Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Old Town Shanghai, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Through Tzu Chi, I give back to society in my way.”
Before running Old Town Shanghai, Peggy Ching had operated a Taiwanese restaurant for ten years alongside her husband. Then, in May of 2019, she was moved to start up a new restaurant in Sunnyvale — Old Town Shanghai — which specializes in an array of truly delectable Shanghai cuisine.
Peggy has participated in Tzu Chi activities for many years as well, and developed a fast friendship with several Tzu Chi volunteers who also share a passion for vegetarian food. She enjoys cooking for them and even crafted special vegetarian menus for her friends, including a brand new recipe for her amazing veggie tangyuan. When the pandemic hit, her business was dealt a severe blow, however.
Hoping to help, Tzu Chi reached out and invited her to join the Very Veggie Movement, which would allow her to not only boost awareness for her delicious foods, but offer discounts that will allow more people to try vegetarian alternatives. Peggy generously agreed to lend her support.
“What kind of tangyuan are these and why are they so delicious?” Rachel Lin, a Tzu Chi volunteer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, tried the tangyuan from Old Town Shanghai at the recommendation of a friend and was immediately impressed. The taste was unforgettable, and Rachel couldn’t help but call the restaurant to order more. It was through this exchange that she learned about the story behind the tasty treat.
Peggy Ching joined Tzu Chi many years ago, enthusiastically participating in Sutra Performances on various occasions. Peggy was moved by the performances, and always brought along a bundle of food she’d made as a way to give back to everyone in the group.
“She is really a very nice person!” said Judy Liao, a Tzu Chi volunteer from Northern California who introduced Peggy to the Sutra Performance. “She always is very supportive and is very kind to everyone. I remember once there were a group of performers from Taiwan. We arranged for them to rest in the hotel. When the performance was over at 9 PM, we saw Peggy delivered meals to the hotel and served the performers. Everyone ate very happily. Peggy is very sincere when cooking her vegetarian food. She changes cookware, utensils, and oil to make sure that vegetarian customers can eat at ease.”
Last year, before the winter solstice, Judy Liao went to visit Peggy, and Peggy said she wanted to make some snacks for her vegetarian friends. “I thought we had a tradition of eating tangyuan for the winter solstice, so I made vegetarian tangyuan,” explained Peggy. Unlike the ones with sesame and peanut fillings that are more commonly found, the filling made by Peggy is salty and fresh. The dish incorporates shiitake mushrooms, Pleurotus eryngii, dried radish, and pickles to create its unique taste, and the shallots and vegan meat deliver a truly mouthwatering aroma. The tangyuan made by Peggy is filled with love, indeed, each of the vegetables carefully chopped, sautéed, and seasoned.
Before operating Old Town Shanghai, Peggy worked with her husband at a popular Taiwanese restaurant in the Bay Area. Later, when her husband needed to take care of his aging parents in Shanghai, the couple decided to close the restaurant.
Peggy’s husband travels to and fro between Shanghai and California, and Peggy, after some consideration, decided to open another restaurant featuring Shanghai-style cuisine in Sunnyvale. “This place has a lot of parking spaces. It’s not a mall. It’s less competitive and I think I’d be comfortable here.” Peggy smiled brightly.
Since her husband is from Shanghai, Peggy is particularly familiar with the cuisine. “Shanghai cuisine, especially small dishes, often takes effort,” Peggy said. One example is the famous cold dish, stuffed lotus root with sticky rice. Glutinous rice should be soaked in advance for one night, and then a lotus root is steamed until soft for the rice to be placed within. “The hole of the lotus root is very small. Sometimes even a grain of glutinous rice can’t be inserted, and it will get stuck. We have to find a way to grind the rice down or press it in. This process takes a lot of time. We also make sweet-scented osmanthus syrup in-house.” The fragrance of the osmanthus merges with the aroma of the lotus root, and the taste of glutinous rice is perfectly paired with the softness of the lotus root — a labor of love that creates a richly layered dish.
Peggy has been to Shanghai many times, and pays careful attention to the dishes served at the local eateries. It’s one reason why her own recipes achieve their authentic taste. Peggy’s gratifying “Jing’an Vegetarian Noodles,” for example, evolved from the vegetarian noodles that Peggy ate behind the famous Jing’an Temple in Shanghai. The refreshing soup base is a broth boiled with greens, carrots, and other fresh vegetables. The topping is made with shiitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms, stir-fried, and seasoned with a vegetarian oyster sauce. Together with the Shanghai noodles, this vegetarian recipe presents the classic flavor of Su-style noodles from the South Yangtze River region.
“Shanghai cuisine is also known for dim sum, and vegetarian dim sum is one of our specialties, both sweet and savory.” Peggy told us about her vegetarian version of the classic pan-fried buns in Shanghai cuisine. The filling is made of shepherd’s purse, shiitake mushrooms, eryngii mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. With the semi-fermented dough, the texture of the pan-fried bun is soft and fluffy.
“Taro Babao Rice” is undoubtedly a must-try dessert at Old Town Shanghai. Peggy uses fresh, large taro which is peeled, steamed, and pressed into a puree, shaping and filling it with red bean paste, and topping it off with red dates, pumpkin seeds, and a sprinkle of wolfberry. “It takes more time and effort to make vegetarian food than meat. For example, if it is a meat bun, I just need to prepare the ground meat. But for vegetarian fillings, I have to prepare many kinds of ingredients, match the texture, cut them all into small cubes, and stir-fry.” Peggy said that when she makes vegetarian food, she infuses the process with the utmost sincerity from start to finish.
Promoting Vegetarian Food
After the opening in May of 2019, Old Town Shanghai’s authentic flavors attracted many customers, and business was booming. But when the pandemic struck the nation, however, the powerful reverberations from its blow did not miss Peggy’s restaurant. “We lost a lot of customers. Business dropped by at least half, but we still need to work hard to keep it going.” In order to adapt during the pandemic, Peggy cooperates with various delivery platforms, and has also begun selling frozen items, like steamed buns that can be conveniently cooked at home.
Hoping to provide the reassurance and safety needed to persevere during this deeply challenging time, Tzu Chi volunteers gave Peggy and her restaurant masks and supplies, and also brought forth the idea of partnering with the Very Veggie Movement.
“The most touching thing is that Peggy also proposed donating 20% of the amount people purchase through the Very Veggie Movement to Tzu Chi,” said Judy Liao, a Tzu Chi volunteer. Peggy said that she thinks of it as her own way of giving back to society: “I’m busy running the restaurant; I don’t have much time and energy, but I want to contribute and with this kind of donation, I think I can help people in need in society through supporting Tzu Chi’s work. This is my way to give back to the community.”
After joining the Very Veggie Movement, Peggy said she planned to introduce even more vegetarian dishes at the restaurant — like stir-fried lotus root, yuba and ginkgo stewed vegetables, walnut vegetarian shrimp, goji berry and white mushroom stewed bean sprouts, and beyond. Peggy also hopes that through the promotion of vegetarianism with the Very Veggie Movement’s discounts, more people will be willing to try such alternatives, and Peggy is glad for the opportunity to make others happy with her delicious food.
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