More and more Vietnamese are discovering that vegetarian food is not just for monks. The country’s vastly creative vegetarian dishes have a long history of careful preparation, and are worth exploring for both meat-eaters and veggies alike.
This vegetarian restaurant is always crowded with both meat eaters and veggies alike
Contrary to its reputation, vegetarian food is neither poor in category nor bland in flavor. The owner of a vegetarian food restaurant, hidden in a silent alley off Tran Hung Dao Street, proves this to customers, providing dishes made of vegetables, tofu, roots, and beans. If there are up to 1,000 possible meat dishes, then there are equally up to 1,000 corresponding vegetarian ones.
From great delicates to popular courses, all are copies of more established recipes. Free of meat, fish, and any ingredients coming from an animal, the food served here is the practiced result of artisans who have dedicated their life to vegetarian cooking.
There are not many places to enjoy vegetarian food in Hanoi; on the contrary, in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of vegetarian eateries are available, and remain especially crowded on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar month.
On Buddhist celebrations and anniversaries such as the Buddha’s birthday, or the anniversary of an ancestor’s death, almost all strict Buddhist followers live on a vegetarian diet. They and those who keep a vegetarian diet all year round help to develop and expand this art of cooking outside the pagoda.
In many people’s memories, vegetarian meals are associated with going to the pagoda, when children would accompany their grandmothers to observe rituals before sharing a vegetarian meal with the monks. Such a meal used to be composed of rice; salted vegetables, eggplants, and soybean jam only.
From an ascetic rule of Buddhism, vegetarian food was enhanced, in both quality and etiquette, to a finer level by royal cooks under the Nguyen dynasty.
“Grandmothers” – ladies in the royal palace – meticulously spent their whole lives making sophisticated vegetarian food to present flavorful offerings to religious kings and other members of the royal families. The art of vegetarian cooking then expanded from the imperial palace to popular life.
It takes no small effort to make spring rolls, pork pies, and dried pig-skin out of vegetables. How to make veggies look and taste like meat? And how to make them like fish skin and scale? A skilled chief must have the know-how to imitate common food while still maintain the food’s purity.
Pounded green peas can make up pork pies, while trimmed carrots aspire to carp scales. Even such sophisticated courses as duck stewed in lotus seeds and sticky rice, or fried chicken can be made out of French beans and peas. The modern food processing industry also supports the art of vegetarian eating: one can enjoy a wide variety of vegetarian take-away products like dumplings and pork pies, imported from Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Flavoring is prerequisite in making vegetarian delicates. Taste a piece of vegetarian fish and you’ll ask yourself if it isn’t made of genuine fish. A mixture of mushroom, fennel, and soy sauce can bring the authentic taste of carp. Pounded peanut combined with mushroom can mimic the flavor of chicken steamed with mushrooms. Some may wonder why vegetarian dishes try to imitate meat.
The question is logical. However, can vegetarian meals composed of only boiled vegetables and fried soy curds that our grandparents used to eat with monks in the past build up an art of eating at a fine level?
Enjoying fried soy curds in the quiet space of a restaurant, might you wonder why it is not served on a raw wood table, in the Buddhist incense-filled air? With the development of health science and food processing, the more sophisticated vegetarian cooking becomes.
Just like going to the pagoda, everyone experiences his or her own sensation when eating vegetarian food. We may all meet at one-point: restfulness. Leaving noisy streets and buffet crowds behind to relish dishes made of vegetables only our minds become filtered. This must explain why vegetarian restaurants are appealing even to those arriving in cars or on motorbikes, unadorned with the plain brown robes of monks.
Fried soybean curd: soy curd is cut into squares, covered in batter, and fried.
Vegetable spring rolls: mushrooms, peanuts, vermicelli, and vegetables are rolled in rice paper and fried.
Snowballs: potatoes are mixed with seasonings, covered in well-kneaded batter in a round form, then fried to a crisp.
Tuna in tomato sauce: Lightly fried soy in tomato sauce can achieve a remarkable tuna flavor.