Fake meat

I read (most of) Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals while I was on holiday in Malaysia, while eating my way to using a new notch on my belt. It made me think more closely about what I choose to eat, but ultimately, it hasn’t really made me change the way I eat. I’m an unapologetic omnivore.

White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant
185 Victoria St, West Melbourne
Phone: 9326 6040

So when Bryan and Lauren recently (re)visited White Lotus and raved about the faux meat dishes, I knew this was something I also wanted to re-investigate. These ‘fake meats’ have been made for centuries by Buddhists, who are strict vegetarians. They’re made of different manipulations of beans and grains, like tofu, tempeh and glutens, and you know what? They do lack that satisfaction that comes with smashing a rare eye fillet steak or a bucket of fried chicken, but at times, they’re a pretty close facsimile.

I met up with two members of the Delta Force Five for dinner at White Lotus, and let’s say I was a little trepidatious. The place is only open three night a week, and looks like it may have opened in the eighties, and not have been renovated since. The lighting is a little dim, making the overall effect dingy, but the service is friendly, and as you’ll see, the food is interesting. Apologies for the god awful photos, but as I said, the place was dingy.

We started by sharing some mixed entrees. Spring rolls and wontons – the vegetarian versions of which are nothing new – and fried taro cutlets. These were awesome. Seriously, taro is probably one of the most under-rated vegeatbles around. Potatoes got nothing on the density of that starch.
image At Ms K’s request, we got the Sweet and Sour ‘Pork’, an Aussie Chinese classic, and one that is dear to my own heart. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so great. Funnily, what let it down wasn’t so much the fake pork. While that wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t offensive, either. What let the dish down was the batter, which was already a bit soggy by the time it arrived at the table. I would have thought such masters with glutens and flours would be able to mix together a great batter which stays crunchy!
image Ms N insisted we order the ma po tofu, which was really quite good. The replacement for the pork mince was something like TVP, but this didn’t really detract much from the dish, which is all about the tofu and the spicy sauce anyway. This is definitely not the best ma po tofu I’ve had in Melbourne, but it’s passable.
image Finally, I ordered the roast ‘duck’, because I’d heard of the amazing textures in this dish. Three different treatments of non-meat had been combined to create the meat, crispy skin, and even subcutaneous fat layer of the roast ‘duck’. The flavour wasn’t quite there, but texturally, this was amazing. A couple at another table came in, and just ordered two serves of the roast ‘duck’ and rice, and I can see why. I wouldn’t share this if I didn’t have to.

White Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Yong Green Food
421 Brunswick, Fitzroy
Phone: 9417 3338

A few nights later, I caught up with my old housemate Le Singe. I’d heard a lot about Yong Green Food, especially the ‘rawsagne’, but in the end it was too cold and gloomy a night for raw food that hadn’t been heated above 40 degrees. So we started by sharing the mung bean pancake, which was really quite enjoyable. It wasn’t as thin as a crepe, but not really pancake thickness either; maybe as thick as a pancake made using plain flour. You could taste the mung beans, which reminded me a little of banh xeo, and the flavour gave me the overall impression of being healthy, though not in a bad way, like spirulina. The dipping sauce was a bit meh.
image Yong Green Food is primarily vegetarian, with a heavy Asian slant to the menu, but given the name and the cute little waitresses who all had similar bob haircuts, I’d say there’s a pretty strong Korean bias happening there. So I thought I’d try the Korean BBQ dish, which was sliced soy ‘beef’ with vegetables and rice.
image While there was nothing offensive about this dish – it was perfectly edible – it was pretty disappointing. The ‘beef’ didn’t have even the slightest hint of being grilled, so the term ‘BBQ’ was a pretty outlandish claim. There was also a lack of spice, which again was a bit baffling.

Le Singe had the teriyaki chicken, which she quite enjoyed.
We had arrived quite early, because I had a soccer game late in the evening, and gobbled up our food by about 7:30. We were promptly given the bill, which we settled, and then we continued to chat away. A few minutes later, one of the waitresses came over and asked us to leave, because they had people waiting for a table. Now I understand the need to turn tables over, and not keep people waiting, but unless you’re clearly advertising specific seating times, I think asking customers to leave once they’re finished is pretty bad form. It was a disappointing end to a somewhat disappointing meal, really. I probably won’t be back anytime soon.

Yong Green Food on Urbanspoon

Bun Rieu at Bo De Trai

94 Hopkins St, Footscray
Phone: 9689 9909

Back when I was living in Sai Gon, my housemate was a pescetarian/vegaquarian/whatchamacallit-fish-n-vegies-eater. Which isn’t all that hard to maintain in Viet Nam, but it does take a little vigilance, especially when it comes to soups. Never know when one of those sneaky pyjama ladies will slip a chicken carcass in that pot.

But I jest. In fact, it’s actually quite common to find vegetarian food in Sai Gon, if not all the time, then at least twice a month, on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month, when some Buddhists observe meat-free days. I quite liked these days – there was a bun mang vit (duck and bamboo shoot soup noodles) joint near my work which would serve awesome bun cha gio chay (rice vermicelli with vegetarian spring rolls) twice a month. For other times of the month, there was always the place near my gym that was run by a little old Buddhist nun, who spoke a surprisingly good amount of English. The braised pressed tofu balls there were amazing.

Anyway, I’d been meaning to try Bo de Trai since I moved to Footscray. It’s a vegetarian restaurant of the Buddhist variety. That means there’s lots of mock meat going on there. It’s run by a few little middle-aged Vietnamese ladies, who are warm and friendly. They remind me of my aunts.

I went on my own for lunch, and had the bun rieu, which is a crab and tomato based soup noodle. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the crab and fermented shrimp paste are quite strong components of the flavour of bun rieu. When it arrived at  the table, I was impressed. It looked pretty great!

Sure, instead of the cha lua there were slices of tofu, but that’s to be expected. What would usually be loosely clumped balls of processed fish and crab meat was replaced by some sort of crumbly steamed egg. Texturally, it totally worked. And while it didn’t really taste like a proper bun rieu, it was still quite tasty.
My main complaint about the dish was that the noodles were overcooked, and must have been broken before they were cooked, because they were quite short. I like to slurp my soup noodles, and with noodles that short, there wasn’t really much slurping going on.

My other complaint about the place, and this applies pretty generally across most vegetarian restaurants, was the clientele. I wish I had brought my headphones with me, so I could block out the one girl at the table next to mine pontificating about her motivations for being vegetarian, and trying to generally show off how much she knows about various meat substitutes like seitan and Quorn. If only you could enjoy good vegetarian food without having to listen to the rants of militant vegetarians!

So not to be too hypocritical, I’ll end my rant there. As you can see, I really liked this bowl of noodles. Bo de Trai is definitely worth visiting.

Bo de Trai on Urbanspoon


273 Smith Street, Collingwood
Phone: 9419 2949

I don’t think I could ever really by a vegetarian. I tried it once. Well, sort of. I think it was sort of a mutual dare between my boyfriend at the time and I. We decided that we’d be vegaquarians/pescetarians/whatever you call it. Vegies + fish. For environmental reasons, primarily. I lasted about two months before I added chicken to my diet. My sister commented, “What, fish isn’t enough for you?” Quite obviously not. Then I moved to Viet Nam, and it was all over. As if I’d restrict my diet there!

Anyway, I have something of an admiration/disdain relationship with vegetarians. I respect them for their ability to stick to an ethical life choice, though I know it’s not always ethics which drives vegetarianism, but I resent the need to be mindful of where I can take them when eating out together. Which is why I like vegetarians who know and are willing to suggest places to eat. I don’t mind skipping meat in some meals, I just don’t like the idea muddying up my decision making process. So if I don’t have to make a decision, I don’t have a problem!

Mr A is one of those great vegetarians, who doesn’t try to convert you, knows lots about good food, and isn’t shy to suggest a place to eat. So when we had a lunchtime meeting recently, he suggested we have it at Soulfood. There was the promise of wifi, which didn’t eventuate, but it was a good place for lunch nonetheless.

I had the arancini, which was a sizeable hunk of rice, peppered with bits of olive, pumpkin and feta. The chilli napoli was nicely acidic, but could have used a bit more heat. I had this with the Caesar salad, which quite frankly was a bit bland without bacon and anchovies. But all in all, not a bad lunch!

Mr A had the pumpkinopita, a play on the traditional spanakopita. It looked tasty, as did the roast vegetable salad he had on the side.

It’s not really surprising that the food at Soulfood is good. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, and has always had a reputation for tasty, interesting vegetarian dishes. It’s a shame that I’m so addicted to meat, because sometimes I think it might be a good thing to try vegetarianism again… Oh OK, who am I kidding!? Bring on the animal flesh.

Soulfood Café on Urbanspoon

Las Vegan (Nirvana) Cafe

22 Smith St, Collingwood
Phone: 9415 9001

I wonder sometimes about becoming a vegetarian. Even just for a short while. I went ‘vegequarian’ for a few months back in 2007, but I soon backslid and added chicken to my diet, and then I moved to Viet Nam, and well, that was the end of that. But funnily, Ms K, whom I met in Viet Nam actually, remains one of the few people who I see (and therefore eat with) on a regular basis who’s a vegetarian.

Last week, we were arranging to meet up for dinner with another friend, Ms N. Ms K suggested Trippy Taco, and I suggested no, on account of the tragic hipster quotient – that place is fixie bike central.

We settled upon Las Vegan, which she likes to call Nirvana, and which I had lived around the corner from for a year and had never visited. I’ll file that one under Baden Powell and Prince Patrick. Las Vegan has won awards, but call me a rampant omnivore, I still wasn’t that excited by the prospect of a vegan restaurant. I was soon to be pleasantly surprised.

The girls started in on their self-serve ‘bottomless chai’, and I had a large glass of apple juice. Because I hate chai. Hate it. We were all a little famished, so we ordered the ‘big bowl of chips’ to share.

Thick chips with skins on, these had a wonderful flavour, though they could’ve been a little more crisp, I feel. The came with sweet chilli sauce, a vegan mayonnaise (a reason in itself why I will never become a vegan) and an interesting, if somewhat bland, satay sauce.

Ms K ordered the chilli ‘non’ carne, which she thoroughly enjoyed. I snuck a quick bite of the beans, which were quite flavoursome.

Ms N opted for the nasi goreng-style rice balls, which came with a satay sauce and a heavily bean-shooted salad. She also let me sneak a bite. The rice balls were good – nice crispy outside, with well seasoned rice. I thought to myself I would’ve needed three of these for dinner, but Ms N was satisfied with two.
I thought I’d try the lentil burger, because, well, a Vegan place must knock up a pretty decent lentil burger, right?
It came out and was one of those burgers that is taller than it is wide. The salad was a little tokenistic, because this was one hearty burger. So very tasty, it totally hit the spot. So much so that I didn’t even miss the idea of cheese (I’m a big fan of cheese on my burgers).

I probably should try to reduce the amount of meat in my diet, if I’m being honest. I eat a lot of meat. Not as much as my brother-in-law, who was aghast at the idea I would make a sweet potato curry: “Yeah, but what meat are you putting in it?” but I probably don’t need to be eating it two meals a day. Penny’s managed to curb her meat consumption so by instituting meatless Mondays. Maybe I’ll try that in my new life as a homo-wner. Yes dear readers, expect posts about my new kitchen in the coming months.

In the mean time, Las Vegan is an easy and cheap way to have more vegetarian meals, if you’re in and around Collingwood.

Las Vegan Cafe on Urbanspoon