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The Unlimited Potential of Meat-Free Asian Cookbooks

Releases like Hetty McKinnon’s To Asia, With Love and Hannah Che’s The Vegan Chinese Kitchen give cooks a chance to tell specific stories

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An illustration of a woman cooking vegetables in a wok while holding a cookbook

To cook food that is Chinese and vegan is no new thing. As Hannah Che’s The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, due from Clarkson Potter next month, makes clear, plant-based cooking in China is rooted in tradition so long and so rich that what Che has put forth is just one branch of it. There is the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine of monasteries, which tends to eschew alliums, and the imperial vegetarianism of palaces, which gave rise to mock meats. What she presents in the book is mostly homestyle Chinese cooking, she says, a category she calls “popular vegetarianism.”

When Che went vegan in 2015, she didn’t know much of this; neither did her parents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. As she started cooking vegan food and created the blog The Plant-Based Wok, she began researching and replicating — minus the meat — dishes she’d grown up eating. But finding the online information limited, even trawling Chinese search engines, Che went to China to study at the Guangzhou Vegetarian Culinary School. Instead of viewing Chinese food as something to be “veganized,” as is the perspective of many food bloggers, often white, “it was more like, we’re proud to be part of this tradition that’s continuing and expanding,” Che says of the chefs she learned from. “It was like Chinese people had found or gained this newfound interest or respect for their own vegetarian tradition because of this movement towards sustainability [popular in] the West.”

Through over 100 recipes and accompanying essays, The Vegan Chinese Kitchen proves the value of delving deep into specificity. The book also comes at an auspicious moment. For a long time, Asian cookbooks published in the U.S. were general in their scope (think: 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die or The Complete Asian Cookbook); the successful author Fuchsia Dunlop has recalled her early challenges in persuading publishers to see the market for cookbooks on regional Chinese cuisine.

Now, however, Asian cookbooks that focus on either a region or a type of cuisine (i.e., vegetarian or vegan) are gaining popularity, according to Celia Sack, who opened San Francisco’s Omnivore Books on Food in 2008. As of this writing, five of the top 40 best-selling Asian cookbooks on Amazon are either vegan or vegetarian, a selection that includes Dr. Sheil Shukla’s Plant-Based India, Joanne Lee Molinaro’s The Korean Vegan, and Hetty Lui McKinnon’s To Asia, With Love. Molinaro and McKinnon’s books were two of the three finalists in the category of vegetable-focused cookbooks at this year’s James Beard Awards, with Molinaro ultimately taking home the medal.

As the Asian cookbook category expands, so does the vegetable-focused category. Vegetarian and vegan cookbooks as a whole have been on the rise over the past few years; a New York Times piece about 2020’s pandemic-fueled cookbook boom classified the previously slow-growing category as a “bright spot,” reflecting growing societal concerns about climate change and personal health. The growth of this niche has made space for authors to elucidate the roots of plant-based eating, as with Che’s book, which considers veganism within Chinese tradition. And because the publishing industry tends to copy itself, betting future projects against the success of comparable existing works, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see more vegan and vegetarian cookbooks with focused regionality. In the next month, the Asian category alone will also gain Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Vegan and vegan Nepalese chef Babita Shrestha’s Plant-Based Himalaya.

With these cookbooks, authors are setting out to dispel misconceptions. That Chinese food as a whole is meat-heavy is a misguided idea, according to both Che and McKinnon — one that generally results from experiencing the cuisine through restaurants, not homes. Though meat is often more a flavor component than a central ingredient in Chinese home cooking, it’s more prominent on restaurant menus because it’s what diners have come to expect and falls more in line with why we go to restaurants. In both the United States and China, Che says, “people don’t want to go out to eat and then order the dishes they would make at home.”

While vegetarianism is also popular in Nepal, Shrestha of Plant-Based Himalaya says veganism is less common, though gaining traction now, and that this has motivated her to educate other cooks about the potential of vegan Nepali cuisine.

Undeniably, despite the history of plant-based eating across Asia, vegan and vegetarian cooking in the U.S. has been dominated by white cooks who have helped position it within the realms of “wellness” and “healthy” cooking, sometimes to the erasure of existing traditions. These recent releases from Asian cooks feel especially important because they show “a different side of eating meat-free, particularly since many vegan/vegetarian trends and recipes from the wellness industry actually come from Asian culture,” McKinnon says.

When McKinnon — who’s been vegetarian for 28 years — started working on To Asia in 2019, her publisher saw the book as filling “a real gap in the market,” McKinnon recalls. Compared to McKinnon’s previous cookbooks on salad and comfort food, To Asia felt inextricable from her identity as a Chinese Australian who now lives in New York, and it seemed like a more difficult undertaking. “I knew it would take a huge emotional toll to go back there and to unpack decades of unresolved tension in my identity and the way I saw myself and the way I carried myself in the world,” McKinnon says.

What resulted wasn’t just a selection of vegetarian Chinese recipes but an homage to McKinnon’s life and a display of the third-culture kind of cooking that it has inspired. “I think ‘empowering’ is such a great word here,” she says. “These are [my mom’s] recipes and these are my memories, but what I wanted to do was reconcile all the different aspects of my life, growing up in Australia and living in different parts of the world. These are all my experiences in my recipes, that come out in different ways, and that’s much more true to me.”

Still, McKinnon espouses a more quiet vegetarianism than some of her shelfmates. To Asia notably omits the word “vegetarian” on its cover, stating just “everyday Asian recipes,” to the surprise of some readers. That’s by choice; the idea is to get people excited about cooking vegetables, without their potential preconceived notions of vegetarian cooking. “I want everybody to come to the table,” McKinnon says. “I think that sometimes seeing the word ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ immediately conjures a limitation.” She wants her books to add to people’s cooking lives, not take things away.

Similarly, the schooling and research Che did for The Vegan Chinese Kitchen helped her understand Chinese vegan cuisine in terms of abundance. During the early part of her veganism journey, Che felt as though she kept removing things from her repertoire. “My approach to Chinese food, I felt, was very sad,” she says. As a Chinese American whose interaction with culture came largely through food, “it was always like trying to hold onto this thing,” Che says — a sense of cultural heritage.

But in China and in Taiwan, Che’s perspective shifted. Unhampered by the identity insecurity of the diaspora and the specters of authenticity and tradition that accompany Chinese food in the U.S., the chefs around her seemed more open to new ways of thinking. More secure in their cultural identities, they didn’t find their veganism limiting. “I felt this sense of shared values: You can be a Chinese person, you can also be vegan,” Che says. “You can think about new ways of cooking and new ways of eating, in a way that honors your tradition, but isn’t blind to the issues that we’re facing today either.”

Instead of seeing culture as something to be carbon-copied out of fear of losing it, Che started to see her heritage as being full of building blocks free to be made into something of her own. With veganism more of a continuation than an excision, what once held a sense of loss is now wide-open with the feeling of opportunity.

And as more authors gain space to explore the freedom of their cuisines, cookbook readers will only continue to add to their arsenal of cooking knowledge; as McKinnon points out, one doesn’t have to be vegetarian to enjoy her recipes. That’s as long as publishers calibrate to the growth of interest: “At Christmas this past year, there were three books that publishers did not make enough of, and they totally ran out,” Sack says.

Those were Molinaro’s, McKinnon’s, and Kristina Cho’s Mooncakes and Milk Bread, a collection of recipes inspired by Chinese bakeries. “Nobody could get them, which was very frustrating for customers and for the authors who were missing out on the sales,” Sack says. She hopes that’ll be a learning lesson for the industry moving forward: to print more books, and accordingly, pay authors more. “This market is really big.”

Nhung Lê is a freelance illustrator based in Sydney.