Plant Treasures in the Land of Meat and Fish
After living, cooking, and eating my way across China for a year and a half, I’ve found that the most diverse and exciting plant-based foods are as far from the Buddhist community as you can run.
Let’s start with Jinan.
Jinan does not fit the bill of a plant-friendly city. It’s the capital city of Shandong Province, the birthplace of China’s first main cuisine (lucai), whose best-known dishes are all “big meat and seafood”, dayudarou. Folks there love, love, love their meat. Yet, for whatever reason, Jinan still has hordes of amazing, unique, and traditional plant-based foods.
Visitors to the city are told to do two things: 1) appreciate their spring water and 2) savor the “two stranges.” For their part, the “two stranges” are a pair of peculiar porridges, absolutely delectable, that taste nothing like you’d expect.
Tianmoer (Sweet Froth) is the first “strange.” It’s name says sweet, but it tastes immensely savory. Like the warming spice of a hometown pho, but injected into the thick, full body of a cream of something soup.
The creaminess comes from a stone-grown millet flour base, which is cooked and thickened, then steeped and flavored with five-spiced aromatics, rice noodles, long beans, smoked tofu, tofu skin, peanuts, and spinach.
When I tried Tianmoer for the first time, I wanted to shout. It was so good.
The second strange, Chatang (Tea Soup), doesn’t really have anything to do with tea. Instead, it’s a somewhat sweet porridge, thickened with ground millet, warmed with brown sugar, and garnished with the crunchy seeds and candies you might find in a lunchbox trail mix. Sunflower kernels, pepitos, raisins, black and white sesame seeds, peanut crumble, little red and green candies… Chatang can also, like Tianmoer, have a five-spice punch, but this one is much more mellow. When hot, the porridge is as thick as a viscous gravy, but it thins out nicely as it cools, making the final few sips refreshing instead of cloying.
These foods are ubiquitous in Jinan. They’re also historical, relatively healthy, delicious, and entirely plant based. Yet, despite hitting all the boxes, tianmoer and chatang are so bound to the local culture that most folks outside the city, even within Shandong Province, haven’t even heard of them.
They’re local treasures.
Outside of Jinan specialties, Shandong has so much else to offer.
For plant-proteins, their Oumianjin, Mianou, or Lotus Gluten, is incredible. This is an extruded and dehydrated wheat gluten — made from rinsing and scouring a wheat dough until all its starch content has been washed away — that when rehydrated is great for cold dishes. It’s spongy, soft, but still has bite. Oumianjin is rarely used by restaurants, but when it is, you’ll see it served with Chinese tahini, chili oil, cucumber, cilantro, and mountains of astringent, ultra-spicy, raw garlic. The garlic and other seasonings hide within the soft pores, and every bite is an explosion of pungent flavor.
Much more common, available fresh outside most apartment complexes, are Shandong Huoshao Biscuits. These are laborious to produce. Each morning, neighborhood bakers hand mix and knead mountains of dough, laminate it multiple times with spices and savory oils, then divide, fill, pan-fry, and bake them. I personally loved the eggplant/pepper and tofu/cabbage varieties. Grain + filling + flavor — they were full meals. Perfect to pick up and eat on your way to work or school.
Shandong Jianbing, or Chinese crepes, were also delicious. Made with millet, soy, sorghum, corn, wheat… local corner stores sold giant stacks by the kilo. Unlike Tianjin-style crepes, these were firm, thin, and crackly. Restaurants would serve them to you along with sides, salty and savory bean sauces, and an entire length of Chinese leek. You did the filling, wrapping, and eating.
My trip to Shandong was just four days long, and I only visited two cities. But what I saw was so inspiring. There was so much amazing food to enjoy, much more than just these few foods, and it made me wonder what else was out there.
If only we had more of them back home… Maybe, someday, flexitarians wouldn’t be forced to order the salad.