Herbivore's dilemma

Herbivore's dilemma
Veganburg's creamy pepper shrooms meal with fries and juice, Photo Credit: Manidipa Mandal
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There is no reason to only eat Indian - if you're a vegetarian in Singapore, you should be spoilt for choice

Manidipa Mandal
April 24 , 2014
17 Min Read

It’s a complaint I hear too often for comfort. “Yes, it’s better than Bangkok or China, but still, I can’t trust the food courts and hawker centres in Singapore. It’s the ‘oils’ you know. And the fish sauce. Or that fishy chilli sauce... Gourmet? What gourmet? There is no gourmet for vegetarians. I’m sticking to our good old thali!” It frustrates me that the average vegetarian Indian visitor to the little red dot apparently spends such an inordinate amount of time searching for the little green dot instead, or building into their sightseeing itinerary the thrice-daily rest stops in Little India.

That I love eating the Merlion’s heart out is an open secret at the workplace, though. That explains the initial puzzlement when I announce that I mean to stay my grazing to the grassy verge this time. There is bemused approval when I clarify that it won’t be Komala tiffin and midnight yogurt raids on Mustafa. But exactly what does a herbivorous human eat in one of Southeast Asia’s gourmet capitals to earn their ‘adventurous eater’ badge?

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Turns out, they share the omnivore’s dilemma.

In contemporary Singapore, ‘what to eat for dinner?’ is answered by a startling smorgasbord of choice. There are food-court specials to queue for. There is fast food to grab and go. Modernist cuisine is turning out deceptive pellets of scientifically exacting eats. Religious and charitable institutions are dishing up supportive snacks. Global gobbles from Latinate to Japanese zen. And sin-free confectionery. Not to forget the famous native melange of Chinese, Malay, Nyonya, Indian and Eurasian (‘Conti’, to you)... A surplus of PETA-approved surfeit.

So go back a step and ask the more important question first: What kind of vegetarian are you? (Texturally choosy? Health fanatic? Organic? Eggs all right? Dairy: yes or no? Honey...?)

Carnivorous companions too will be hard put to miss the ‘meat’ because even that is served under a green label.

 Whole Earth For A Family

At 7pm, the spacious canteen-like eatery looks disconcertingly bare. The sparse aesthetic may not please universally, but the absence of ‘décor’ makes an effective child-friendly space, I observe as Whole Earth fills up. Service is brisk to match, and forthright. The waitstaff bluntly enquire, “Are you sure you can eat all that?” when I order dinner for one — which turns out to be two family-sized main courses plus starchy staple. It is curiously reassuring to be so firmly herded.

But what I find most endearing is the bitter taste of the braised monkeyhead (S$19) peppered with wolfberries and stringy dong quai (Angelica sinensis or women’s ginseng). It is an insistent ‘Chinese herbal’ flavour, as uncompromising as the chewy texture of the fibrous mushrooms and the crunch of broccoli barely touched by boiling water. And it awakens the appetite as assertively as the bitter greens of my Bengali childhood.

My second ‘main’ turns out to be fish — startling, because I’d merely chosen the asam pedas (S$19) as a Nyonya speciality, expecting animals to be carefully excluded from the pot. And yet, here they sit — boneless darnes bound by wrinkled black skin, the texture suggesting recently removed scales. Swimming in a tangy gravy alongside firm, fuzzy okra and juicy pineapple, these turn out to be my first catch of ‘vegetarian fish’, proudly ‘homemade’. The flavour and texture better resemble another homely favourite, the lentil cakes called dhoka, though these are redolent with fresh lime. I’d come back for this, if only they didn’t call it ‘fish’.

If I had little humans along, I suspect they may have spurned the lot for ‘fried rice’. The signature olive brown rice (S$8) is smoky with wok hei, yet its gentle savoury depth skirts strong flavours. Missing veggies are made up at dessert — a Pera-nakan golden pumpkin rice pudding (S$5.5) custardy with coconut milk, payasam-like overtones of gula melaka and zero vegetable flavour. 76 Peck Seah Street; +65-63233308,wholeearth.com.sg

Beets For The Adventurous

No mock meats here, refreshingly little tofu, just beets and other flora. The newest, most promising kid on the herbivore block stands a little far out—both in terms of location and culinary leanings.


Clean flavours carefully nurtured dominate the three-ring eatery (outdoors, indoors and glasshouse) called Beets: Modern Vegetarian. Most are served with a flourish of witticism mocking restrictive genres; the rest have a disarming honesty. This is best exemplified by my first — and favourite course. The leek and potato soup (S$10) arrives with what looks like a dollop of crème fraiche, topped with caviar — yet this is a vegetarian (albeit ovo/lacto-) eatery. The jiggly white blob offers more resistance to cutlery than cream should, proving to be a poached egg that bleeds golden. The ‘caviar’, unmasked, is a cluster of truffle-oil pearls. An alluring beginning.


But an eponymous salad (S$14) stumbles. The sunset colours match the sky outside, the partnership of beet and raspberry vinaigrette seems orchestrated in heaven. However, it would have been a tastier tag-team had the tart dressing stuck to the green salad on top and not bled all over the root slices, overpowering their natural sweetness. The hazelnuts are too toasted. However, the menu is still in its evolutionary stages — Beets only launched this year — and feedback is welcomed.


With the next course, though, the kitchen is back in the saddle. The tongue-in-cheek riff on chee cheong fun (S$19), already a metaphor of a dish (silky rice-sheet rolls to resemble pigs’ intestines), substitutes savoury shiitake sauce for sweet hoisin. The moreish brunoise within is dark with Chinese truffle, while a lively chilli oil teases from a tomato cup. The robust, chlorophyllic crunch of steamed broccoli with almonds (S$6) proves the perfect foil to these complex, yielding textures.


I can’t believe the lemongrass & Earl Grey sorbet with citrus jelly (S$12) does not pale after that masterful main. The refreshing recommendation is spot-on, the surprisingly sophisticated astringency of the jelly unvarnished by syrup. I find I’m already plotting my next flight. 22 Dempsey Road; 64756869, facebook.com/beets.sg


Lingzhi For Fans Of Chinese

The Orchard address may be more accessible, but it’s worth making the trek into Novena for the fungus feast. As long as you bring a friend.


The mushroom hotpot lunch buffet here (S$22.80 per adult Mon – Thurs, S$24.8 weekends) is great value. Small catch: You need to be a party of two, minimum, to get the choice of soups and diced vegetables, including half a dozen different fungi, lotus-root slices and tofu bricks and beancurd sheets, sweetcorn and okra, assorted greens of surf and turf, baskets of dim sum and bowls of dessert soups, custard rolls and jelly puddings.


You’ll spend a little more on your lonesome, as I did, with no regrets: some of these modern Chinese delicacies are so worth adding on.


The cooking at this cousin of notoriously poetic My Humble House is more down-to-earth and the menu plain-speaking. Steering clear of mock meats and sticking to real ‘herbal’, I got a basket of fluffy spinach and mushroom bao (S$3 for three), the flavourful veggies unsullied by spices or sauce. But it was easily outdone by a braised spinach soup with bamboo fungus (S$7) that arrived smoky, slightly briny with seaweed and with transparent noodles tangled in an adorable bamboo tumbler. It was the highlight of my meal, until dessert. Intervening was a sizzling casserole of braised emperor mushrooms with eggplant (S$16), lit up by comforting lanterns of red chilli — not searing nor salty, with toothsome textures and sufficient for two. But I was delighted to have my bowl of afters to myself — a fantastic almond jelly (S$5) in a moat of buttery avocado cream.


I’d have chased it down with juice shots in test tubes, but by then I needed more stomachs than a cow. Velocity@Novena Square, 238 Thompson Road; 65382992, lingzhivegetarian.com

Veganburg For Fast Foodies

Got fussy eaters and McD’s cravers along? Bring them here for burgers. Have undeveloped underage palates in the family? Bring them here for hotdogs. Got a pontificating spouse who insists fast food can never be healthy? Bring them along; firmly pivot to face self-explanatory signboard. Stray carnivore in the herd? Shove him forward for frankfurters (S$3.80). “Just like sausages,” exclaimed my colleague, visibly relieved that it neither looked nor smelt, let alone tasted of tofu.


“But these are so good! Are you sure there’s no salt?!” double-checked the doubting spouse, upending a bag of seaweed fries flecked with briny green instead of white flakes. It is a revelation. As is Veganburg’s idea of a meal deal (S$9.85-11.85) — with said fries and no-preservative, no-added-sugar juice: apple blackcurrant, beetroot carrot or spinach wheatgrass. If cola alone does it for you, they have an organic version of that, as well as of lemonade and ginger beer and fair-trade teas.


The burger buns are the best I’ve had at any chain, unsurprisingly — organic whole-grain (some wheat, some rye) ciabatta baps, with sunflower and pumpkin seeds and walnuts mere icing on top. The gluten- and GMO-free tofu patty is juicy and delicious like no grilled chicken will ever be. The variety boggles — cracked pepper mayo, Hawaiian pineapple (with sweet plum sauce!), smoky BBQ (with tomato and alfalfa), char-grilled satay (the only one with onion rings), creamy pepper shrooms (a special so popular, it is now permanent). There’s even garlic-free chilli sauce.


And yeah, there is a Kidz Meal (S$8.85) too, with franks and fries instead of a toy. So much more toothsome, really, and far less meltdown-inducing. Lighter eats include the 12-ingredient Granny’s Comfort Soup, so popular it runs out at lunchtime, crispy potato and spinach pops, a salad bowl lined with butterhead, alfalfa and raisins, and guilt-free chocolate ice cream (S$3.80 each).Just don’t ask for cheese; they don’t do dairy.


You know what they say — taste bhi, health bhi? Well, this paper sack is what that is supposed to look like. Multiple outlets; veganburg.com


7 Sensations For A Mixed Bag

The mutton curry (S$ 18) really is sensational!


The thick yellow gravy is aromatic with warm spices and supported by satisfying chunks of pumpkin and potato, with cherry tomatoes on top. Just like Mama made, only better.


This is the place to bring a mixed group of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, adventurous eaters and curry cravers — because 7 Sensations really has all the plates covered. The restaurant derives its name from seven culinary strains — from modern healthy beverages (broccoli and apple Green Bay, say) and innovative desserts, to Peranakan and Japanese and Thai. ‘Lady owner’ Annie Chua’s own recipes for Nyonya (Peranakan) curries, the DIY popiah platter and the colourful Vietnamese spring rolls are carefully tuned and prettily presented, because she insists the eyes eat first for a satisfying meal. Mushroom ‘meat’ co-stars in a credible rendition of Indonesian sambal buah keluak (S$18.90). The brown rice (S$2) is so perfectly seasoned with sesame and seaweed that I almost hate to muddle the curry with it. As for our kind of curry, Chua’s restrained but effective use of spices was rewarded by the popularity of her original Little India eatery.


Her foray into vegetarian food began with her father’s faltering health. So she refuses to lean hard on mock meats or resort to MSG for umami, whether tweaking tradition or innovating. However, she studies cultural preferences and gets it right enough to bring in colleagues of Indian and Korean origin, youthful hipster couples as well as Tibetan tourists. As someone not a vegetarian herself, this self-taught chef’s achievements impress.


Dairy is not something Chua eschews — the cheesey baked portobello mushrooms are popular — but there are lots of vegan options and ‘good fats’. The soy yogurt (S$5) flavoured with green tea, sesame or lemon ginger is a brilliant stroke, as are the pizzas with tofu cheese (S$10.50) and avocado cake (S$5.50). Personally, I adored the mango-avocado salad (S$9.80) — visually exciting, nutritionally balanced and yummily filling. Parco Marina Bay, 9 Raffles Boulevard; 62988198, 7-sensations.com

Original Sin To Take A Date

The first to restore the fallen fleshetarian to grace in the tony Holland Village district and offer him gustatory redemption, there aren’t enough well-deserved superlatives I can heap on Original Sin. Of course, they’ve had a while to perfect their prayer, since 1997.


Suffice it to say that culinary director and proprietor Marisa Bertochhi claims that only twenty-five per cent of her patrons are actually vegetarians. “The rest come because they like the food,” she says, and I can well believe it after polishing off a plate of Bosco Misto (S$26). The double-decker patties of mixed ‘forest food’ spurn any relationship to the soya-nugget monstrosities we love to deplore. The salty feta is mellowed by tofu to a creamy, spinach-flecked, fork-friendly density. The nutty coating is crisp. Baby asparagus and rocket leaves drape over and between, the 
undergrowth on the fungi-scattered forest floor. The balance of tastes and textures is impeccable.


The Mediterranean-leaning menu, whose highlights include a dish of Magic Mushroom (portobellos with ricotta, mozzarella, spinach, pesto and tomato-basil sauce, S$18), spanakopita (incorporating ratatouille!, S$26) and masala pizza (lentils, eggplant and yogurt!, S$26), details possibilities for adaptation. Dishes can be tweaked for vegans and ‘Jains’ as well as ovo-lacto vegetarians.


Outside, on a shimmering sunny June afternoon, the tables are packed — easily the busiest of these niche, non-CBD eateries on a weekday. There are expats and locals, a Malay Muslim family, Indian ladies lunching, sundry tourists sipping wine. Me, I’m inventing new corners in my stomach for the hazelnut chocolate ‘cake’, a thick slab of dark chocolate mousse on crunchy hazelnut pastry, with tart-sweet strawberries.


In a smart-casual setting, people are licking their fingers — always a good thing. The four-course set lunch (S$29) is great value. Make a reservation. Seriously. Blk 43 #01-62 Jalan Merah Saga, Holland Village, Chip Bee Gardens; 64755605, originalsin.com.sg


Bottomless Cauldron — More Meat-Free Meals

Yes, there’s plenty more where that came from, more than I’ll ever tally up. Including home-style goodies to dip wrist-deep into.


Komala Vilas

This is the universal ‘safe’ bet. The bottomless banana-leaf thali and filter coffee are unbeatable value, the kothu parotta commendable. The vegetable biryani comes with an unstoppable seven sides (including roti!). Not to be confused with the Komala’s chain. 76/78 Serangoon Road (two more branches); 62936980, komalavilas.com.sg


Gokul Vegetarian Restaurant

The samosa chaat is fab. Onion/garlic-free north Indian staples look a little different from old familiars — pale creamy aloo gobi, mock meats in the tandoori platter, ‘chicken’ kurma, veggie-loaded kadai paneer, ‘briyani’ rice. There’s Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and ‘Western’ too. 19 Upper Dickson Road; 63967769, gokulvegetarianrestaurant.com


Annalakshmi & Annalakshmi Janatha

Unmatched in the economics department for paisa-vasool is Annalakshmi’s charitable ‘pay as you like’ philosophy. Buffets are the norm at lunch (both addresses) and weekend dinners (Clarke Quay only); a la carte portions serve one. Central Square, 20 Havelock Road & 104 Amoy Street; 63399993 & 62230809, annalakshmi.com.sg


WPC (World Peace Cafe Singapore)

We’re grateful to Kadampa Meditation Centre’s donors and volunteers for this Chinatown open secret, though they close by afternoon and don’t work weekends. Comforting soups and sandwiches and a diverse crowd make it tourist-friendly. 134 Neil Road; 64381127, wpc.sg


Naive

This posh no-onion, no-garlic, no-MSG joint has an arty ambience and imaginative monikers (‘enchanted forest’, ‘home sweet home’, ‘we em-brace’, ‘peaceful plant’). Bless Naive’s brave heart and sesame-seed ceremony, it is going stronger still than simpler sister Whole Earth! 99 East Coast Road; 63480668, naivecompany.com


Thunder Tea Rice

One food-court treat I always hunt down, even when no restrictions apply. Sounds bizarre — brown rice with nutty, herbaceous green-tea soup? Few meals-in-a-bowl match this healthy Hakka dish topped with tasty ‘sides’. There are egg/chicken/fish/meat add-ons; specify ‘vegetarian’ loud and clear. Food Republic at VivoCity, Suntec City and Ion Orchard, and other locations; 63420223, thundertearice.com.sg


El Toro

This cattle-branded Mexican restaurant surprisingly has a full-page vegetarian menu (not just ‘options’), boldly advertised on the Singapore Vegetarian Society’s site: pizzas, paella, burritos-enchiladas-fajitas-tacos-quesadillas-chimichangas, jalapeño poppers, there’s even vegetarian ceviche! 7 Purvis Street; 68874787, eltoro.com.sg


Delcie’s Desserts

Not only eggless, but also dairy-free (no butter!), trans fat-free (no margarine either!), diabetic-friendly (sans sugar substitutes!) if you like or gluten-free, these organic cakes make sweet guilt-free treats. Moderation is encouraged, but hard to enforce at this new shop. 
951 Upper Serangoon Road; 97892309, delciesdesserts.com


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