9 Must-Have Ingredients for Chinese Vegetarian Food

Cabbage rolls

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An Emphasis on Fresh Vegetables Makes Chinese Cuisine Perfect for Vegetarians:

In China, it is thought that vegetarian practices date back to ancient times. This means the Chinese have had centuries to perfect flavorful combinations found in vegetarian dishes, from sweet and sour to hot and spicy. The mainstays of Chinese cuisine—noodles, rice, tofu, and vegetables—are all present in vegetarian cooking. However, a steady diet of bok choy and steamed rice can soon lose its appeal! The following ingredients will help add variety to your vegetarian dishes:

Bean Curd Sheets

Like tofu, these large dried sheets are made from soybeans. You'll need to make a trip to an Asian grocery store to find them, but it's well worth the effort—they're easy to use and often featured in vegetarian dishes. Depending on the recipe, the sheets are either soaked in water or merely wiped with a damp cloth before using. (Recipes featuring this ingredient: Bean curd rolls with Seaweed, Fried Mock Oyster)

Toasted or Roasted Seaweed (Yakinori)

Yakinori, or roasted seaweed, is best known as a wrapping for Japanese sushi. However, it also adds a sweet flavor to many Chinese vegetarian dishes. There's no need to soak yakinori in water before use; in fact, it is often enjoyed raw as a snack. Recipes normally call for it to be shredded unless the entire sheet is being used.
(Recipes featuring this ingredient: Bean curd rolls with Seaweed, Fried Mock Oyster)


Just because you're cooking Chinese food doesn't mean you must stick with dried black mushrooms. Straw, abalone and even common button mushrooms all add flavor to Chinese dishes. If you are using dried black mushrooms, soak them in warm water to soften. A good tip is to save the soaking liquid: vegetarian recipes normally call for water instead of chicken broth, and the soaked mushroom liquid makes a more flavorful substitute.
(Recipes: Fried Mock Oyster)


Fungi used in cooking include black fungus, also known as wood fungus or cloud ears. The name cloud ears comes from the fact that the fungus puffs up after soaking, forming large "clouds." Other types of edible fungi include white fungus (also called snow ears or silver ears) and golden fungus. All of these dried fungi need to be reconstituted by soaking in warm water until softened. After soaking, trim off the hard piece that was attached to the woody stem.


High in protein, walnuts make an excellent substitute for meat in vegetarian diets. Also, there's some evidence that eating walnuts reduces the risk of heart disease. It's best to boil walnuts before using, as walnut skin has a bitter flavor that comes out with stir-frying.
(Recipes featuring this ingredient: Mock Crab Claws, Sweet and Sour Spareribs)


Made from wheat flour, it's rich in protein and an excellent meat substitute.
(Recipes featuring this ingredient: Vegetarian Eight Treasures)

Hair Moss (Fat Choy)

Also known as hair vegetable, hair moss is one of the ingredients in Vegetarian New Years Casserole, a Buddhist dish traditionally served on the first day of the New Year. It can be difficult to find at Asian markets during the rest of the year, not surprising since its normal home is the Gobi desert. Like many of the other ingredients found here, hair moss must be softened in water before use.
(Recipes featuring this ingredient: Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls)

Water Chestnuts

Water chestnuts are often used to give texture and sweetness to vegetarian dishes. Although canned water chestnuts can be used, fresh is better. Just be sure to buy extra - it can be difficult to tell whether or not a water chestnut has gone bad without peeling it. If you do find yourself a few short, try substituting whole bamboo shoots.  (Recipes featuring this ingredient: Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls)

Bean Sprouts

The crunchy texture and nutritional qualities of mung bean sprouts make them a popular addition in vegetarian dishes. (Recipes featuring this ingredient: Vegetarian Cabbage Rolls)

It's Not Just About Taste

It's important that Chinese vegetarian dishes display a harmonious balance of colors and textures as well as flavors. Interestingly, you will frequently find dishes resembling a type of meat or seafood. For example, in Fried Mock Oyster, mashed tofu pieces are shaped like an oyster.

You Say Vegan, I Say...?

It helps to know some of the different categories of vegetarianism when browsing through recipes and websites:

  • Vegetarian: Simply someone who makes it a practice to not eat fish, flesh or fowl or their by-products.
  • Vegan: Someone who eats no animal products whatsoever, including dairy and eggs and usually including honey. Often, vegans will not wear animal products, such as shoes made from leather.
  • Lacto vegetarian: Similar to vegans, with the exception that they will eat dairy.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarian: Similar to vegans, except that they will eat both dairy and eggs. (The word ovo comes from the Latin for egg, while the word lacto comes from the Latin for milk).
  • Pescetarian: Not really a vegetarian, but a person who follows a vegetarian diet with the exception that they will eat fish.

Finally, a Word About Msg

Cooks tend to rely more heavily on MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) when preparing vegetarian recipes than in other types of Chinese cooking. If you do choose to use it, remember that a little goes a long way. Also, be sure to check with dinner guests beforehand, as it can cause an allergic reaction.