These Vegan Kung Pao Mushrooms Are Way Better Than Takeout

Hannah Che’s new cookbook is an expansive look at the plant-based traditions of China.

hannah che vegan chinese kitchen kung pao mushrooms
Photo by Hannah Che

If you told Hannah Che when she was studying piano performance in college that she would go on to publish a vegan Chinese cookbook, she would have been shocked. Yet Che is the author of recently released The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, which derives recipes from her vegan food blog The Plant Based Wok. Despite the drastic change of career choice, she is able to draw parallels between her time spent getting her master’s degree at Rice University and her experiences with Chinese cuisine.

“I do see a lot of similarities between cooking and music, because they are both very technical while also being very creative,” Che explains. “You have to perform in a way, too, whether that's a music concert or if you’re cooking in a restaurant; every night service is like a performance in a sense. Even when you go to work at other restaurants, it’s literally called a stage.”

Che first became interested in vegan cuisine her junior year of college, after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. “It was very hard to read, but I think I finished it in one sitting,” Che explains, “It showed me these issues that I was not aware of before regarding animal agriculture and the environmental impacts of the food that I had been consuming without knowing.”

With knowledge from the book, Che decided to commit to a vegan diet. She couldn’t see how she could possibly ignore what she had learned, and how it affected her. The problem, though, was getting her family on board and figuring out a way to still enjoy the classic Chinese dishes she loved growing up.

Surprisingly to Che, her mom was immediately supportive, and shared her own desire of wanting to eat sustainably. “She’s always been very knowledgeable about the food industry and animal agriculture but I just had never talked to her about it or realized it,” Che says. That’s not to say her mom is completely plant-based, but, “she is very conscious of these issues” and most importantly, encouraged Che to live her life the way she felt necessary.

Che immediately began seeking out resources and plant-based cookbooks, and though there was a wealth of information out there, all the recipes felt the same: grain bowls, smoothies, and salads, all developed by a white chef. “Don’t get me wrong, I eat a lot of that, but it just felt very much like vegan food is a specific food that has to look a certain way,” she explains. Nothing encompassed the rich culinary traditions Che grew up with Chinese cuisine, so she decided to pursue it herself.

When Che graduated in the summer of 2019, instead of continuing her career in piano performance, she made her way to a culinary school in China. It was there she witnessed how bountiful plant-based Chinese cuisine could really be. “I realized that tradition is not a thing that is set in stone,” she says.

There is this misconception that going vegan will separate a person from their identity and culture, but Che had the opposite reaction. “Saying there is only one way to eat a cuisine is saying that Chinese people can’t also be innovative and think about food through the lens of environmental issues,” she explains, something she affirms is patently false.

For naysayers that believe Chinese food has to include animal products to live up to a rigid sense of authenticity, Che points to her experiences in China. “I was in Chengdu province and I went to three or four different restaurants and ordered mapo tofu and I was so surprised by how different they all tasted,” she explains. “I had a mentor who was a Buddhist chef and had been eating vegan for 40 years. His mapo tofu used minced mushrooms—who is going to say that his is not authentic?”

Che returned from China with new recipes under her belt and a fresh perspective on what it means to cook vegan Chinese food. “I don’t like the word veganized because that’s assuming that you’re putting a spin on something from an outside perspective,” Che says. “Chinese culture has its own plant-based histories that are way older than the plant-based movement in the west. So it’s definitely possible to make something both traditional and vegan.”

Kung Pao Mushrooms Recipe from The Vegan Chinese Kitchen

Serves 4

Ingredients:
The sauce

  • 2 teaspoons Chinkiang black vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon potato starch

The stir-fry

  • 2 medium king oyster mushrooms (10 ounces / 280 grams), cut into ½-inch cubes (about 3 cups)
  • ½ teaspoon soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 2 cups (480 mL) vegetable oil, for frying
  • ¾ cup potato starch or cornstarch
  • 1 (2-inch) piece (15 grams) fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ¹⁄₃ cup dried red chiles (about 15), snipped into ½-inch segments and seeds shaken out
  • 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 2 scallions, white parts only, cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • ½ cup green chile pepper or bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ½ cup dry-roasted peanuts or Fried Peanuts

Directions:

1. Make the sauce: Whisk together all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl until smooth and blended.

2. Make the stir-fry: In a large bowl, toss the mushroom cubes with the soy sauce, salt, and sesame oil, then let them rest for 5 minutes to release their liquid. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat to 360°F (185°C), or until a wooden chopstick forms a merry stream of bubbles when inserted. While the oil is heating, check on the mushroom cubes—they should be damp. Add ½ cup of the starch to the bowl and squeeze the mushroom cubes to allow the starch to be absorbed. The mushroom cubes should still be slightly damp. Add the remaining starch and toss again, until each cube is coated with a generous amount. This will prevent them from sticking to each other when frying.

3. Fry the mushroom cubes in batches. Separate the cubes with your fingers as you drop them in to prevent them from clumping up. After about 15 seconds in the oil, the mushrooms will begin to sizzle and splatter as their internal water comes out. Stand back and wait until the splattering slows, then stir the cubes with a skimmer or spider until they are golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove the cubes and transfer to a paper towel–lined dish. Bring the oil back up to temperature and repeat with the remaining mushrooms. Pour the oil into a heatproof container for another use, reserving 2 teaspoons in the wok.

4. Return the wok to medium heat. Stir-fry the ginger and garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the dried chiles and peppercorns and stir-fry until the chiles start to darken, about 30 seconds. (Make sure your kitchen is well ventilated, as this will give off a stinging smoke.) Add the scallions, chile, and mushroom cubes, then increase the heat to high and pour the sauce down the side of the wok, so that it sizzles on the way to the bottom. Toss for 30 seconds, just until the sauce coats the mushroom cubes and everything is piping hot. Stir in the peanuts, remove from the heat, and serve

Reprinted with permission from The Vegan Chinese Kitchen by Hannah Che copyright © 2022. Photographs by Hannah Che. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.