Allium-free vegetarian cuisine of East Asia: overview

tutorial posted 1999-12-28 - last updated 2017-05-14

Part of the series:

Taiwan buffet
Seeing is deceiving. It's eating that's believing.
-- James Thurber

What is "allium-free vegetarian cuisine"?

Since initial posting in 1999, through 2016, these articles called this cuisine "Chinese vegetarian". I called it that because in all my initial encounters with the cuisine, it was served to me by people speaking a Chinese language, in venues filled with the iconography of Chinese culture.

But even after encountering this cuisine in Thailand, where it was served to me by people speaking a Thai language, in venues filled with the iconography of Thai culture, I continued to call the cuisine "Chinese vegetarian": clearly illogical, clearly a result of being too lazy to overcome mental inertia.

No onion or garlic?

This cuisine is distinguished from other vegetarian cuisines by its exclusion of:

  • Alcohol
  • Plants of the Allium genus, such as onion, garlic, scallion, shallot, leek and chives. These plants produce characteristic pungent odors.
  • Asafetida (which is not an Allium plant)
Their exclusion from the cuisine is derived from warnings in Buddhist scriptures, as the cuisine has origins in Chinese Buddhism. Thus it is often called "Buddhist vegetarian" cuisine.

But is "Buddhist vegetarian" an accurate description?

First of all, the restrictions of Buddhist vegetarian cuisine are similar to those of the Ayurvedic Sattvic diet, which forms the basis for certain Hindu, Jain, and yogic diets. As it may be difficult or impossible to precisely trace origins or connections among these traditions, it seems self-evident that it is inaccurate to attribute such a widely practiced food philosophy to a single tradition.

Secondly, the cuisine has found wide acceptance beyond Buddhists, and is enjoyed by adherents of other religions - including Jains, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Jews (some restaurants - e.g., in Singapore and in New York - have even been certified halal or kosher).

It is also enjoyed by people not affiliated with a religion, but who choose to forego meat (perhaps for just one meal), appreciate light subtlety, or who just like to eat something different.

And no rule prescribes that the cuisine be prepared or served by Buddhists. In Malaysia it is not uncommon to be served by Muslims (who could even be stigmatized if they were labeled "Buddhist-food" servers, which could be mistaken as "Buddhist" food-servers). It is also not uncommon for the cuisine to be served in venues totally devoid of both Chinese and Buddhist iconography (e.g., the popular Beyond Veggie chain).

So, in this wretched world of disastrous ethnic and religious polarization, it's clearly time for a more suitable name.

Lately the term allium-free diet has appeared in response to recent increased awareness of allergic reactions to garlic and onion. Using that, a more precise name for the cuisine might be non-alcoholic, asafetida-free, allium-free vegetarian cuisine. But focusing on the attribute that attracts the most curiosity leads to a more concise name: allium-free vegetarian cuisine.

This series of articles aims to give a brief exploration - just a little taste - of allium-free vegetarian cuisine in East Asia.

Vegan Alert!

Mock meat: vegan or not?

Unfortunately, the restrictions of allium-free vegetarian cuisine do not cover all the restrictions of a vegan diet.

While dairy is not common in East Asian cuisine, I've discovered from shopping at vegetarian supermarkets in Taiwan (the main source of vegetarian food products in East Asia), that it is not uncommon for mock meats to be made with whey and/or egg white. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon to find that cooks and servers are unaware of this, as Vegan Taiwan blog points out. Knowledge of vegan diet requirements is steadily increasing in East Asia but, for now, the safest approach is to avoid mock meats.