Vegetarian Chinese Without Regrets
I recently arranged a meal for some visiting vegetarian (not "health vegetarian") friends at John's Shanghai, on West 46th Street. Three of the eight in our party were vegetarians, but I ordered strictly vegetarian for the whole table. I set out to prove that one could have a thoroughly satisfying, substantial, interesting, delicious, balanced vegetarian meal at a Shanghai restaurant.
We started out with steamed vegetable dumplings and scallion pancakes. The scallion pancakes were served with a nice plum dipping sauce. The dumplings were stuffed with greens that the waiter claimed was spinach, though we all agreed it was something else, a little more bitter tasting (in a good way), along with chopped water chestnuts and glass noodles. Vegetable dumpling fillings seem to differ from restaurant to restaurant. Many have a greater proportion of glass noodles, along with dried tofu and chopped black mushroom.
From there we moved on to the cold dishes, which are a major component of Shanghai cuisine. There was a spicy (only slightly, actually) bok choi salad, cucumbers with garlic, kau fu, and vegetable duck. Kau fu is made from wheat gluten puffs, usually with tree-ear mushrooms. The version at John's also had lotus root. I'm not sure what the seasonings are, but this Kau Fu was particularly good.
The vegetable duck was perhaps the most visually ducklike of any I've had in New York. Vegetable duck is made from bean curd skins and black mushrooms. It's a great source of protein, and the only officially "mock" dish we had.
We had a vegetarian version of Shanghai fried rice cakes (nian gow), which was a special request. This was a big hit with the diners who had never tried these addictive, chewy treats before. We got more protein from another famous Shanghai vegetarian dish, bean curd skins with preserved vegetable and soybeans (which I wrote about in another recent post on Shanghai cuisine).
In the green vegetable department, we had cabbage hearts (actually Shanghai bok choi) with black mushrooms, and sauteed snow pea leaves, wonderful (and relatively expensive) greens that are like a sweeter version of spinach.
Most of these dishes can be ordered at any of New York's Shanghai-style restaurants. Midtown options, in addition to John's, include Evergreen and Our Place. Two of the best in Chinatown are Shanghai Cafe and New Green Bo.