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Vegetarian Journal Cover

Vegetarian Journal


January/February 1997
Volume XVI, Number 1

Virtual Seafood in a Vegetarian Reality

By Larry Litt

Check out the recipes!

"This I've got to see for myself!" I said when I learned from a friend that there are several Chinese vegetarian restaurants serving shrimp, squid, abalone, tuna, and other varieties of seafood in New York's Chinatown. Not possible, I thought. They're breaking one of the most sacred menu codes of strictly vegetarian Buddhist restaurants: "Thou shalt not serve any kind of meat whatsoever, lest a customer chance ingesting a close relative working out a previous life on the reincarnation cycle."

"Don't worry about it," counseled my friend Bing Lee. "This seafood is made from vegetable substitutes. What's interesting is that it's not another meat replacement."

The next day Bing--artist, vegetarian, and regular patron of Vegetarian's Shangri-La--and I went for dinner. We entered the Mott Street location in Manhattan. It was surprisingly busy, inhabited mostly by young Western couples. I was not encouraged by the fact that there were no Chinese patrons. Why? As every New Yorker knows, if the ethnics eat there it's a sign of authenticity and real home cooking.

I read Shangri-La's menu while waiting to be seated. Indeed, they're serving dishes in the traditional Chinese style with "seafood," only the seafood is made from taro powder, soybean protein, yam flour, wheat gluten powder, assorted herbs and spices, and a bit of shredded vegetables added for appropriate color.

"Why are they doing this?" I asked Bing as we sat down. "Aren't there enough Chinese vegetarian dishes to please the Buddhists without pseudo seafood?" "Sure there are," he replied. "But this place is really about our culture and identity. We Chinese love our traditional cooking so much that we had to invent seafood substitutes for the strict Buddhists, especially the ones who come from seacoast cities. The company that makes this 'seafood' is owned by a Buddhist family. So is this restaurant."

We ordered several vegetarian appetizers, "fish ball" noodle soup, and two main dishes: "squid" with green peppers and "shrimp" with cashews. They were really delicious! I hadn't had seafood in 25 years. Yet, this dinner brought back that long dormant taste memory.

"I'm convinced," I told Bing. "This is a great idea. I have to track down the supplier!"

He told the owner of the restaurant what I wanted to know. As he gave me the company's name he said, "You don't want to go there. It's very dangerous. Many gangs. Fortunately, the company delivers." Hmm.

Indeed, the address was listed in the telephone directory at the east end of Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. This is a perpetual "neighborhood in transition," a euphemism in New York for less affluent areas with many new immigrants. The word on the street around there is "get out before dark," unless you're a member of one of the gangs that hang out under the Williamsburg Bridge.

I called to set up an early meeting with Daisy, Raymond, James, and Luisa. They're the east coast area distributors for what I've come to call "virtual seafood."

"Our products come from Taiwan and Hong Kong," Daisy told me. "They are made by a master scientist who is also a faithful Buddhist. All the employees are members of our Buddhist Temple in Taiwan and here. They have never eaten meat since they took their vows to the Buddha for the love of animals and man."

Well, that summed up the theology, but what about the products? They handed me a catalog with six frozen and nine packaged seafood products, among the regular meat substitutes, made by Shin-Der Enterprises. "Shin-Der means 'Ethics of God' in Chinese," Daisy proclaimed with a glowing smile.

"You can make many different kinds of Chinese-style dishes," added James, a former waiter in a Chinese restaurant. "But, you can also make great tuna salad for sandwiches."

"Do Taiwanese eat a lot of tuna salad sandwiches?" I asked.

"We are very Western in some ways," he answered.

It was getting on towards late afternoon on this winter's day. By the time we finished talking about Buddhist vegetarians, Chinese culture, and cooking methods, I started to muse about how it wouldn't do to get mugged with a load of virtual seafood in my possession. The gangs might think this stuff is contraband in disguise. How could I explain it? Then again, maybe I could teach them about the spiritual and physical advantages of vegetarianism. How real peace begins when we stop eating animals. Yeah, right! They'd respond by throwing me in the East River. How easily transcendent fantasies and New York paranoia mingle at those dangerous dusk hours.

I warily left the warehouse, weighted down with a variety of consumer-size packages. Outside the warehouse I quickly caught a cab by the bridge exit that runs from Brooklyn. I was feeling safe, but I started worrying about the vegetarians I'd just met. Are they too peaceful and innocent for this neighborhood, I wondered? Nah, I speculated. I'm sure The Buddha protects babies and sincere veggies with his invisible hand.

Once safely home I looked up recipes that I've always wanted to try with seafood. Why? Because I wanted to show my friends that now I could make the same seafood dishes at home that they always did. Because now there is a way to eat everything they eat so they don't have to treat me differently. Because they need to know that besides tofu, tempeh, and gluten meat substitutes, now there are fish and seafood substitutes that will change the way vegetarians eat and entertain.

Go ahead, I mused, invite me to your barbecues. Not only will I bring the veggie burgers, but from now on I'll arrive with a few skewers of virtual shrimp-ball kebabs. Then I'll throw a few shrimp on the barbee, as they say Down Under. Yes, of course I'll let you try them. But only once, because next time, you buy!

The most difficult part of testing virtual seafood is comparing the taste to real seafood. For this I enlisted the aid of my housemate Elner, who is a mari-vegetarian: I call her that because she's a "vegetarian" who doesn't eat land-based animals, yet eats fish and seafood.

Philosophically she says, "I won't eat the flesh of any animal that knows its own mother. Fish and other sea animals don't seem to have any relationship to a maternal entity in any way, shape, or form--at least, none that I can see."

This may be her definition, but what it really means is she can go out with her friends to almost any restaurant and enjoy something other than salad with side vegetables. I asked her to help in judging the verisimilitude of the virtual.

I served up the "squid" in fresh tomato sauce first. "It almost tastes like squid," Elner said. "Certainly the texture is there. I can actually feel the squid more than I can taste it."

Texture, texture, all is texture. The look is almost there. The color is almost there. But, ah, the feel of virtual seafood in the mouth, that's where the processor has succeeded. Is texture the secret of virtuality? She told me that what we were eating had exactly the same texture as calamares, the smallest, tenderest variety of squids. The shallow, crosshatched interiors of squid, the resistance to the bite, the chew and roll on the tongue--these were as close to squid as one could get without a forbidden food entering the lips.

The shrimp, on the other hand, were curled, tailless, shelless, legless, headless; in a perfectly cleaned and washed state, ready to be added to the garlic sauce. I tasted one of them straight from the package. Well, almost tasteless. I hoped Irish rock sea salt, ground to a fine powder, sprinkled over the shrimp and allowed to soak in for an hour in the refrigerator would help. When I sampled them again I could taste a bit of the oceans from whence they didn't come.

Several days later I made a tuna salad with Dijon mustard-tofu mayonnaise from one package of frozen tuna. Elner and I devoured the spicy tuna salad on toasted French bread. She had eaten real tuna salad sandwiches for many years before she met me. "Tastes more like lumpy Dijon mayonnaise than tuna salad to me," she repeated between bites, "but the texture is right."

I pan fried the second tuna steak package in a flour and garlic powder coating, serving it on rice with a scallion-lemon mayonnaise. First though, I tried a bit of the tuna after it defrosted. It didn't need salting. In fact, I washed off the liquid it came in. That made it a little less salty.

On the plate, the sauce once again dominated the substance. "Yes, it flakes on the fork like tuna," said Elner, "but it's just not."

The real point and purpose of all this virtual seafood texturing, flavoring, manufacturing, packaging, recipe writing, and business is to keep Chinese culinary traditions alive while not forsaking Buddhist doctrines. If you're a strict vegetarian, Buddhist and all other beliefs included, you know how it feels to go out with a group of people who order everything you can't eat. Chances are that won't change--unless you introduce the products of Shin-Der to your favorite Chinese restaurant. Go ahead, tell the owners about virtual seafood. What do you have to lose? Tell them the company packages the same products in restaurant sizes. The cooks know what it's all about. They just don't know you want ituntil you tell them.

-- The importer of Shin-Der products is Good Taste Vegetarian Food Imports located at 204 Delancey Street, New York, NY 10002. Drop them a SASE for a catalog.


(Serves 4)
Sample this pseudo squid.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, trimmed, and minced
1-2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
11/2-2 pounds fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 Tablespoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano or marjoram
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash fresh ground black pepper or red
pepper flakes
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
One 7-ounce package vegetarian squid, soaked in sea salt and 1/4 cup water for at least one hour, then drained

Heat the olive oil on medium in a saucepan until almost smoking. Add minced onion and fry two minutes. Add garlic and mix together two minutes more. Add chopped tomatoes and fry mixture for two minutes or until it begins to boil. Add seasoning, then simmer for at least 45 minutes. Taste for additional spicing, then stir in balsamic vinegar. Pour hot tomato sauce over room-temperature squid on a serving dish with orzo pasta.

Total calories per serving (without pasta): 88
Fat: 4 grams

(Serves 4)
Faux shrimp in a gourmet garlic sauce.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup onion, peeled, trimmed and chopped
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1 Tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
One 7-ounce package vegetarian shrimp, soaked in sea salt and 1/4 cup water for at least one hour, then drained
1 shot dry white wine
Fresh ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add chopped onion, water and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and cook for 12-15 minutes or until water has all evaporated. Cook onions, stirring occasionally until they're golden brown. Add minced garlic and 1/2 tablespoon of chopped parsley; cook while stirring for one more minute. Add the shrimp and cook another two minutes. Add the wine, then salt and pepper to taste. Cook until hot. Serve immediately over hot rice garnished with remaining parsley.

Total calories per serving (without rice): 52
Fat: 3 grams

(Serves 4)

Sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds on top of this soup.

One 7-ounce package vegetarian shrimp or codfish balls
5 cups water
1/2 cup shredded Napa cabbage
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1 celery stalk, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Dash cayenne pepper
5 dried black mushrooms, soaked in hot water for at least 20 minutes or until spongy soft, stems discarded, then cut into strips 1/4-inch wide 4 Tablespoons miso paste

Bring water to boil in a soup pot. Add all remaining ingredients except miso paste into a soup pot of boiling water; bring to a quick boil; then let simmer about 10 minutes. Before serving, put a tablespoon of miso paste into each soup bowl. Serve out the hot soup equally. Let the miso dissolve and blend while stirring.

Total calories per serving: 108
Fat: 2 grams

(Serves 4)
Try serving this "tuna" salad on toasted French bread with
sliced red onion and thinly sliced plum tomatoes.

1/2 pound firm tofu, drained and squeezed through a jelly bag or cheesecloth until most of the liquid is out
2 Tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
I Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash white pepper
One 7-ounce package vegetarian tuna steak, defrosted and crumbled
1 celery stalk, washed, trimmed, and thinly sliced crossways

Blend the squeezed tofu, mustard, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper until very smooth. Add defrosted, crumbled tuna and sliced celery, gently mixing all ingredients together. Serve room temperature or slightly chilled.

Total calories per serving (salad only): 173
Fat: 13 grams

(Serves 4)
Serve hot on rice and sprinkle toasted cashews over each plate.

2 Tablespoons soy oil
Three 1/4-inch slices ginger root
2 dried hot red peppers
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 dried black mushrooms, soaked for at least 20 minutes in hot water or soy sauce until spongy soft, stems discarded, then cut into strips 1/4-inch wide
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch rounds
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch squares
2 cups broccoli florets
1 teaspoon Chinese fermented black bean paste
1 Tablespoon Chinese cooking wine
One 7-ounce package vegetarian abalone slices
1/4 cup raw cashews, toasted or broiled until golden brown

Heat oil in a wok until almost smoking. Add ginger root slices and cook for two minutes. Remove ginger and add whole dried red peppers and salt. Cook two minutes, then add sliced mushrooms, carrot, and bell pepper. Cook together, tossing for five minutes. Add broccoli, bean paste, cooking wine, and abalone slices; toss ingredients together.

Total calories per serving: 181
Fat: 12 grams

(Serves 2)
Serve hot on white rice with scallion-lemon mayonnaise.

One 7-ounce package vegetarian tuna steak, rinsed and defrosted
2 Tablespoons white flour
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons olive oil

Combine flour and garlic and coat the defrosted tuna steak. Heat olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. When almost smoking, place coated tuna in pan. Turn over in two to three minutes, then turn once again on both sides until it has a crisp look.

(Serves 4)

1/2 pound firm tofu, drained and squeezed through a cheesecloth until most of the liquid is out
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of white pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions

Blend the squeezed tofu, lemon juice, olive oil, water, salt, and pepper until very smooth. Mix in the chopped scallions.

Total calories per serving (including Scallion-Lemon Mayonnaise): 363
Fat: 25 grams

Editor's Note: Search in Oriental specialty stores for some of these products.

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Jeanie Freeman for converting this article to HTML

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