hearts and minds, it’s a start that may help diversify what it means to pursue wellness and health.

In that spirit, consider this recipe for Buddha’s Delight, also known as lo han jai in Cantonese. This dish, according to The Woks of Life, a food blog run by a Chinese American family, has been traditionally consumed by Buddhist monks. It has also grown in popularity as a vegetarian option in Chinese restaurants, whose versions may feature more commonplace American vegetables and blocks of firm tofu. However, the lo han jai recipe below (re-published with permission from The Woks of Life) is extremely similar to one taught by chef Martin Yan in his 1982 PBS show, Yan Can Cook.

Though canned baby corn, Napa cabbage, and bok choy are increasingly available in urban supermarkets, other common ingredients often used to make lo han jai—like mung bean glass noodles, bamboo shoots, and wood ear mushrooms—can be ordered online or purchased from an Asian supermarket. Dried bean curd is not necessary, but when cooked, provides a unique, spongy texture in the style of Japanese inari sushi.

Healthful eating doesn't have to be ahistorical, nor should it ignore or overlook the thousands of years of BIPOC cuisine to which it owes massive amounts of credit. It’s time to look beyond what the wellness mainstream feeds us, in lieu of something that actually nourishes the intersectional self.

Lo han jai, aka Buddha’s Delight (adapted from The Woks of Life)

Serves 4

5 dried shiitake mushrooms*
2 dried beancurd sheets*
1 small bundle mung bean noodles*
2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
1-inch section of ginger, sliced
2 green onions, sliced, white and green parts separated
3 tablespoons Chinese red bean curd paste*
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine*
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon light sesame oil
2 cups Napa cabbage, sliced into ribbons
1-inch section of ginger, sliced
1 cup water or vegetable stock

Optional ingredients:
¼ cup dried wood ear mushrooms*
¼ cup dried lily flowers*
14 oz can bamboo shoots, drained and thinly sliced
14 oz can baby corn, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces
½ cup sliced carrots, sliced diagonally
1 medium bunch bok choy, sliced into ribbons

1. Two hours before cooking: Soak dried shiitake mushrooms, beancurd sheets, and wood ear mushrooms, if using, for at least 2 hours, up to overnight, in water. If using lily flowers, soak in a separate bowl, pouring boiling water on top. Cover and let cool to room temperature. When dried ingredients turn soft, drain and refrigerate before use. Slice the softened bean curd sheets into half-inch thick strips.

2. Thirty minutes before cooking: Soak the mung bean noodles in cold water until they soften. Drain for later use.

3. When ready to cook, heat a stir-fry pan or wok to medium high, then add vegetable oil and ginger. Caramelize the ginger for about 30 seconds, taking care not to let it burn.

4. Add the 3 tablespoons red bean curd paste, breaking it up with a spatula, then add the white portion of green onions, shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, and lily flowers. Stir to mix, adding the Shaoxing wine.

5. Once the mixture has wilted somewhat, add the Napa cabbage and other vegetables, if using. Add in the strips of bean curd, using your spatula to distribute the curd evenly, stirring for a couple minutes.

6. Next, add the green part of the green onion, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and water or vegetable stock. Combine everything, cover the pan, and cook for 6 minutes at medium high, stirring occasionally.

7. To finish, uncover the pan and turn the heat to high. Add the soft mung bean noodles, which will absorb the sauce. Continue to stir until most liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a serving dish, and serve with white or brown rice.

*available in most Chinese supermarkets or specialty cooking websites

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