Eating Outside the Box

Animal products reign supreme in Vietnamese cuisine but vegetarian alternatives can be had.  You will see some vegan and vegetarian meals from time to time as this food journey progresses.   These choices inspired my latest article for the Tuoi Tre newspaper.  The link and text follow below.

Let me preface this by stating I am not a vegetarian, yet from time to time I do enjoy healthy, plant based foods.   Finding a meal not centered around animals that formerly oinked, clucked, or mooed in a barnyard is a tall order indeed in Vietnam, and even fish sauce seems to permeate most every dish.   What’s a person seeking non-meat options to do?

Fear not for though vegetarian fare is not part of more mainstream Vietnamese cuisine, solid choices are scattered throughout Saigon.  Three restaurants across three districts of the city provide a good cross section of the variety available to us.  Most surprising on the extensive menus are the “meat” choices such as shrimp, snails, pork and beef for these are vegetarian restaurants, are they not?

I got to thinking perhaps the Vietnamese have a different interpretation of non-meat based cooking.  After all, we have seen the foods deceptively labeled “vegetarian” on tourist menus indicating only that the dish perhaps contains eggplant or morning glory in addition to an animal protein.  Follow me and we will taste first hand how “meat” really can be an unexpected, outside the box dining experience.

My foray into HCMC’s vegetarian underbelly came by accident when a friend asked if eating at a Buddhist temple held any interest, and of course I bit.  A walled oasis may shield Viet Chay Restaurant at 290/21A Nam Ky Khoi Nghia from District 3’s midrise buildings and bustle, but an automatic cash machine just inside the temple grounds is indeed an interesting reminder the real world is never far removed even at a temple.  After my friends and I made the obligatory jokes about how fitting that a “money god” should grace the entry to a religious compound, we settled into the very clean restaurant to tuck into my first official vegetarian “meat” fare.

Of all our praiseworthy dishes, the yellow curry beef piqued our curiosity most since we wondered how a cow product could actually find a home in vegetarian Buddhist environs.  All doubts were quelled quickly enough once the waitress delivered strips of a brownish tofu-like product floating around in a savory sauce laced with just enough heat to light a mild fire on our tongues.  Though the texture and taste could never be confused with actual beef, this vegan substitute is a worthy, highly edible food.  That we finished the entire portion of this and several other selections is a testament that vegetarian cuisine actually can be both healthy and satisfying, especially for VND40,000 to 70,000 (US$2-3.5) per main dish.

Since Vinh Nghiem is an active temple, we felt compelled to feast on a little culture for dessert by visiting the main structure.  Lunch may have tempted our tastebuds into gluttony, but by now the surroundings were full on tantalizing both eyes and nose alike with its aromatic serenity.  Faint wisps of smoke lazily rising from incense sticks put off a pungent aroma filling the grounds near the stairs.   Crossing the threshold of the darkened temple transported us to another world with altars adorned with carved wood, porcelain vases, gold accents, and food and beverage offerings.

Though not rising to the same uniqueness as a temple, Au Lac Healthy World Restaurant has three HCMC outposts with the one at 237 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh in Binh Thanh District offering a clean, modern atmosphere overlooking this busy thoroughfare.  The carefully arranged presentation of meals here is well beyond what I would expect for price points in the VND40,000 to 60,000 (US$2-3) range.   With some imagination my “meat” selection of ginger lemongrass snails appeared somewhat real even though the good flavors did not quite remind me of the actual shelled creature.   To be sure, the snails along with other items such as faux chicken wings, grilled eggplant, and duck eggs did not disappoint, and we all pushed away from the table full with amazement that low calorie, low fat konjac powder can create such palatable faux meat variants.

Au Lac’s small ground floor supermarket offers a wide selection of vegan items as well.  Should a food on the menu have piqued your interest, chances are it is available here in packaged form for home preparation.  If Vietnamese delicacies such as cow stomach, snails, or fish sauce prove too much for those of us weaned on a more sterile Western diet, these vegan substitutes allow us to nibble around the fringes of the cuisine, albeit in a plant based manner.  I took home a bottle of vegetarian fish sauce based nuoc cham and hesitate to admit this, but I might actually prefer it to the real deal.

Finally, tucked away down an alley within District 1’s “backpacker” area is An Lac Chay at 175/1 Pham Ngu Lao.  This restaurant offers Western fare such as spaghetti and burritos which three of us left unsampled as we did not want to stray away from the Vietnamese choices averaging VND40-50,000 (US$2-2.5).  Lemongrass and chili chicken is vegan through and through, and turned out to be a suitable, albeit average alternative to our real barnyard friend.   If not quite similar in taste, these strips of “chicken” do share the same bumpy “skin,” texture, and color of the real bird.   Compared to the other two restaurants, An Lac Chay’s selection proves more limited in scope and less imaginative in taste.

Of these three food spots, Viet Chay remains my favorite as it nourishes both appetite and soul with a fusion of fresh inventive food and spiritual aura.  I’ll be back there and at the other vegetarian choices around town as well, and I hope even if you are not vegetarian, this type of cuisine proves a delicious addition to your diet.


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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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