Laura Pepper takes us on a tour of the aisles to see what vegan goodies are on offer at Chinese supermarkets.
Some people may find shopping at a Chinese/East Asian supermarket intimidating and confusing, but don’t let it stop you, because the food there is fresh, inexpensive and very vegan-friendly!
This is a guide to discerning which Asian ingredients at your local store are vegan and how best to cook with them. Many of the ingredients mentioned here are available in Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other ‘fusion’ oriental supermarkets. Just do a quick Google search and it should help to locate your closest one!
In the Freezer
These ‘soybeans in a pod’ are a great source of protein and make a delicious snack. You can find them in the freezer, where they are likely still in their pods, though sometimes they have been de-shelled and are kept in the fridge.
Boil the pods in salted water for about 3-5 minutes until they are bright green, then season them with garlic powder, black sesame seeds and/or more salt. Don’t eat the skins though; use your teeth to create an opening at the top of the pod and suck the beans out, enjoying the seasoning as you do.
Although it’s nice to make fresh dumplings – and you can usually find all the ingredients, including dumpling skins here – frozen veggie dumplings are a really convenient ready-meal to keep at home. They’re filling, tasty and can be boiled or fried in minutes for when you’re too tired to cook. Serve with garlic crushed in tamari or chilli sauce for a tasty dipping sauce.
In the Fridge
Named due to their shape, trumpet mushrooms are filling, hearty and can be used in a number of ways. To illustrate their versatility, they taste great in pasta and risotto dishes, as a creamy pie filling, roasted with olive oil and salt or sautéed with garlic, soy sauce and spring onions. They also make an excellent tempura filling due to their ‘meaty’ texture.
Along with deep fried tofu, which can taste lovely in Asian-style soups, you’ll find fresh tofu of various textures here in the fridge. The firm and extra firm textures are great for fried dishes, while silken tofu is tasty in miso soup or blended to make vegan desserts, such as chocolate mousse. Look out for organic and non-GMO brands where possible.
This fermented, probiotic side dish is the ‘Marmite’ of Korean food – you either love it or hate it! It’s fantastic for digestion and is loaded with vitamins, but the smell can take a little getting used to. With 100 plus varieties available, the most commonly found type is made with Napa cabbage and comes in varying levels of spice. Be sure to check the ingredients label for prawn or shrimp as these are two frequent additions. There’s plenty of kimchi that is made without crustaceans, though.
Another gut-friendly ingredient, miso paste is commonly used to make a soup that features at almost every Japanese meal. It can also be used as a seasoning in stir fries, on fried tofu and even as a spread on sandwiches. You’ll likely find miso of different colours, with white miso being the mildest in flavour and red miso being the deepest (and saltiest). If you’re experimenting for the first time, yellow (Shinshu) miso is a good place to start.
On the Shelf
If you’ve been wanting to eat more of this iodine-rich superfood, but can’t get on board with wakame, nori is a more palatable variety of seaweed than most. It’s a convenient staple to have to hand, and if you’re stuck for an easy, delicious dinner option, you can use it for your own vegan sushi!
To make vegan sushi, use sesame seeds and rice vinegar to season your rice, then experiment with fish-free fillings such as avocado with vegan cream cheese, cucumber with vegan mayonnaise and sweet potato and marinated tofu. These are non-traditional, but if you’re OK with a little fusion, the vegan combinations are endless!
A cupboard staple in our house, shiitake mushrooms add flavour and texture to both Western and Eastern dishes. VFL included a tasty shiitake strudel in our Christmas edition, which makes for a great year-round dish. Shiitakes are also lovely in ramen noodle soups, as a dumpling filling and to add texture to homemade veggie burgers.
Also eaten as a dessert, jackfruit is particularly tasty as a savoury filling. Jackfruit takes on the flavour of whatever you season it with, which is why it tastes great marinated in spices and why vegan pulled pork-style burgers are so popular with both vegans and non-vegans right now.
While both are by-products of fermented soybeans, you may notice that many vegan recipes call for tamari over soy sauce. This is because, unlike soy sauce, tamari is usually made without wheat and is therefore gluten-free (check the label). Tamari tends to have a more balanced, less salty taste, with a rich, umami flavour. Stock up in the Chinese supermarket – ingredients like this tend to be cheaper (and bigger!) than in Western supermarkets.
The Vegetable Aisle
Mung bean sprouts
A great addition to any vegetable stir fry, mung bean sprouts bulk up a dish and provide plenty of fibre, protein and vitamins. Fry with garlic, spring onion and salt and pepper for a simple side dish, or add raw to salads for a satisfying crunch.
Chinese cabbage (Napa cabbage)
Sometimes found in the fridge, Napa cabbage is softer and sweeter than most other varieties of cabbage and works really well in Asian dishes. Sauté it with onion, garlic, ginger and soy sauce for a delicious side dish or add it to miso noodle soup.
Dried jujube dates
Also known as red or Asian dates, jujube dates are packed with antioxidants and are reported to boost the immune system. You can eat them as a snack or add to your porridge or baking as a natural sweetener.
Dried sweet potato
Eaten straight out of the packet or warmed in the oven, dried sweet potato is a healthy, satisfying snack that kids will love. The quality of this product varies, so be sure to check the ingredients label for preservatives and e-numbers – the best kind is made from 100% sweet potato.
Wasabi, the green condiment served alongside sushi, is also known as ‘Japanese horseradish’ – and it’s certainly another divisive East Asian ingredient! If you’re in the ‘love it’ camp though, this is a nice on-the-go snack that also packs a protein punch.
Laura Pepper is owner of Pep Talking, and is a vegan writer living in Cambridge, UK. She has lived in Japan and Taiwan, teaches yoga and designs Etsy prints – www.etsy.com/uk/shop/YogaVibesByLaura