In the Chinese tradition, the Lunar New Year is all about positive new beginnings. Starting this Sunday (February 10) and for the two weeks that follow, we will greet the Year of the Snake—and each other—with wishes of prosperity, good health, long life, and not least the fulfillment of one’s wishes and desires.
On New Year’s Day (Sunday, February 10) in particular, this bounty of goodwill is supposed to extend to all creatures on earth. Many will observe a Buddhist-inspired custom of amnesty and abstain from eating meat in honour of the animals that give themselves for our food. The more devout may even take part in the age-old ritual of animal release, or fang sheng, which means “to liberate a life”.
During the ritual, birds, fish, and other critters often otherwise destined for the wok are released. The celebrants get to experience the pure joy of virtuous compassion and accrue merit points for lives after and beyond, and the animals get a free pass. It’s win-win—except that in this modern world of global food systems, animal release can mean introducing invasive species into local ecosystems, with disastrous results. Also, ironically, this well-intentioned gesture has been known to lead to acts of cruelty. In Thailand, I saw birds caught up in the vicious circle of being peddled in cages for release at a temple, than trapped again in a nearby rice field to be resold.
So for my money and health, I’m going vegetarian for the day.
One option is to head for a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. My current haunt is Bodhi Choi Heung (3932 Fraser Street). It’s one of the older of its kind in Vancouver (read: the décor is a bit dated), but it serves some of the best Cantonese vegetarian fare. As at other “Buddhist vegetarian” restaurants, the menu is dotted with mock meats ranging from chicken to duck to lamb, as well as shrimp and oyster, all ingeniously crafted from gluten and soybean products to resemble the original version in texture and flavour.
These curious references are meant to attract, appease, and possibly convert wary meat lovers, and they succeed because they lend scope and variety to the menu. Think of a familiar dish you like to have at a Cantonese restaurant and you’re likely to find its meatless doppelgänger here. For example, try the taro and vegetarian lamb in coconut curry hot pot, or the salted fish, diced chicken, and tofu hot pot with eggplant. You’ll find them as tasty and comforting as the meaty versions, although the “lamb” is actually braised fried gluten and the “chicken” pressed tofu.
Po Kong (1334 Kingsway)—the transplanted, renamed reincarnation of former Main Street favourite Bo Kong—is another top pick. Go there with a few like-minded friends and order the dinner for eight, which includes an elegant bamboo mushroom and faux shark fin soup, a sizzling black pepper “beef”, and an auspicious fried rice with pine nuts.
For something less traditional, 3G Vegetarian Restaurant (3424 Cambie Street) offers an interesting mix of pan-Pacific dishes that hail from Japan (tempura, udon), Indonesia (a soup noodle with veggies), Thailand (tom yum soup), and even California (a salad). They also offer all-day dim sum and small plates between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. So if you don’t want to commit to dinner this New Year’s Day, go for lunch and be sure to try the intriguingly textured vegetarian chicken drumsticks fried with salt and pepper, the excellent steamed glutinous rice with “chicken” (packets wrapped in bamboo leaves), and the abalone mushroom with vegetables. Call ahead and ask about their set banquet menu, which promises to be more traditional in style.
Vegetarian options are also abundant at many Chinese restaurants that don’t focus exclusively on vegetarian fare. At the Jade Seafood Restaurant (8511 Alexandra Road, Richmond), more than a dozen vegetarian appetizers are available. Highlights include eggplant in sweet-and sour sauce, sautéed lotus root, and Buddha’s Feast with bamboo mushrooms. You can also select a mushroom dumpling scented with truffle oil from the dim sum menu or a mixed mushroom chow mein from the “tapas” menu. For a sweet finish, I recommend the almond milk with sesame glutinous-rice dumplings. (The above dishes are vegetarian but not vegan; they will make them vegan upon request.)
For more posh presentations, chef Sam Leung of Dynasty Seafood Restaurant (108–777 West Broadway) has been working on a dish of deep-fried bean curd stuffed with vegetables that’s shaped like a bracelet of Buddhist prayer beads; it comes with a tomato and cucumber salsa. He’s also created a stewed tomato stuffed with wild rice served in a thickened mushroom consommé, and a toothsome, stir-fried luo han zhai (braised mixed vegetables) that departs from the usually mushy renditions of this iconic Buddhist dish.
So go forth with compassion in your heart and eat your vegetables. May the Year of the Snake bring you good health.