Seriously Asian: Why I'd Rather Eat Vegetarian Chicken than Mediocre Meat

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"Vegetarian chicken tastes nothing like chicken, in case you were wondering."

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During a recent prime rib tasting, I commented in an off-hand sort of way that I'd rather eat tofu than two of the three prime rib samples on my plate, only to suffer the ridicule of certain people.

I did not intend for this claim to be controversial; I assumed that any rational person would rather eat tender, delicious soy products than mediocre meat. Call me crazy, but I would gobble up a whole tofurky before touching a turkey that was even a smidgen dry.

There are just so many ways for meat to fail: toughness, blandness, inhumane living conditions, use of antibiotics and other health-related concerns, and so forth. Granted, many of these problems are due to shortcomings in the kitchen rather than the beef source, but even an expertly seared piece of flank, for instance, doesn't give me the same amount of pleasure as biting into a juicy ribeye.

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Maybe I'm just tired of masticating on bland or tough meat. There you are, tossing around those tough fibers of flesh in your mouth before reluctantly swallowing—what's the fun in that?

During such times, I really just wish I was eating a vegetarian alternative. There are many in Asian cookery, such as wheat gluten (seitan, kao fu, etc.), a popular product in Chinese and Japanese kitchens, or tempeh, commonly found in Indonesian-style preparations. (These are all items you can find on top of the typical line-up of cotton, medium-firm, and silken tofu.)

In fact, I would rather eat "vegetarian chicken" than mediocre meat. It's actually made of soy beans. Though the packaging will often feature a label such as "soya product," the Chinese name for it is simply "su ji," or "vegetable chicken or meat." The compressed, molded soy bean product will either come in lumpy cylinders that look like dried-up logs of mozzarella. Or, you can find packages of it already conveniently sliced and deep-fried.

"Su ji has the silky tenderness of soft tofu with the density of firm tofu."

Why should you seek out vegetarian chicken, when regular blocks of tofu are so much easier to find? Su ji has the silky tenderness of soft tofu with the density of firm tofu. Like a sponge, it readily absorbs the flavors of your braise and takes on a creamy, custard-like quality that regular tofu lacks. The deep-fried version is firmer and slightly more developed in flavor due to its browned surface; the plain version is more tender and creamy.

Fried or not, vegetarian chicken was a treat in my house growing up. Pork may have been the staple, but su ji was the main event of the meal. The Chinese often braise vegetarian chicken in soy sauce, wine, and sugar. Given its ability to retain its shape under heat, slices of vegetarian chicken do equally well in curries, soups, and stews.

Finally, vegetarian chicken tastes nothing like chicken, in case you were wondering.