Vegan Dim Sum

By Michael Craven

Going out for dim sum is at once a serene and clamorous affair. While you and your friends (doing dim sum necessitates a crowd) sit langourously sipping tea and nibbling on dumplings, the waitstaff rushes by in an intricate ballet. Pushing carts like street merchants, they offer their wares. After presenting the dish to the table and incrementing the growing bill, they drift away to the next table. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the serene and the frantic only enhances your feeling of calm, sitting in your little oasis with good company as the plates pile up.

At most restaurants that serve dim sum, it is especially important for vegetarians to bring along meat-eating friends — at least then someone will not go home hungry. Even dishes that seem like they might be veggie-friendly turn out not to be upon inspection. My last dim sum brunch at a restaurant was spent munching on serving after serving of steamed sesame greens while passing other dishes on to my omnivore compatriots.

Dim sum is based upon the Cantonese tradition of eating bite-sized morsels with tea. Families in China have long enjoyed holding yum cha, or tea lunches. The tea lunch is an opportunity for loved ones to share tea and conversation. The many Cantonese immigrants who settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 19th century brought the custom to the US. Since that time, what was once a regional tradition has spread throughout both countries.

Variety is a hallmark of dim sum. Though disparity from location to location can be spectacular, generally dim sum revolves around items that can easily be served in bite-sized portions, and so conversation does not need to be interrupted. Dumplings, buns, and rolls play a big part. Items may be steamed, fried, baked, or boiled in soup.

Creating the stunning array of items that restaurants serve makes replication in the home seem impossible. Certainly making the nearly one hundred dishes listed in some restaurant menus is out of the question. However, working with a relatively small number of ingredients, it is possible to come up with a surprising array of dishes by shifting ingredients and cooking methods. Wontons boiled in soup can very easily become another dish when the filling ingredients are changed slightly and fried.

Some ingredients may be hard to come by. Fortunately, Asian markets have opened in most metropolitan areas in response to a growing Asian population. In some areas, these markets may be the only place to locate vegetarian oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, or eggless spring roll wrappers.

In working out these dishes, I did not try to be too authentically Chinese. Rather than try to faithfully replicate the dim sum as it is in China, I feel it is better to see dim sum as a global phenomenon and open to interpretation by every new cook who approaches it. This is especially true for vegetarians, who have not always found going out for dim sum very easy.

Baked Barbecue "Pork" Buns

(Makes 8-10 buns)

This is a basic pizza-like dough that will make a sort of mini-calzone. These buns are the linchpin to a beautiful display.

  • 1 Tablespoon ketchup
  • 1-½ teaspoons vegan granulated sweetener
  • 1-½ Tablespoons sherry or cider vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 package seitan, cut into large chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

Dough for buns:

  • 2 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan granulated sweetener
  • ⅔ cup warm water
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix ketchup, 1-½ teaspoons sweetener, sherry or vinegar, soy sauce, and cloves together. Brush over whole seitan pieces and then roast for 20 minutes. While seitan is roasting, make the dough for the buns by mixing yeast with the 2 tablespoons sweetener and the water, and allow the yeast to proof (react) for 10 minutes. Add olive oil, salt, and flour, and knead until smooth. Put dough into an oiled bowl and allow to rise until doubled (about an hour or so).

When the seitan is done, put it aside to cool. After the seitan has cooled a bit, shred or cut the seitan into fairly small chunks. Heat the peanut oil in a wok or sauté pan and stir-fry the garlic and onion until they soften a bit (3 minutes). Add the seitan and cook 3 minutes. Add the final soy sauce and cook for 1 minute more.

Reheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the dough and cut out circles about 3 inches in diameter using a wide-rimmed glass or cookie cutter. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling into each circle and seal the dough around it. Lay buns, sealed-side down, on a greased cookie sheet. Brush the buns lightly with a little water, and bake for 25 minutes or until lightly browned.

Total calories per bun: 295 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 591 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Spinach Eggless Egg rolls

(Makes 8-10 egg rolls)

You should be able to find egg-free rolls in your local Asian foods store.

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon peanut oil
  • 4 cups chopped spinach
  • ¼ cup textured vegetable protein (TVP), reconstituted in water, and drained
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vegetarian oyster sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • 8-10 eggless eggroll wrappers
  • Oil for frying
  • Duck sauce (optional)

Stir-fry garlic and green onions in peanut oil for 2 to 3 minutes. Add spinach and reconstituted TVP. Cook until spinach is wilted, 3 or 4 minutes. Combine soy sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, and white pepper in a small bowl. Add to spinach and mix through.

Make eggrolls by putting about 2 tablespoons of the filling a third of the way from one end, folding in the sides, and rolling the wrapper up. Seal roll with a little bit of water. Deep-fry rolls in 350 degree oil for about 5 minutes on each side. Serve with commercial duck sauce, if desired.

Total calories per roll: 73 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 144 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sautéed Sesame Greens

(Makes 4 appetizer servings)

For this, any Chinese greens or spinach will do.

  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons neutral-flavored cooking oil
  • 4 cups well-washed greens
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
  • 1 Tablespoon toasted sesame oil

Make sure that the greens have been washed thoroughly or soaked in several changes of water. Stir-fry garlic in oil for 2 minutes. Add greens to pan with water still clinging to them, and stir-fry until wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and toss with sesame oil and soy sauce.

Total calories per serving: 64 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 3 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 134 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Sweet Potato and Ginger Potstickers

(Makes 20 potstickers)

These potstickers, featured on page 11, are quite spicy. To reduce the amount of heat, lessen or leave out the chili garlic paste.
  • 5 dried Chinese black mushrooms
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons grated ginger
  • 1-2 Tablespoons oil for frying
  • 3 cups peeled and grated sweet potatoes
  • 2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
  • ½ teaspoon chili garlic paste (optional)**
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 Tablespoon water
  • Eggless gyuza wrappers
  • 2 Tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
  • ½ cup water or vegetable broth

Reconstitute black mushrooms by submerging them in boiling water and soaking for about 15 minutes. Remove, let cool, and finely chop mushrooms. Stir-fry garlic, green onions, ginger, and mushrooms in oil for 2 minutes. Add sweet potatoes and lower temperature to medium, cooking until potatoes begin to get tender, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine soy sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili garlic paste (if desired), and white pepper in a bowl. Mix cornstarch and water in a separate bowl. Add soy sauce mixture to vegetables and cook to boiling. Take the pan off the heat and mix in cornstarch and water mixture.

Wrap potstickers by placing about 1-2 teaspoons of the filling in the center of a wrapper, wetting one half of the edge, closing the wrapper, and then adding 3 or 4 pleats to the edge. Keep completed potstickers on a lightly-floured plate while you work to keep them from sticking to each other.

Heat oil in skillet and place potstickers close to each other, covering the entire bottom of the pan. Brown for 3 to 4 minutes. Pour water or broth over potstickers and allow them to steam as the water or broth boils away (about 5 more minutes).

Note: Hoisin sauce can be found at most Asian food markets. It is a sweet, dark brown sauce, and a little goes a long way in flavor.

Total calories per potsticker: 87 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 94 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 187 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Pan-Fried Tofu with Spicy Peanut Sauce

(Serves 6)

The spicy peanut sauce from this recipe also works well poured over a combination of Chinese noodles and green onions.

  • 1 package firm regular (not silken) tofu
  • 3 Tablespoons sherry or Chinese cooking wine (mirin) or cider vinegar
  • 6 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce, divided
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetarian Worcestershire sauce (found in natural foods stores)
  • ½ cup cornstarch
  • Oil for frying
  • ⅓ to ½ cup vegetable broth
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 2 Tablespoons chunky peanut butter
  • 1 Tablespoon rice wine or red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon hoisin sauce
  • 1 teaspoon chili garlic paste**

Press tofu (cut tofu into six pieces and place under a weight) for 45 minutes to an hour. Discard excess water. Stir together sherry, half the soy sauce, and vegetarian Worcest-ershire sauce and pour over tofu. Marinate for at least 20 minutes, and drain. Lightly coat tofu with cornstarch, being sure to shake off excess. Pan-fry in a half-inch of oil. Turn when bottom has turned brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain on racks over paper towels. While the tofu cools, stir together broth, rest of soy sauce, sesame oil, peanut butter, rice wine, Hoisin sauce, and chili garlic paste in a saucepan over low heat until all ingredients are incorporated. Serve tofu with sauce.

Total calories per serving: 233 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 18 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 795 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

** This paste is extremely potent. If you dislike spicy food, leave this ingredient out altogether. Use no more than called for until you've tried it!!

Wonton Soup

(Serves 4)


  • 2 cups shredded Napa cabbage
  • Salt or salt substitute to taste
  • Oil spray for stir-frying
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons minced ginger
  • 2 leeks, white parts only, cut in half lengthwise, rinsed, and sliced into thin half moons
  • 1 green onion, minced
  • 5 dried black Chinese mushrooms, reconstituted in boiling water and minced
  • ½ cup finely chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce
  • 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce
  • 1-½ teaspoons rice wine vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • 20 eggless wonton or gyuza wrappers
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 1 Tablespoon cooking wine or cider vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 green onion, chopped

Put shredded cabbage in a colander with a sprinkling of salt and allow to drain for half an hour. Rinse cabbage. Stir-fry garlic, ginger, leeks, and green onion together in oil for 5 minutes. Add all the mushrooms and cabbage and stir-fry another 4 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, combine soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine vinegar, and white pepper in a bowl. Stir contents of bowl into the other ingredients and continue to stir-fry for another minute or two.

To make wontons, place 1-½ teaspoons filling in the center of a wrapper. Add a little water to one edge and then fold wrapper, pinching the edges together. Pull the two corners along the fold together, then wet and secure them to each other.

Simmer stock, wine or vinegar, and soy sauce in a soup pan. Using a vegetable peeler, add ribbons of carrot to the soup. Add wontons to the soup and simmer, 7 to 9 minutes each. Garnish with sesame oil and green onion.

Total calories per serving: 295 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 50 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 1316 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Michael Craven lives and cooks with his wife and daughter in Baltimore, MD.