Chinese food has always included vegetarian dishes because of the influence of Buddhism, the dominant religion of China. Ethnic Chinese in other countries also follow Buddhist traditions concerning the eating of meat. Some eat only a vegetarian diet, while others go meatless on Buddhist holidays.
Many Canadians of non-Chinese descent also embrace vegetarianism, for reasons of health or morality. Vegetarianism can be defined in different ways. It is generally seen as a meatless diet, but some followers, such as vegans, also eliminate other animal products such as dairy and eggs.
Chinese restaurants offer selections that meet the needs of both ethnic Chinese Buddhists and non-Chinese who have chosen to follow a vegetarian diet.
Traditional vegetarian dishes served in Chinese restaurants
Traditional vegetarian selections in Chinese restaurants include:
- Steamed vegetable dishes. Often called "Buddhist Delight" or some other variation, it is a dish with a wide variety of steamed vegetables served in a savory brown sauce.
- Tofu and vegetables. Tofu, or soybean curd, is a staple in vegetarian dishes because of its high protein content and its ability to add texture to dishes while not changing the flavor. You can also order fried tofu in many Chinese restaurants for diners who prefer a crunchier texture. It is fried Chinese style, without much oil and with little batter.
- Sesame balls. These round globes consist of red bean paste covered in glutinous (not real gluten for those avoiding gluten) rice flour and sesame seeds, deep fried to a golden brown. Vegans can enjoy these also, for no eggs are used in the batter as in many Western deep fried dishes. Although they are simple in design, they are difficult to prepare to achieve the desired lightness and crispy texture in the shell.
Vegetarian alternatives to traditional Chinese dishes
Chinese restaurants like Ginger Beef Restaurants 14th Street SW are becoming increasingly adept at tweaking traditional offerings to appeal to vegetarian and vegan customers. Accommodations might include an entire section of the menu devoted to vegetarian selections, or the addition of tofu along with meat options.
Even staples of Chinese restaurant fare such as egg rolls are offered without the traditional shreds of pork or shrimp. For vegans, the egg wrapper is replaced with rice paper for spring rolls.
Of course, the best Chinese restaurant will cater to the dietary wishes of their customers without sacrificing the qualities that make them unique. If you go to a Chinese restaurant in an area with many ethnic Chinese, but there are no ethnic Chinese dining there, then they may have adapted too much. A healthy mix of patrons will indicate a more successful blend of tradition and adaptation.