Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Shady" Fake Chicken & Eggplant Stir-Fry

Fake meat. What is it? In what way is it "fake?" In what way - if any - is it "meat," beyond that word's original definition: "food, as nourishment for people and fodder for animals"? For those of us who don’t eat animal flesh, what is it about "meat" that we sometimes feel the urge to replicate? Jonathan Safran Foer reflects on the value, significance, history, and ethics of the foods we grow up with in his current memoir/manifesto Eating Animals (which is getting a lot of buzz), taking the WWII-era experiences of his European Jewish grandmother as a starting point. In a recent excerpt published in the New York Times, he wrote: “The story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joy, humiliation, religion, history and, of course, love.”

Foer goes on to mention that one of the intra-familial cultural ramifications of raising his own children vegetarian is that they "will never eat their great-grandmother’s singular dish [chicken with carrots]....and never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love." Of course, he recognizes that there are greater issues at stake, and later reveals that the same grandmother has gone to the effort of making vegetarian chopped liver especially for him. (For my own part I've found that, with thought and creativity, animal-free analogues of emotionally resonant dishes can be recreated, and everything tastes better when eaten with a clear conscience.)

All of which raises the question: what's actually so important about the foods we associate with childhood or adolescence? How much of it is a texture that was pleasing to our young mouths (and heaven knows there are many things that are intolerable to childish palates)? How much of it is the visceral memories of particular favorite meals: Mom making spanakopita for Greek Easter, Dad making Welsh rabbit on a Sunday night before Disney, bacon and cheese squares for a special - yet pretty frequent - Saturday lunch? How much of it is in the blood, the clan, the immigrant transformation (whether one generation back or four), and preservation, of identity and experience? And after we’ve done with all that, and factored in our later, more educated reflections and interventions on behalf of animals, health, and the environment, is there some irreducible core of meatiness that remains impervious to all these speculations? If there is, then that must be what carnivores embrace and vegetarians refuse: the point is that a choice is involved.

A number of veg-curious people (and there are an increasing number of these), observe that the whole fake-meat phenomenon is a bit “shady.” I suppose that's hard to argue with from an omnivorous perspective, and yet the most suspicious thing about the best of of it is when it’s sufficiently convincing to make you check the package - or interrogate the waitstaff when dining out - to be sure some evil flesh-mongering cabal isn’t foisting actual meat on to (in to) unsuspecting herbivores, in the hope of re-addicting or re-acculturating them to a carnivorous lifestyle.

This past weekend, we attended the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival, and among the many other delights of Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean, and Anglo-American comfort foods, we happened upon a minimally labeled but wildly popular booth selling about 17 different varieties of mock meat, from barbecue beef to saucy salmon to chicken nuggets. Now, the fact is that we aren't actually all that into "mock meat" (a term which invariably evokes the Mock Turtle's Song from Alice in Wonderland: "Beautiful soup, so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen!”), but once in a while you taste something that makes you say, "Aha! With this I could perfectly recreate [insert favorite pregan dish] without chomping down on the carcass of a fellow creature!"

Well, this past Sunday was one of those occasions, and the next time you're in the mood to mock some meat, we can recommend this stuff pretty highly. I used a package of their Vegetarian Goong Bao Chicken in that evening's dinner, and the result was a basil-infused stir-fry worthy of any Chinese restaurant I've patronized, omni or veg (that includes you, Grasshopper). So I guess what I'm saying is that "fake" meat is easily procured and can taste remarkably like its animal prototypes, without the misery that attends actual animals' short, sad journey from horrible factory farm to fork. In the final analysis, some people might feel that "ersatz" meat may is shady, but it's better than the "real thing," which is cruel, exploitative, and just plain cagy. Or, as Jonathan Safran Foer's grandmother put it, relating how she refused to eat pork  to save her own life as a starving, homeless refugee in flight from the Nazis: "If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

Shady Fake Chicken & Eggplant Stir-Fry
~2 tbsp. peanut oil
~1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
~1 tsp. hot chili oil
~2 small eggplants, cubed (about 6 cups)
~1 tbsp. minced ginger
~2 tbsp. minced garlic
~1 small red bell pepper, diced (3/4 cup)
~8 large scallions, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
~12 oz. shady fake chicken (or pressed, cubed firm tofu)
~2 cups fresh basil, chopped

~1 tbsp. each: soy sauce, brown sugar, Chinese garlic sauce (I used Dai Day:, whisked together
~1/4 cup cold water, 2 tsp. corn starch, whisked together
~An extra shot or two of hot sauce to taste (optional)

~In a wok, saute the eggplant over medium-high heat in the combined oils for 5-10 minutes, until softened.
~Add the ginger and garlic and cook another few minutes.
~Add the bell pepper and scallions; continue cooking 5 minutes more.
~Stir in the "chicken" (or tofu) and the soy sauce/brown sugar/garlic sauce mixture.
~Cook another 5 minutes until heated through, stir in the chopped basil and hot sauce (if using), and serve over steamed short-grain brown rice.


  1. What a great post.

    Now this is shady. Egads.

  2. Thanks, Stella! (And whoa. That IS shady!)

  3. Fantastic post, Desdemona! Thank you! I hope you don't mind that I posted a link on my blog (