Except they weren’t actually made of chicken. The wings were an intricate combination of soybeans and peanuts. “They looked just like chicken wings, though,” Wang said.
It was his first encounter with China’s centuries-old tradition of imitation meat dishes.
A vegetarian sweet and sour “pork” dish at Green Veggie restaurant in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.
Paul Yeung/South China Morning Post/Getty Images
Possible before Impossible
In the past few years, demand for fake meat products has surged in the Western world, as people seek environmentally sustainable and healthier alternatives to red meat.
But long before the first plant-based patties hit the grill in the West, China had been sculpting and flavoring traditional meat-based dishes out of mushrooms, nuts and vegetables.
“It shadows and parallels Chinese cuisine … it is incredibly diverse and in every part of the country you have a different version,” said food writer Fuschia Dunlop.
Wang now works at a restaurant called Baihe Vegetarian in the traditional hutong alleyways of Beijing’s Dongcheng district. They serve a huge range of fake meat dishes — pork spare ribs, dumplings, kung pao chicken.
The restaurant’s owner Liu Hongyan said between 80 and 100 people regularly visit her restaurant each day and the number is rising.
“I think more and more people are embracing vegetarian culture. People are considering their health,” she said. “There’s too much fat and oil in red meat,” she said.
A central tenet of Buddhism is respect for all living creatures, and vegetarianism is common among its followers. Dunlop said that while China’s monasteries provided a strict vegetarian diet, they would often have to accommodate for the dietary choices of visiting pilgrims or patrons.
“[The visitors] would expect [meat-based] meals and this was where the tradition came from. You’d get all the dishes you’d expect to eat at a banquet, but made from vegetarian ingredients.”
Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food became “extraordinarily sophisticated” in the centuries after the Han Dynasty, according to Dunlop.
“In the larger monasteries … people could dine on grand dishes of “shark’s fin,” “abalone” and other delicacies cunningly fashioned from vegetable ingredients,” Dunlop wrote in her book “Food of Sichuan.”
A Chinese “fish” dish made from vegetarian ingredients, including a faux fish skin.
Today, she said the widespread influence of imitation meat can be seen in the range of dishes offered. In Shanghai, you can eat stir-fried “crabmeat” made from mashed potato and carrot. In Sichuan, restaurants offer traditional “twice-cooked pork” made without a scrap of meat.
“Everyone in Shanghai eats vegetarian “roast duck” or “goose,” which is made from layers of thin tofu skin, which are flavored and then deep fried so that it has a golden skin like the real dish,” Dunlop said.
“Some people are quite worried about the source of the meat, but don’t want to lose that taste,” Dunlop explained.
Peanuts, lotus and yam
Wang takes great pride in creating his wide range of fake meat dishes at Baihe Restaurant.
In his kitchen, he carefully shapes a single, large king oyster mushroom into small cubes which will soon become vegetarian “kung pao chicken.”
Adding flour, oil, cashews and sugar, among other ingredients, the mixture is tossed into a boiling hot wok. The final piping-hot product has the signature sweet-but-savory taste, with a consistency similar to the meat it’s intended to mimic.
According to Wang, in recent years industrialization has meant much of China’s fake meat comes from factories rather than being made in kitchens. He makes all his dishes by hand.
“For example, for pork ribs, the bone is made from lotus root, while the meat is made from potato, mushrooms and peanut protein,” Wang said. He said the ribs need to sit overnight before they’re ready to be served.
While both Wang and owner Liu are aware of Western fashions in fake meat, they’re both dismissive of the trend. For them, the original Chinese version is more sophisticated.
“Chinese vegetarian food is more complicated than the Western version. It has more forms, more tastes. The Western version is simple,” Wang said.
“I feel like Westerners only eat burgers and steaks.”