How my pork stir-fry became vegan

I didn’t set out to veganize Cook’s Illustrated’s ‘Sichuan Stir-Fried Pork in Garlic Sauce’ – it just sort of happened. It’s not that I have anything against vegans, and if you are vegan and ever come to our house for dinner I would enjoy the challenge of preparing a strictly plant-based meal. Personally though, I’ve never found the arguments behind veganism convincing–so absent a guest with a vegan diet at the table, I don’t bother limiting my ingredient list based on any prescribed set of rules. Sometimes, though, such limits arise outside of my meal plan.

vegan stir-fry

Temporarily out of stock

The first ingredient in the Cook’s recipe is chicken broth and although I’m sure it’s routinely passed off as such by unscrupulous restaurateurs chicken broth is definitely not vegan. I’ve got nothing against it at all–as long as it’s homemade. A few years ago I realized that by saving the bones from every piece of chicken we eat in a bag in the freezer I could make stock that was pretty good and very cheap. When enough bones and sundry chicken parts have accumulated, I cover the lot with water in the crock pot, and in eight short hours it’s ready for action. Naturally, that discovery morphed into the idea that it was immoral to ever buy store-bought stock again. I’m not without my food restrictions–they just don’t have to do with avoiding eating or enslaving animals. And so it was that while we were doing the week’s shopping I refused to buy broth-in-a-box, even though I knew the supply of carefully frozen cubes of stock in the freezer was dwindling. As it turns out I cut it too close, and Martha used up the last of our home-made stock making a delicious vegetable soup a couple of days prior. At some point in the week I was aware of the issue and intended to fire up the slow cooker at the right time to replenish the stock supply, but as of the morning I had forgotten and by the time I got home to make dinner it was already too late. So I turned to the poor man’s vegan-friendly chicken stock: good old H2O.

Also called for in the recipe was fish sauce, which is usually made with ground up anchovies or other tiny fish. I don’t particularly like fish sauce, and I especially don’t like the way it tends to sit in the fridge unused for many months, taking up valuable shelf real-estate. And it isn’t free either. So I had consciously planned to skip the fish sauce all along, for my own special anti-fish sauce reasons.

The meaning of putrid

With water substituted for chicken broth and no fish sauce swimming in that water, my stir-fry sauce was vegan. But there remained the more obvious question of the pork. Even among those who eat meat, pork is the subject of special dietary restrictions, being notably forbidden to Jews and Muslims who observe their faiths’ dietary laws. This can be mystifying to those of us with no such restrictions, since pork is quite possibly the most delicious of all the meats, especially in its bacon and jamón forms. I say all this to make it clear that I am normally a pork enthusiast and would go to great lengths to incorporate this glorious meat into my cooking, and would never intentionally omit it.

Excited as I was for an opportunity to consume that forbidden beast, any excitement rapidly faded as I pulled the cellophane-wrapped package of pork–purchased at the co-op only days before–and noticed strong bands of discoloration running down the darkened meat. Here’s a pro-tip: if you notice the color of your pork is way off, just throw it out. Do it right now. Because I’m an idiot, I decided to give the pork a good smell, just to make sure. The word putrid gets thrown about pretty casually these days, but I believe it can really only be properly understood as referring to the special stench of rotting meat. Martha, for her part, declined a whiff.

As I was walking the meat down the stairs and directly out to the dumpster behind our building, since a stink like that would pretty quickly sneak out of our tiny trash can and make our tiny apartment unlivable, I thought wistfully of the farmers market season, when food can be bought that’s fresh enough to sit in the refrigerator for a few days without rotting. Only a couple of months to go!

Having disposed of the pork, the last obstacle between this recipe and full-fledged veganism was gone. I was saved by a half head of napa cabbage (the universally acknowledged pig of the vegetable kingdom) that was sitting in the crisper drawer in the wake of the aforementioned vegetable soup. It turned out well, and while I can’t say no animals were harmed in the making of this stir-fry, it is comforting to know that no animals had to be.

Vegan mushroom and cabbage stir-fry with garlic sauce


  • 1/2 c water
  • 2 T sugar
  • 2 T soy sauce
  • 2 t balsamic vinegar
  • 2 t sherry vinegar
  • 1 T toasted sesame oil
  • 1 T sherry
  • 2 t ketchup
  • 2 t cornstarch


  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 5 scallions, white parts minced, green parts sliced thin
  • 2 T sriracha
  • 4 T vegetable oil
  • 6 oz mushrooms (I used white button mushrooms; shiitakes would be better)
  • 4 celery ribs, cut on a bias into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1/2 small head napa cabbage, sliced thin.

Whisk together sauce ingredients; set aside.

Combine garlic, scallions, and sriracha in a small bowl; set aside.

Heat 1 T oil in 12″ non-stick skillet until almost smoking. Add celery and mushrooms and cook until softened and starting to singe on the edges. Transfer cooked vegetables to large bowl.

Heat another 1 T oil in the skillet until almost smoking. Add cabbage and cook until wilted and browned in places. Add to bowl with vegetables.

Heat remaining 2 T of oil in the skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic-scallion mixture and cook until fragrant – about 30 seconds – stirring frequently. Whisk sauce to recombine and add to skillet. Bring to a boil to thicken and add vegetables. Stir to combine. Serve hot with rice.


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7 comments on “How my pork stir-fry became vegan”

  1. Amy 24 March, 2012 at 5:37 am

    Consider the source, but I do enjoy your writing! The chortles I got with breakfast today in reading your post will serve me well while working today–thanks, Tom.

  2. EMH 26 March, 2012 at 8:12 am

    FYI – Fish sauce crystallizes in the fridge– store it at room temp. Also, wouldn’t VEG stock be the vegan replacement for chicken stock?

  3. Trout Caviar 27 March, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Tom, your meatless adaptation raises the point that many Chinese (and Asian, generally) dishes become vegan when you leave out the meat, since dairy products are so rare in Asian cuisines–much lactose intolerance among Eastern peoples. Not that I’m keen on veganism, either, but if I were to make my diet meat-free, the Chinese model is definitely the one I’d follow.

    Balsamic vinegar is not something I saw a lot of during my time in China, though I know much has changed in the interim…. Perhaps the balsamic and sherry vinegars are meant to replicate Chinese dark vinegar, but the real stuff is easy enough to come by in the Cities, and cheap. I buy Chinkiang Vinegar, with a yellow label. For fish sauce, I like Lobster Brand, which has beaucoup umami and is less salty than some.

    Putrid pork, oh man, I know what you’re saying. Absolutely stomach-turning. Seems like pork can go from perfectly edible to carrion in a day.

    Cheers~ Brett

    p.s.~ You can give common tap water a bit of French cachet by referring to it as “Chateau Sink,” as Jacques Pépin does.

  4. Tom 27 March, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Brett – you called it correctly, the recipe originally called for Chinese black vinegar, but, as you can probably tell from the post, I wasn’t exactly of a mind to be hunting down ingredients.

    I have always thought that my ideal meatless diet would probably come from India, but I am learning more about Chinese cuisine and liking it more.

  5. Kris 16 April, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    When I read this post I knew I’d have to give the recipe a try as we love anything spicy, find mushrooms amazing and I’m always interested in new uses for cabbage. Originally I had intended to make it as you had, a meatless dish with rice. However, I also had a Cooking Light recipe for meatballs (with an Asian flair) that I wanted to try out. I was having a hard time coming up with a veggie dish to go with them and decided to make the meatballs to serve atop this stir fry and rice. Huge hit! Thanks so much!