It's tough being a Chinese vegetarian. The words "Chinese food" and "vegetarianism" are rarely synonymous. In China especially, dietary restrictions are rarely paid attention to. It's rude to be picky, and even ruder to outright decline food.
Though vegetarianism in the mainstream Chinese culture is a rare practice, a handful of restaurants in America have capitalized on the niche in recent years. According to Scott Hwang, owner of Vege Paradise (formerly known as Gourmet Vegetarian) in San Gabriel, California, his main customers are Chinese Buddhists (who refrain from meat, garlic and onions), the health-conscious, and American vegetarians.
"I saw an opportunity when I moved here 20 years ago and it's been really working," Hwang, who opened up some of the first Chinese vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles in the 1990s, said. He isn't even vegetarian.
"I draw my inspiration from popular Chinese staples. Sometimes I'll go to a restaurant and think of how to convert the meat dish into a vegetarian one," he said.
But don't expect macrobiotic foods, salads or strictly vegetables here. Chinese vegetarian restaurants are heavy on faux meat. Think tofu and lots of soy. The chefs are also big on wheat gluten, or mian jin, as a meat substitute.
We headed out to Vege Paradise and ordered 11 of their most popular items. Check out the slideshow for a rundown.
Don't be fooled by the faux ham, shrimp, chicken, sausage and even kidney. We promise there was absolutely no meat involved. (The "kidney" is made with konnyaku, a jelly made from yam starch.)
140 W. Valley Blvd. #222, San Gabriel, CA 91776 (map)
About the author: Clarissa Wei is a food writer. She writes heavily about Chinese and Taiwanese food and has yet to find stinky tofu in the States that has impressed her. You can follow her on Twitter @dearclarissa.