I’ll never forget my first experience in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. I was young, it was my first time abroad on my own and the first days of my trip landed me in Malaysia. After stumbling into a cheap hotel in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood feeling totally lost in an unknown world, exhausted with the overwhelming sense of wanting to crawl back into my comfortable life, I collapsed. Finally arising from 20 hours of sleep, I ventured disoriented and hungry onto the humid street that had transformed into a night market. I walked past stalls hawking items that I could not comprehend and grooming services that I had only seen performed behind closed doors. With little hope of crossing the language and cultural divide to find something edible, the “Vegetarian Food” sign surrounded by bright Chinese characters appeared like a mirage. Everything about the food stall, including the menu looked exactly the same as the ones surrounding it and yet, I received a positive nod every one of the numerous time I asked “is this food vegetarian?”
The menu was divided into the usual categories: beef, pork, chicken, seafood, etc. There was no indication that the shredded pork listed was not actual meat and thus I made the server affirm with every dish I ordered that it was indeed vegetarian. I had never tried cuttle fish beforehand but was pretty sure that the rubbery strips on my plate were not the real thing. I finally tucked into a meal comprised of foreign ingredients and flavors that nourished me and bolstered the realization, “I can do this.”
Ever since that first bite, vegetarian Chinese cuisine has been a comfort food for me. I am not at all disconcerted by the mock meats and have even sought out the most artful and truthful renditions. Part of what touches me about the Chinese approach to vegetarian food is their love and respect for the original cuisine. The Buddhist monks and practitioners have given attention to every detail from the vein in the shrimp to the skin of the fish to create a cuisine in which no animals have been harmed palatable to all. Rather than making the renunciation of meat a rejection of a culture’s gastronomy, many of the Buddhist vegetarian cuisines of Asia are a celebration of the cultural importance of food and religion.
I have tried most of the Chinese vegetarian restaurants in the Los Angeles area, many of which are situated in the San Gabriel Valley. Succumbing to fierce competition from a high concentration of authentic restaurants representing specialties and regions of China, I’ve watched as vegetarian businesses close their doors permanently only to be replaced by a BBQ or chicken noodle soup shop with nothing on the menu for a vegetarian. Even though I prefer the hallucinogenic blast of chili and prickly ash offered in the Szechuan restaurants and the buns in Taiwanese noodle houses, it is partially out of loyalty, partially due to the safety of the menu, and partially the joy of eating a dish that I can’t have anywhere else that I continue to support the remaining vegetarian establishments. I wish I could say that one stands above the rest as outstanding but each has their strengths and weaknesses. So, for all of you vegetarians out there, here I begin to attempt to outline the vegetarian Chinese landscape of Los Angeles as I’ve experienced it.