top of page
  • Writer's pictureMei Chin

Vegetarian Duck, Sinful Monks

Mock duck, or Suya was created by Buddhist vegetarians, because the soybean skin was thought to mimic that of an actual duck. However, the secret to this version of mock duck, is chicken stock and oyster sauce.

Photo: Jane Wong

Vegetarianism is a practice among many Chinese Buddhists, because they believe that all life is precious. Even the image of meat is forbidden on the Buddhist temple premises (like a cooking magazine with a photo of a roast chicken). Many a temple is populated by happy stray dogs; their fountains teem with rescued goldfish with tattered fins.

My parents were not religious, but because my Christian Connecticut schoolmates convinced me that everyone had a religion, I spent much of my early childhood believing that we – being Chinese – must be Buddhist. My Buddhism was fostered by Chinese tales rife with karmic retribution, reincarnated souls, and, in one particularly grim story, the sinful mother of a Buddhist monk who ended up in hell, condemned to lie for all eternity on a bed of nails. She was sentenced because when she was alive, she would sneak scraps of meat into the bowls of the Buddhist monks who would beg at her door.

When I was seven years old, at a Buddhist temple in China, I was served a vegetarian banquet that finished with a sweet, clear soup of white wood ear mushrooms. The food was remarkable, and what of course knocked me out the most was the fact that there was no meat. My little brother, who despised vegetables, liked it.

“You know,” my mother told me after that Chinese Buddhist feast, “Buddhist temples are famous for their food. There used to be a fierce competition between all the temples, as to who could produce the best food. You know what the secret was?” She whispered, “Meat stock.”

As a child, my Christian schoolmates assured me that they would pray for me so I would not go to hell. I was preoccupied with hell, which was why I was anxious to acquire a religion. And so I pictured monks risking damnation with chicken broth.

The Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xianzi was famous for breaking meat-eating taboo. Here he seating shrimp.
Buddhist Patriarch Kensu with Shrimp. Late 17th Century Japan. Copyright LACMA

Mock meat is a staple of Chinese Buddhist eating – yam, taro, wheat gluten, and most often soy, cunningly shaped to resemble the stuff that is forbidden. There are infinite varieties -- mock spareribs, mock chicken, mock squid, mock lamb molded from ground taro, mock ham that is pink and looks like Spam, and mock fish, wrapped with seaweed which mimics glistening scaly fish skin. They are all delectable and taste nothing like flesh.

Among mock meats, the one that is arguably the most popular is mock duck, or suya. Tofu sheets, bai ye in Chinese, yuba in Japanese, are rolled around thinly sliced mushrooms. The thin yuba shrivels and puckers when it cooks, and turns deep gold brown, and when properly done, the outside crust does in fact look like the crispy, pockmarked skin of a perfect roast duck, and the mushrooms within mimic the duck bones. I have seen it translated on menus as “pastry of soy bean sheets and mushroom” and even “tofu napoleon;” and indeed, with its many layers of yuba, it is a soy mille-feuille. It is a delightful demonstration of the multifarious nature of bean curd – how something that we usually associate as being a soft cake (tofu), can be stretched until it is tender, thin, and translucent.

The suya were like eating coriander and sesame clouds."You know what the secret is?" my aunt confessed. "Oyster sauce and chicken stock."

But Suya, like many other mock meats, was something that I would have at a restaurant, because it was dauntingly labor intensive. One day my aunt Yen brought out a le Creuset pot filled with limp, khaki coloured rolls. They were not particularly pretty, but smelled enticing.

Suya,” she said, and sliced up the rolls, sprinkled them with sesame oil and cilantro, and fanned them out on the plate next to the cold braised pork. Yen's suya, which were stuffed with wild mushrooms, tasted of silk and the sea.

“You know what the secret is?” she confessed. “Oyster sauce and chicken stock.”

My family, who doesn’t eat a lot of meat, is impatient with dietary restrictions. Indeed my mother gets delight out of sneaking a bit of bacon fat into a salad, or a dash of fish sauce into a stir-fry, and having her vegetarian guest exclaim that this was the best thing that they ever tasted.

The oyster sauce and chicken stock in the vegetarian duck is the perfect paradox; it makes the dish so that it doesn’t taste like meat, but merely enhances its tofu-ness. I had not thought of my monk wielding a can of chicken broth for many years, but every time I make my aunt’s Suya, he comes creeping unbidden in my mind. If there is a Buddhist hell, there will be a particularly large bed of nails waiting with our family name inscribed.

Photo: Jane Wong

Su Ya (Chinese Mock Duck) 素鴨

Method adapted from Mei's aunt Yen Hsieh. We talked about Yen in our Crisps episode, because she was the woman who introduced Pringles to Ireland.

Serves 4-6

1 package of soybean sheets (fupi or baiye). (See note)

20 fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced.

Bunch of coriander, chopped fine

2 tbsp. of sesame oil

dash of salt

1 l. hot water

4 tbsp. oyster sauce (can substitute vegetarian oyster sauce)

500 ml. of chicken stock (can substitute vegetable stock)

3 tbsp. sesame oil

  • Boil 1 L kettle of water.

  • Cut each sheet in half.

  • Pour hot water into bowl and let cool for five minutes.

  • In a separate bowl, mix shiitakes, sesame oil, coriander (reserve 2 tbsp for garnish), and pinch of salt. This is your filling.

  • Take 2 half sheets and then fold again, so it is quarter in size of original . Dip the sheets in hot water until soft and pliable. Squeeze water out. This can take as short as ten seconds; what you want is for the translucent yuba to turn milky in color.

  • Put two tbsp. of mushroom filling in a cylinder across the beancurd sheet and roll it up like a spring roll.

  • Continue until the sheets and the filling are used.

  • Squeeze all of the water out of your rolls. This is important – otherwise they will splatter in the oil.

  • Heat a heavy bottom pan over medium-high heat until hot. Add 3 Tbs. vegetable oil, add the soy rolls, and fry until the bottom of each spring roll is golden brown (3-4 minutes). Turn the rolls over and brown the other side.

OK, so now this recipe can go two ways. You can pan-fry until crunchy, slice on a bias and then drizzle with a sauce of oyster sauce, 200 ml chicken stock, and sesame oil that you have simmered for two minutes. Garnish with coriander.

This is also a good option for cocktail parties, because it looks pretty.

My family prefers it this way:

Photo: David Chan

  • Line the bottom of a large pot like Le Creuset with the rolls. Pour oyster sauce and chicken stock to cover (add water if necessary) and let come to a simmer and cover.

  • Let this simmer for 15 minutes.

  • Remove, and slice on the bias, Sprinkle with coriander and a healthy glug of sesame oil and enjoy. You can eat these hot, cold, or at room temperature.

  • Another thing we do before step 10 is to add all sorts of other things, like tinned vegetarian Chinese abalone and bamboo shoots.

NOTE: The soybean sheets are usually about 30-36 cm in diameter (fupi or baiye), found in the freezer or in the dried section of your local Asian market. Note to Irish customers, do NOT get the “JaJa” tofu sheets in the refrigerated section, for they are too thick. Fresh Japanese yuba is too thin.


bottom of page