Paul Chan has a point to make. Namely, that tossing a few vegetables together does not a vegetarian meal create. "In China, we consider vegetarian food to be a cuisine by itself. Unlike American people who when they eat vegetarian food basically eat dairy food and vegetables," says Chan. "Broiled broccoli is not a vegetarian dish."

Vegetarian cuisine started, according to Chan, 2,000 years ago when Buddhism was exported from India to China. Along with their philosophy, the Buddhists brought their distinct cuisine, which uses wheat-gluten flour and beans (green beans and soy beans) as its main sources of protein.

You all know about tofu, which is made from soy bean milk, he says, but you might not have known it can be soft, or hard with the rubbery texture of meat (the harder it is the higher the concentration of protein), plain, or spiced with soy sauce, ginger and black pepper. There are also bean curd sheets, which come fresh or dried, and rolled bean curd, which can be chopped up and used like nuggets of meat.

The wheat flour, says Chan, is made into dough, then washed to remove the starch. As the protein is less soluble, what is left is a lump very high in protein that by itself, Chan admits, is not very tasty but can be fried or saute'ed with other flavors.

"I'm surprised," he says, "that American vegetarians are not more aware of these varieties of non-meat proteins," which are widely available at local Chinese grocers.

To show the variety of food, Chan has prepared a basket in which he has placed winter melon, Chinese cabbage, Chinese eggplant, seaweed, lotus seeds, water chestnuts, Chinese dot mushrooms and a black and white fungus that is cultivated in wood and, literally translated from the Chinese, is called silver ear and black ear. It is not to be confused with wood ear mushrooms. There are also bean noodles from green beans and long wormlike threads made from ordinary day lilies.

Chan, who deplores the lack of Chinese vegetarian dishes in local Chinese restaurants, says, "I don't go out so much. Every time, I must order a tofu dish." His point is that in addition to a lot of vegetables, Chinese vegetarians eat bean, wheat and fungus, which give their cuisine "a much richer variety."

Though Chan is not a strict vegetarian -- his wife doesn't think their children get enough meat -- he has a long tradition of vegetarian cooking.

When he came from Hong Kong 20 years ago, first stopping at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island to study in 1971 (he moved to Bethesda in 1981), he supported himself that first summer by catering. It was typical mid-'70s fare: egg rolls, fried rice, spiced beef. Today, he says, he would stress a variety of bean curd dishes and keep clear of the egg roll-fried rice combos that are "traditional American Chinese food."

"If I was more of an entrepreneur I would have started a business," Chan says. Instead, he now works as a scientist for a company that builds ground stations for weather satellites. But in his daydreams he finds himself standing in front of a steaming wok. He jokes that he is frequently reminded of the saying "in the back of every oriental's mind, there's a restaurant."

In the kitchen, he is preparing soup. Into a stock made with soy bean sprouts and black mushrooms, he slips more black mushrooms, bean threads, tofu, day lily threads and winter melon. He never uses recipes. "The joy of cooking is not to follow recipes." The fun, he says, comes from substituting ingredients with the sleight of the hand. "I'm lucky. Once I taste something, I know how to reproduce it."

Chan cooks for five in his family -- his wife, Diana Li, who is a computer programmer, his mother-in-law and his two children -- and prepares usually two or three dishes, including a soup.

He begins to make a classic dish called Buddha's Delight, which in American Chinese restaurants, he says, has just vegetables, not the hard tofu, fried gluten, black fungus, bean thread and bean sprouts that he tosses in.

Reaching into a plastic container by his stove, he extracts a teaspoon of salt. The box, divided into four compartments embossed with Chinese characters (for garlic, salt, cornstarch and sugar) is his favorite keepsake from Hong Kong. His other staples, as they were in Hong Kong, are sesame oil, dark vinegar, dark soy sauce, which he uses in cooking, and light soy sauce, which he uses as a finishing touch.

In his refrigerator he keeps tofu and wheat gluten in big white buckets of water. Emphasizing their status as staples, he says, "When I run out of bean curd I get nervous."

He waves his guest to a beautifully set table in the center of which are five round covered dishes. At each place setting, where chopsticks are propped against small porcelain swans, he places a filled soup bowl and a small dish, and begins to uncover the dishes: eggplant in garlic sauce, its skin scored like a fish; stir-fried potato sticks topped with julienned red and green pepper sticks in vinegar; round mosaic slices from an egg roll wrapped in a thin omelet and filled with mashed potatoes, water chestnuts, carrots and hot bean curd; egg rolls wrapped in fresh bean curd skin filled with mushrooms, pickles, carrot, bean sprouts; and, not least, Buddha's Delight.

Immediately, a Chinese cooking principle comes to mind: You eat first with your eyes. One beauty trick, Chan confides, is cutting the pieces of vegetables and bean curd into the same size. The julienned peppers are cut to match the thin potato sticks. In Buddha's Delight, the bean curds and mushrooms are identical in size. He also splashes color about. In the eggplant dish, he adds scallions and tomato bits. The rolled mosaic is created with carrot and spiced bean curd against the white potato background.

At the end of the meal, Chan pushes back his chair and fetches his special treat -- a jar of preserved bean curd in sesame oil. Some nights, he says, he'll eat one small cube with two bowls of rice and call it a meal. "It's like exotic cheese. It's heaven."

He offers a spoonful.

It's salty. It's pungent. It's an acquired taste.

He is not offended by the lack of enthusiasm.

His kids, he says, don't particularly like Chinese vegetarian either. "No, they prefer hamburgers."

BEAN CURD ROLLS (Makes 8 to 10 rolls)

2 tablespoons, plus 1/3 cup, oil

2 ounces hard bean curd, minced

3 ounces carrot, shredded

2 eggs, scrambled

6 Chinese mushrooms, soaked for 2 hours, and diced

3 ounces bean sprouts

2 teaspoons cornstarch, 2 tablespoons water and 1/3 teaspoon salt, mixed together

2 fresh bean curd sheets


2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons sesame seed oil

1 tablespoon vinegar

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/3 cup water

Chopped parsley, to taste

To prepare the filling, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a frying pan and stir in hard bean curd, carrot, eggs and mushrooms. Stir-fry lightly for 5 minutes over medium heat. Put in the bean sprouts, then stir in the cornstarch mixture until it thickens.

Let the filling cool completely. Cut the bean curd sheets to the size of an egg roll skin (6-by-6 inches). Place portions of filling on the bean curd skins and roll up tightly like egg rolls.

Clean and reheat the pan with 1/3 cup of oil. Arrange the rolls to shallow fry until both sides are golden. Mix sauce ingredients together and serve on the side.

Per serving: 45 calories, 3 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, .4 gm saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 294 mg sodium.

BUDDHA'S DELIGHT (4 servings)

1/2 ounce dried black wood ear mushroom, soaked for 2 hours

8 Chinese mushrooms, soaked for 2 hours, and halved

3 ounces carrots, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons corn oil

3 ounces bean curd, thinly sliced

2 ounces bean thread, soaked for two hours, cut at an inch length


2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 cup water

Salt, to taste

Blanch the wood ear and Chinese mushrooms and carrot for 1 minute.

Heat the pan with oil until very hot. Stir-fry vegetables and bean curd for a few minutes with medium heat. Stir in the bean thread and 1/4 cup of water. Cook for another minute. Mix dark soy sauce, cornstarch, water and salt to taste. Pour sauce into pan and stir until sauce thickens.

Per serving: 139 calories, 4 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 524 mg sodium.


3 tablespoons corn oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 small chunk of ginger, minced

1 scallion, minced

3 Chinese eggplants

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

3 teaspoons cornstarch

1/4 cup water

Salt, to taste

Sesame seed oil, for finishing

Heat the pan with corn oil to medium heat. Put in the garlic, ginger and scallion. Wait for about 30 seconds, then pan-fry the eggplants with the skin facing down until golden brown. Mix dark soy sauce, cornstarch, water and salt to taste. Pour sauce into pan and stir until it thickens. Sprinkle on sesame seed oil before serving.

Per serving: 127 calories, 2 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 518 mg sodium.

Nina Killham is Washington-based freelance writer.