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A photo of two five-spiced yuca taro cakes topped with Sichuan dry pot brassicas at Surong vegan Chinese pop-up.
Five-spiced yuca taro cakes with Sichuan dry pot brassicas.

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Meet the Creative Vegan Pop-Up Rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Surong comes from Hannah Che, author of The Vegan Chinese Kitchen, who serves beet dumplings, lotus seed sticky rice, and herbal broth brined tofu skin

Last October, diners gathered in Malka’s eclectic dining room not to eat crispy rice salads or matzo ball khao soi, but something completely different. Osmanthus syrup-drenched lotus root slices, stuffed with sweet sticky rice, arrived at tables alongside cumin-spiced lion’s mane mushroom skewers, served with peanut sauce on mismatched plates. Beancurd skin rolls bathed in an earthy brine of ginseng, mushroom, and star anise, while five-spiced cakes made of yuca and taro came with a crown of Sichuan dry pot brassicas, accented with the honey-like sweetness of figs.

Hannah Che, the food blogger-turned-vegan chef behind Surong, melds traditional Chinese cooking with local produce to create dishes that are distinctively Chinese, yet uniquely tied to Oregon. This dinner was Che’s first exploration into the Portland pop-up world, a month after her cookbook The Vegan Chinese Kitchen hit bookstores. In 2023, Surong may become one of the hottest new pop-ups in town, thanks to Che’s creative and elegant presentation of Chinese vegan cuisine, honoring its traditional roots while offering an inspiring new perspective.

The name of the pop-up came from the woman who taught Che to cook: her mother. Surong is an etymological mashup of both Che’s identity as a chef and what she’s trying to do through food — Su literally translates to “vegan” and “vegetarian” in Chinese. Rong is Che’s childhood nickname, as well as the character in ronghua, meaning ‘to blend.’

At Surong, the chef blends her own creative twist into familiar Chinese dishes, incorporating Oregon-grown vegetables, mushrooms, fruits, and nuts. Che views this as a balancing act that is partly practical, as many Chinese ingredients would have to be imported, but also in alignment with the holistic nature of traditional Chinese medicine, which emphasizes seasonal eating and mindful sourcing of ingredients.

No two Surong pop-ups are alike. Che changes the menu based on what’s in season and how she interprets and balances ingredients through the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, including the five flavor elements: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and pungent or spicy. While it is similar to Western flavor profiles, Che emphasizes that these elements play a deeper role in terms of the qualities of each dish. “It’s not about seasoning, but the innate flavor and nature of the ingredient,” she says, referring to qualities like cool versus warm and damp versus dry.

While ingredients like ginger and goji berries are well-known as Chinese herbal medicine, the concept of food as medicine applies to all plants — which Che tries to capture with her dishes. “Even ingredients that people don’t consider medicine, like yams, lotus root, and Napa cabbage,” she says. “They all have yin or yang energy.” The chef says her role is to decide how to interact with the ingredients, as different cooking techniques, like steaming versus frying, create different yin or yang energies too.

For the upcoming Surong pop-up coinciding with Lunar New Year, the chef will serve a five-course tasting menu of auspicious foods showcasing five winter vegetables: daikon, carrot, beet, fennel, and ginger. Dumplings, a traditional Lunar New Year dish served to usher in wealth and good fortune, will arrive two ways: as a daikon-eggplant-tomato wonton soup, and as beet-and-shiitake crystal dumplings. A symbol of prosperity and family reunion, pearl sticky rice meatballs are on the menu too — Che makes hers out of tofu skin and carrots, serving them with carrot hoisin. Chinese vegetarian roast “goose,” made of layered beancurd skin and thinly julienned vegetables, is a traditional Buddhist dish with roots that can be traced back to the Song Dynasty. Che recalls seeing this dish in restaurants all over China; however, her version will use fennel instead of bamboo shoots. For dessert, the chef will make a mashup of her favorite hot Chinese desserts, combining douhua (silken tofu pudding), red bean filled tangyuan (glutinous rice balls), and taro sago (tapioca).

While Chinese food can be meat-heavy at times, Che’s concept is not about veganizing meaty dishes; instead, Surong is about embracing another side of Chinese cuisine that is vegan-friendly by nature and deeply rooted in centuries old Chinese philosophies. Although the chef respects mock meats and eats them at home, vegetables are the star of the show at Surong, along with tofu and beancurd skin.

Che initially started her blog The Plant-Based Wok as a creative outlet to share her food photography. When she began sharing recipes of her own, her blog caught the attention of publishers. From the start, she had a clear vision of a cookbook that focused solely on vegan Chinese cuisine.

With the idea of entering the restaurant industry stewing at the back of her mind, Che enrolled in culinary school in Guangzhou. She experienced the full multitude of Chinese culinary creativity through vegetarian buffets, homestyle cooking, and fine dining.

But it wasn’t just the flavors that inspired her. Growing up, Che was influenced by her mother’s interest in shiliao — a branch of traditional Chinese medicine that uses food as preventive and curative therapy — but living in Guangzhou and Taipei deepened her interest in traditional Chinese medicine and its culinary principles.

When Che returned to Portland in November 2021, she began working as a line cook at several restaurants, including vegan dim sum shop Jade Rabbit and Din Tai Fung’s Tigard outpost, before landing at Malka. As Che gained more confidence in the kitchen, Malka owner Jessie Aron encouraged her to pursue pop-ups.

Che says her inspiration comes from Portland’s many restaurants that are representing a specific cuisine in an inventive way: Malka’s Southeast Asian flavors, Han Oak and Toki’s Korean food, Gado Gado’s Chinese-Indonesian menu, and Thai cuisine at Paadee and the other Akkapong Earl Ninsom restaurants. “It’s authentic to the chef who is making it,” Che says. “That’s what authentic to me really means — authentic to your own background and lived experiences.”

Follow Surong on Instagram for pop-up details and reservations.

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