Martin Yan Was Cooking With Vegetables Long Before ‘Plant-Based’ Diets Became a Trend

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Stir-fried vegetables on top of a crispy noodle pancake, with a pair of red chopsticks.
Martin Yan's plant-based holiday dish is a vegan twist on mu shu pork. (Martin Yan)

Long before “plant-based” became the latest buzzword in food, Chinese chefs like Martin Yan were cooking mostly with vegetables, without fanfare. “Plant-based ingredients have been used in Asia for hundreds and hundreds of years,” the Yan Can Cook star says, rattling off a list of staples he always keeps on hand at his home on the Peninsula—six or seven items in the tofu category alone. There’s pressed tofu, fermented tofu, sheets of dried bean curd, dried bean curd sticks and so on.

“All these are plant-based products,” Yan says. “It’s nothing new at all. It’s just a new term.”

It's also an underlying theme of the “Holiday reFresh” virtual cooking demonstrations that the Palo Alto–based environmental education nonprofit Acterra is hosting on Sunday, Nov. 7. Yan and Crystal Wahpepah of Oakland’s soon-to-open Indigenous restaurant, Wahpepah’s Kitchen, headline a roster of chefs tasked with reimagining the traditional American holiday feast—say, the turkey dinner with all the fixins—with today’s dire climate crisis in mind. That means no meat or animal products, and everything has to be cooked on an induction stove.

But even if the idea of having a big holiday meal without meat might be a new thing for many Americans, Yan and Wahpepah mostly talk about how this vegetable-centric approach is rooted in cultural traditions that are in fact quite old. Wahpepah, for instance, is a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, and grew up eating all different kinds of Native foods in East Oakland’s multi-tribal Indigenous community. “Mostly all of our ingredients are plant-based,” she says. “The only things that aren’t are the bison and the salmon.” 

Pumpkin and corn soup in a round flat bowl.
Crystal Wahpepah's dried corn and pumpkin soup is a celebration of the fall harvest. (Wahpepah's Kitchen)

Wahpepah remembers that when she was growing up, her friends and family in the Bay Area’s Indigenous communities would celebrate Native American Heritage Month—and the fall harvest—out on Alcatraz each November. The dish she’ll demonstrate on Sunday is similar to what they would have eaten during those harvest celebrations: a sweet, thick vegetable soup made with hominy-like dried corn and fresh pumpkin.

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It’s a soup you could easily slide onto your holiday table as a light side dish, even if you aren’t doing a full vegan dinner, Wahpepah says.

Martin Yan poses for a portrait.
Martin Yan attributes his good health to his vegetable-centric diet. (Martin Yan)

Yan, meanwhile, invites neighbors and relatives to his home for a Chinese-style Thanksgiving feast every year. He’ll roast a turkey, but he stuffs it with a sesame oil–laced stir-fry of bamboo shoots, Chinese celery, pressed bean curd and all different kinds of mushrooms, brushing the bird with soy sauce until the skin develops the lacquered, amber sheen normally associated with Peking duck. He’ll make sweet potatoes seasoned with ginger and five-spice powder. “I make it very Asian,” he says.

Mostly, though, what he cooks are vegetables, which he says have long been the foundation of his diet, even if he’s never been fully vegan or vegetarian. His fridge is crammed full of Asian produce—mustard greens, daikon, Chinese broccoli, winter melon and more. 

For the “reFresh” demonstration, Yan plans to make a variation on mu shu pork, a very standard dish that you might order at a Chinese restaurant. Of course, he’ll make a version without meat—just heaps of thinly julienned fresh vegetables stir-fried to still-crunchy perfection, then served on top of pancakes made out of crispy noodles. According to Yan, Chinese tradition dictates that you have to eat noodles during special celebrations, since they symbolize longevity and long-lasting happiness.

Now in his early 70s, Yan still spends more than two-thirds of the year traveling around the world for various speaking engagements. And he attributes his good health to his mostly plant-based diet, even if he only recently started using the term. 

After all, Yan says with his trademark deadpan delivery, “That’s why for 36 years I have not gained one pound.”

The “Holiday reFresh” virtual event takes place Sunday, Nov. 7, from 4–5:40pm. There’s an optional suggested donation of $35, but anyone who would like to attend can reserve a free ticket.