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Dec 18, 2008 09:45 AM

Vegetarians and dim sum?

I'm just throwing this out as a general discussion: what do you vegetarians out there (or people who often dine out with vegetarians) do about dim sum? Barring finding a restaurant that caters especially to vegetarians, what can I expect if I invite a veg. friend to a typical dim sum restaurant?

Do people have go to dishes, or is it just a type of food best avoided? All I can think of are:

-most dessert items
-ordering chow mein or fried rice off the menu
-bamboo wrapped in tofu skin
-one of the chang fen (rice wrapper) dishes are plain

Almost everything has pork or dried shrimp strewn in it. What to do?

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  1. Another problem is, even with vegetable items, they could use lard or animal broth, or most likely do. You can't tell what does have animal products and what doesn't. Many almond cookie recipes use lard (which make the most flaky cookies, good). If someone is strictly vegetarian, I don't see how they can eat dim sum at most traditional restaurants. You'd have to go to a special vegetarian place (none near me but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some on the west coast).

    1. It's possible in certain places in Manhattan where you order from a menu - Dim Sum Go Go and Chinatown Brasserie come immediately to mind. But in a cart place, I think it would be tough, and your vegetarian friend might have a long wait for something s/he could eat. Here's the menus for the places I mentioned, to give you ideas about what you might find:

      1. I often go to dim sum with a vegetarian who is very happy ordering vegetable fried rice, no egg. Other times she will order vegetable spring rolls, scallion pancakes, chive or spinach dumplings or plain cheung fun.

        5 Replies
        1. re: JungMann

          Scallion Pancakes use solid lard as the foundation of the flaky pastry.

          1. re: Blueicus

            I don't know if I'm willing to tell her that! No wonder I love splitting those damned things!

          2. re: JungMann

            There is often lard used in those dishes. I was told when I was a vegetarian that the rice noodle dough is often made with lard. It could contain oyster sauce. Plus, depending on how strict she is, I'm sure they're not washing out the woks and tins between meat and vegetable dishes.

            1. re: chowser

              How on earth does on manage to get lard into rice noodles? I suppose that's the type of porky excess that endears Chinese food to me (unbeknownst to me). I have written down on a piece of paper, "I am a Buddhist vegetarian" or something along those lines in Chinese to alert waiters of her strict vegetarianism and have not been dissuaded from cheung fun, although most of the sauces are verboten. The worcestershire and oyster both have seafood.

              1. re: JungMann

                Rice noodle dough is made with rice flour and oil, among other things. I've never made it but was told that some people use lard in it. Being asian and knowing how people I know respond to things like that, I was always cautious when I was told things didn't have meat. It's even worst now that my daughter has nut allergies. They think it's in her head and as long as she doesn't see it, it's not a problem.

          3. There's a Kosher-Vegeterian Dim Sum place in Chinatown in New York, but the food was hideously awful. It dripped of grease and tasted like nothing.

            1. My SIL's husband is a vegetarian and he really doesn't like to go out to dim sum with us. It's really difficult for him because in addition to the obvious items with meat and fish, there's a lot of hidden animal stuff in the form of broths, fats and sauces. I think that even something innocuous looking as a dan tat can have lard in it (depending on the place). What he ends up doing is ordering a vegetable/tofu dish from the regular menu (not the dim sum rice/noodles menu) after asking if there's any meat stock, etc.

              If somebody in your group is fluent in Chinese, I suppose you can ask the waitstaff and dim sum ladies. But I find that some Chinese people have a different view of "vegetarian" than most Americans. To some, it's vegetarian if there are no obvious meat products in the dish. I've got a recipe for Buddha's Delight in one of my authentic Chinese cookbooks. The author goes on to describe how monks don't eat meat and how she devised the recipe for vegetarians. However, it calls for chicken stock! And my FIL is a Chinese chef but doesn't quite understand my SIL's husband's vegetarian needs, making noodle and vegetable soup with meat broth. It's just a different perspective, probably not coinciding with your vegetarian friend's view.

              So I think the safest thing to do is to probably order off the menu and ask questions like crazy (even though that may not guarantee that the dish is vegetarian).

              11 Replies
              1. re: Miss Needle

                Vegetarian doesn't translate well into traditional Chinese cookery, which is based on balance of elements (hot, cold, neutral - not defined the Western way), tastes and textures. A purely vegetable dish, like a purely meat dish, would be very unbalanced unless it was being eaten to counteract some specific medicinal ailment.

                1. re: Karl S

                  "A purely vegetable dish, like a purely meat dish, would be very unbalanced unless it was being eaten to counteract some specific medicinal ailment."

                  Ha ha. When my SIL's husband orders a vegetarian dish, the waiters all say, "I hope you feel better," without any provocation.

                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    Yeah, that would be an unbalanced "cold" meal.

                    European medicine, btw, long had not so violently different ideas about diet under the four-humors theory.

                  2. re: Karl S

                    I'd disagree with you here Karl. There is a long and rich tradition of vegetarian cuisine in China since Buddhism entered from India in the 3rd century. There are some fantastic vegetarian Chinese restaurants in Taipei. Some charge by the total weight of your plate and one place years ago had an honor pay system! For protein they use various soy products. Miss N, in general Chinese believe that one is a vegetarian for religious reasons, not health. This may have to do with the fact animal protein is not the overwhelming centerpiece of a Chinese meal but a complimentary part of the dish.

                    1. re: scoopG

                      I am aware of that, but I have to say what I've observed and read indicates that the diminished Buddhist presence in China since Buddhism was the subject of persecution in the later Tang era has reduced its profile, at least in terms of commonality among the emigre population in the USA....

                      Animal protein of course has a different role in Chinese cuisine, but I find a lot of American vegetarians think that what they think of a vegetarianism is something familiar to many Chinese when in fact it's not really. I think this comes from a misconception about that "different role".

                      1. re: Karl S

                        Not really. The Tang capital of Xian was a center of Buddhism. Yes, there was one emperor who was anti-Buddhist but we are talking 9th century. By the time of the Ming Dynasty, 500 years later Buddhism was well established. Along with the Tao and Confucism it forms an underpinning of Chinese social, cultural and philosophical thought. I agree with you about American misconceptions though!

                      2. re: scoopG

                        I agree with scoopG. The balance of "hot, cold, and neutral" isn't defined by meat and vegetables but the properties of them. A completely vegetarian dish can be balanced by "hot" and "cold" vegetables and with spices and condiments. Same applies to a purely meat dish.

                        1. re: kobetobiko

                          Yes I am aware of that but a lot of the ways to do that are not things that average Americans necessarily would find to meet their expectations.

                    2. re: Miss Needle

                      That reminds me when my mother made the dan tat dish (basically a custard tart) at home and I saw a pound of lard go into making it! I can't remember how many it made since it was so long ago, but still...

                      1. re: chocolateman

                        Well, I don't think desserts are necessary vegetarian, western or eastern alike.