Chinatown for Vegetarians: 'Beef' Cooked in a Pumpkin


[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Eating vegetarian in Chinatown can be tough if you want something more substantial than sweet buns or stir fried greens (not that there's anything wrong with buns and greens, mind you, but a filling meal they aren't). Some large sit-downs like Shanghai Cafe hold some answers, like some especially satisfying rice cakes, but if I'm eating with a crowd of vegetarians, more often than not I'll take them to one of the neighborhood's meat-free spots like Vegetarian Dim Sum House.

That's not to say it's one of my favorite places in the neighborhood, dim sum or otherwise, but if you order carefully you can have a more than decent meal.

Vegetarian Dim Sum House specializes in fake meat, which might be an instant turn-off for some, but fine seitan and tofu cookery is a tradition that stretches back centuries in China, and with the right chef and the right dish, it really can be a beautiful thing. The steamed dumplings here tend to have gummy wrappers, but their fake shrimp is pleasingly crisp and sweet. Also of note are mushroom turnip cakes and rice roll-wrapped fried crullers that conform well to the dim sum standard.

But for a centerpiece dish you'll have to order off menu for a platter of mock beef in brown sauce baked inside a whole kabocha squash, a massive order for all of 16.95. You'll find meaty versions of it elsewhere in the neighborhood, but this one manages to deliver the same meat-like payload. Sweet, tender squash drinks in a brown sauce free of excessive sugar, soy, or glop, and chunks of seitan have an impressive meatiness, more like well-cooked eggplant than actual beef.

The trick to fake meat cooking is for both the cook and the eater to accept fake meat on its own terms. It's not meat and it'll never be meat. But if it were flavored and served like this, perhaps we'd all eat it more often. I know that this is one plate I look forward to time and time again.