Illustration by Serge Bloch
Most days Kevin Tran is hard at work before sunup in the back room of his Vietnamese café. He sifts handfuls of scrunchy tofu fiber into pans of soy paste, which are then steamed or chilled. In a few hours all will have morphed into vegetarian versions of everything from pork to oysters. Tran belongs to a 1,000-year-old tradition. Wheat gluten-based seitan—aka wheat meat—is believed to have been conceived in China by Buddhist monks and then perfected in the royal courts, whose emperors decreed that their food scientists invent mock duck for vegetarian holidays and make it tasty or else. These guys wrote the first rule of fake meat: Texture is everything.
The practice survived in parts of Buddhist Asia where, for some, going meat free is a religious requirement. In the United States, when the Asian immigration of the last century collided with the blossoming vegetarian movement, interest in mock meats took hold. Today Tran’s Vinh Loi Tofu (18625 Sherman Way, Ste. 101, Reseda, 818-996-9779) is one of a small group of L.A. businesses making Asian versions of meat substitutes. Combining years of practice with modern culinary advancements, the companies are able to transform soybeans into “pork belly,” “kidneys,” and other fake flesh.
At Vinh Loi, Tran takes his basic meat formula—salmon-colored tofu paste blended with tapioca starch, baking powder, and tofu fiber—and adapts each recipe for the desired effect. For shredded “beef” he infuses the mixture with lemongrass and a black soy sauce; for “ham” he adds a coconut pulp sweetener and house-made chili. The result is a menu of imitation meats that taste and feel like the real thing.
Another restaurant that specializes in meat-free recipes is Happy Family (111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Ste. 351, Monterey Park, 626-282-8986), which serves more than 100 mock dishes, including kung pao “squid” and sweet and sour “ribs.” As at many veggie joints, most of the protein replacements here are mass-produced in Taiwan, with one delicious exception: the house-made sesame “chicken.” For this, the kitchen takes whole button mushrooms and rolls them in cornstarch before dredging them in spiced flour. When deep-fried, the morsels double in size and get a crunchy crust resembling fatty poultry skin.
Available at Asian markets throughout the San Gabriel Valley, Yuan Shian is a La Puente-based brand of vegetarian meat products whose line includes loaves of white meat “chicken” and “duck” made from sheets of soy. The faux fowl has a fibrous texture that makes vegetarians shiver.