In 2018, culinary expert and writer Hsiao-Ching Chou wowed fans with her debut cookbook, Chinese Soul Food: A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups, and More (Sasquatch Books). Three years later, she has returned with her anticipated sophomore publication, Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food: Deliciously Doable Ways to Cook Greens, Tofu, and Other Plant-Based Ingredients (Sasquatch Books, 2021). Just published yesterday, Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food contains 75 plant-based recipes that look every bit as tantalizing as their predecessors, thanks to vivid photos by Clare Barboza.
The cookbook is a companion to the 2018 text, but can also stand on its own, or as a companion to meat dishes. It would have been entirely vegan, but eggs play such a crucial role in Chou’s cooking that she opted for vegetarian instead. Still, the book offers substitution tips for those who want an entirely animal-free cooking experience. And the dishes—stir-fries (her personal favorite), soups, dumplings, and more—are so rich in ingredients, even omnivores won’t feel like they’re missing anything with meat-free options.
Chou’s cookbook allows individuals to learn about culture and food simultaneously. Her notes on rice included a part that was particularly engaging for me as a lover of languages: “How profoundly does rice influence Chinese culture? When we greet one another, it is customary to ask whether the other person has eaten yet: ‘Nı chī fàn le ma?’ The literal translation of the greeting is ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’ The word fàn is rice and the term also represents meal as in, ‘Have you had a meal? Have you had rice?’” After surveying Vegetarian Soul Food, one is more likely to answer that question with a yes.
People who aren’t necessarily masters in the kitchen should still find the book easy to follow. It is accessibility, not austerity, with which Chou approaches her craft: “I remain firm in my belief that everyday cooking should be accessible and forgiving…my goal is to ground you in everyday Chinese home cooking, with hopes you will consider developing your own Chinese kitchen,” she writes. The book also lists pantry ingredients, where to shop, equipment, and even how to maintain a wok to empower people as they don their aprons.
Still, though, it would take years for any of us to reach Chou’s level. For people like her, cooking is instinctive; almost as natural as breathing, with an effortless alchemy that I’m sure many people envy. (I can personally vouch for her skills after taking her soup dumpling class which I completed—with great enthusiasm—in 2019 at Seattle’s Hot Stove Society, where Chou regularly taught classes pre-pandemic). Although Vegetarian Soul Food contains precise measurements, Chou is in favor of building a relationship with what we eat, and not merely following instructions on the page. “A recipe with specific amounts isn’t as important as understanding the nature of vegetables and the support characters that make them sing,” the book reads.
Some of that instinct is owed to the Chou family, who immigrated from Taipei to the U.S. and opened a restaurant after finding it difficult to become established, despite having been highly educated professionals in their native Taiwan. “Food and serving food and thinking about how meals come together—all of that was so integrated into my life. I don’t know how to not be around food,” she tells me. “I think all of my most vivid memories growing up, even as a young child were around food and it’s not because we were obsessed with food, right? When food is such a big part of the culture as a whole, you’re not a “foodie”—that’s a very Western approach to it. Thinking about what you’re eating and how you put dishes together, whether it’s a simple peasant-style dish to banquet food; thinking about how those things come together and how you feed your family throughout the day—that is just a part of life, right? So for me, just growing up in that kind of culture and that kind of family, it’s so ingrained. It’s in my DNA, so to speak.”
These cookbooks hold special meaning for her, but she also wrote it as a legacy, for posterity’s sake; it was important for her to share her culture—and that of their ancestors—with her younger siblings and cousins, as well as her own children.
Vegetarian Soul Food is so much more than just a cookbook. There are steps for each dish, as one would expect, but there are also extras like loving anecdotes about her family, historical information, and humor: “There are not enough words in English for noodles,” she writes. Or: “Is it possible to be passive-aggressive when it comes to platters of carrots and celery sticks? I always have an urge to say that there are other ways to enjoy this classic pair.” Wine lovers—or really anyone who likes learning interesting things—might find her section on soy sauce (that features input from a sommelier) particularly fascinating. A portion of it reads:
“…Most people don’t go through life drinking just one kind of wine, beer, coffee, soda, or even water. We don’t eat just one kind of cheese or chips or any number of foods. Have you ever gotten into a debate about which potato chips are the best? I certainly have. Why then wouldn’t you try different types of soy sauce?” Just like any other product, the flavor profiles of soy sauces are different across makers, regions, countries, and cultures. The type of soybeans, how they’re brewed and fermented, how long they’re aged, and whether there are additional seasonings all contribute to how the soy sauce tastes. From Asian cuisine to Asian cuisine, the general flavor profiles of soy sauces differ and so do their uses. An all-purpose Chinese soy sauce that you use for high-heat stir-frying is not the same kind of aged Japanese shoyu that might be served with a pristine piece of sushi. Between just those two examples lies an astonishing diversity of soy sauces.”
For many of us, the pandemic has made us more likely to order takeout on any given night. But we could also see it as an opportunity to cook more frequently and more robustly. Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food is one cookbook that can help coax us into the kitchen.