Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blog Break

The blog is on hiatus for a few weeks while I'm in Asia. I'll have many new vegetarian adventures to report upon my return.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sui Mai

Dim Sum was the hardest thing for me to eschew when I became a vegetarian. I've been on a twenty-year quest to find vegetarian alternatives and have partially succeeded in some corners of the world, far from Los Angeles. You can find decent frozen dumplings at various Chinese and Korean supermarkets and fresh ones at a few choice restaurants. But I have yet to find a good vegetarian Sui Mai in Los Angeles (and I’ve ordered it on every menu where it is listed) which is why I was intrigued to see it first for sale at Ralphs and now in Trader Joe’s packaging in their freezer section.

Unlike other vegetarian versions of sui mai, this product is not stuffed with a loose mince of vegetables but rather a firm mass of moist firm tofu, flecked with chunks of edamame wrapped in yuba (tofu skin). Seasoned with onion, the meaty filling flavor mixed with fresh soybeans imparts a sweetness oddly reminiscent of the sweet snap of shrimp and pork in the real thing.

Trader Joe's on the left, Soyafarms on the right

Soyafarms make the product sold at Ralphs ($3.99 for 7 oz) as well as tofu nuggets, small fried patties shaped like chicken nuggets with the taste of the tofu sui mai filling. They most likely manufacture the product for Trader Joes (11oz for $2.59) as the two are very similar. At half the price per ounce, the TJ’s sui mai are smaller and more flavorful, with extra onion and soy added to the filling. TJ’s made the product suitable for vegetarians (not vegans) by omitting bonito from the surprisingly decent dipping sauce. With a dollop of my favorite hot sauce (a future post), I have a dim sum meal within minutes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chang’s Garden, Arcadia

Known for its vegetarian dishes, the regional food of Shanghai can oftentimes be a source for better than average meatless renditions of normally carnivorous delicacies. One of the finest examples is the rendition of a smoked duck appetizer constructed from multiple layers of tofu skin common on many Shanghainese restaurant menus. Chang’s Garden does not make the vegetarian duck but their cold kao fu (listed as sliced gluten) definitely satisfies the vegetarian meaty appetizer crave. Unlike the "gluten puffs” swimming in brown sauce found in some Chinese restaurants or the gluten appetizers common in vegetarian delis in Hong Kong, Chang’s kao fu is a dry firm, slightly spongy vehicle for the rich savory sauce in which it is marinated. Served with equally flavorful mushrooms, knots of tofu skin, and bamboo shoots, I could have been satisfied with an entrĂ©e sized portion of this alone.

We ordered another classic Shanghainese cold appetizer, sweet lotus root. I believe the dish is normally prepared with glutinous rice stuffed into the little holes of the root but this version was stuffed with what tasted like dried fruit. My friend said that some unidentifiable flavor in the dish transported him in memory to many a meal in China. The lotus roots had been braised until softened in a sugary, fruity syrup seasoned with that unknown spice.

I had to try the green bean pancake, a vegetarian version of the beef rolls that have been getting rave reviews over at 101 Noodle Express. Of course, I can’t compare the two, but I’d think that any carnivore would be more than pleased with this hot appetizer. A pancake (similar in texture but thinner than scallion pancakes) is rolled around green beans that have been fried with sliced shiitake mushrooms.

The Hunan tofu (without pork) was a spicy dish similar in appearance to its Sichuan equivalent. Unlike mapo tofu though, the slices of soft tofu were cooked with green onions and thin slices of black mushroom; instead of the heat arising from the numbing addition of Sichuan peppercorn, the oily bright red sauce was cooked with slices of fresh chiles. It was pretty great and was the first item on the table to disappear.

The vegetarian kidneys were made of the stuff sold in the packaged vegetarian meat section of Chinese supermarkets. The waitress couldn’t tell us what was the actual ingredient in the substitution although she said she guessed it was made of grain. The texture is a bit rubbery, the shape is almost accurate and the criss-cross design on the top resembles the pattern cut into real kidneys in Chinese cooking. Stir fried with black mushroom, bell peppers and basil, the bland “kidneys” mostly served to provide texture while the cuttings helped the little nuggets to hold the brown sauce.

Better versions of snow cabbage with tofu sheets and fresh soy beans can be found elsewhere. The greens were tough and the sauce lacked depth.

Upon hearing our vegetarian request, the waitress suggested that anything on the menu in the tofu and vegetable sections could be prepared sans meat. In fact, she was so conscientious that she inquired as to whether or not we could have leeks and garlic (ingredients prohibited by many vegetarian Buddhists). She inspected each dish on our table to ensure that her instructions to the kitchen to omit the meat had been followed.

complimentary boiled peanuts arrived before the meal

Our feast for three, with plenty left over totaled $46. The service was attentive and a vegetarian can comfortably enjoy regional fare here without feeling like you are missing the essence of the cuisine.

Chang's Garden
627 W. Duarte Rd. (626) 445-0606;
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Crumbs, Beverly Hills

I was walking in Beverly Hills to get a cup of coffee when I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, a free cupcake from the new, hyped New York export, Crumbs Bake Shop. The display in the glass case was a vast colorful sugary array. The opposite of the refined decorated mini cupcakes at Vanilla Bake Shop, the frosting and toppings are liberally applied to Crumbs’ gigantic cupcakes. I couldn’t begin to navigate my way through the names of each cake/frosting/filling combination of cupcakes with titles like hostess and devil dog so I settled upon the Reese’s cupcake: chocolate cake, peanut butter frosting and filling inside. I felt guilty about walking away without supporting the business, so I spent $2.25 on a “mini” cupcake, the size of a regular cupcake by most standards.

The smaller sized cupcake had a bland, slightly dry and very sweet white cake with a chocolate cream cheese frosting. Both the cheese and the chocolate in the frosting were completely undetectable leaving only the taste of sweet sweet sweet – a cupcake for a 4 year old.

The chocolate peanut butter cupcake (normally $3.75) was only slightly less disappointing. The cake was moist and unlike the aforementioned frosting, did have some chocolate flavor. At first I was pleased by the presence of what tasted like real peanut butter in the frosting. The frosting however, left an unpleasant shortening like film on my tongue and considering its consistency, there was way too much of it (see below).

On the bright side, there were other, more promising flavors: apple caramel, pistachio, cobbler, key lime, raspberry/blueberry swirl, carrot. Crumbs either possesses gumption or a clever business plan to exploit runoff from the long lines formed at the overrated Sprinkles only two blocks away. Unlike their nearby neighbors, Crumbs also sells scones, cookies, danishes, croissants, (massive) brownies, fruit pies, and full sized cakes. Given the hallow sugar high induced by the partially consumed confections, I don’t think I’ll be returning any time soon.

9465 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Vanilla Bake Shop, Santa Monica

From the stenciled awning to the highly designed interior stocked with miniature desserts and glass jars filled with fake colored coordinated candies, Vanilla feels more like a dollhouse than a bakery.

Perhaps the best part of Vanilla’s offerings is the miniature sized treats allowing for sampling from the impressive variety. Each day features different cupcake flavors (menu is online).

I shared the shot glass of banana pudding in the shop and brought home a half dozen mini cupcakes (secured to the box with a dab of frosting).

The pudding was the perfect little bite presented like a layered trifle: crumbled vanilla wafers topped with custard, sliced bananas and whipped cream. There were other shot glass sized pudding/cream/cake/frosting combos called “ice box minis.”

With flavors like dirt cake (bittersweet Callebaut chocolate mousse, crushed dark chocolate crumbles and whipped vanilla bean cream), triple berry shortcake (raspberries, blueberries and blackberries sandwiched between pound cake, vanilla custard, vanilla whipped cream, layered with Callebaut white and milk chocolate crumbles), and deconstructed key lime pie and meyer lemon tarts, these may well be more worthy of a future visit than the cupcakes. The same are available in larger quantities in varying sized mason jars.

Supposedly the owner of Vanilla has spent years perfecting her vanilla frosting but on the vanilla cupcake I was actually more impressed with the beany aroma of vanilla in the cake than the frosting, tasting like a basic butter cream. If this cake were paired with the vanilla frosting from Big Sugar bakeshop in Studio City, I may actually be sold on white on white cake.

In general all of the cakes, unfortunately more common than not in a cupcake, were on the dry side. The banana chocolate chip cupcake tasted like a day-old banana muffin studded with tiny chocolate chips. The peanut butter cake with milk chocolate frosting was fine but neither the peanut or chocolate was enhanced enough for adult enjoyment. Even when faced with the promising name, bittersweet dark chocolate, I’ve learned not to expect chocolate satisfaction from a cupcake (although the ones at Joan’s on Third come close). The cake, hinting of “dark chocolate” could not hold up to the flavor of the bittersweet chocolate frosting. Frosting for frosting, I’d prefer the layer of ganache coating the chocolate cupcakes at Joan’s. The ideal quantity of frosting on a cupcakes is a point of argument surrounding the cupcake shops around town but I think that if the quality is high, a thin spread is ample and a liberal dollop is not unappreciated.

Cosmopolitans: frosted brownies

Vanilla Bake Shop
512 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA
Tuesday-Saturday 9am - 7pm , Sunday 10am - 6pm

Monday, September 3, 2007

Vegetarian Chinese Food

I’ll never forget my first experience in a vegetarian Chinese restaurant. I was young, it was my first time abroad on my own and the first days of my trip landed me in Malaysia. After stumbling into a cheap hotel in the middle of a Chinese neighborhood feeling totally lost in an unknown world, exhausted with the overwhelming sense of wanting to crawl back into my comfortable life, I collapsed. Finally arising from 20 hours of sleep, I ventured disoriented and hungry onto the humid street that had transformed into a night market. I walked past stalls hawking items that I could not comprehend and grooming services that I had only seen performed behind closed doors. With little hope of crossing the language and cultural divide to find something edible, the “Vegetarian Food” sign surrounded by bright Chinese characters appeared like a mirage. Everything about the food stall, including the menu looked exactly the same as the ones surrounding it and yet, I received a positive nod every one of the numerous time I asked “is this food vegetarian?”

The menu was divided into the usual categories: beef, pork, chicken, seafood, etc. There was no indication that the shredded pork listed was not actual meat and thus I made the server affirm with every dish I ordered that it was indeed vegetarian. I had never tried cuttle fish beforehand but was pretty sure that the rubbery strips on my plate were not the real thing. I finally tucked into a meal comprised of foreign ingredients and flavors that nourished me and bolstered the realization, “I can do this.”

Ever since that first bite, vegetarian Chinese cuisine has been a comfort food for me. I am not at all disconcerted by the mock meats and have even sought out the most artful and truthful renditions. Part of what touches me about the Chinese approach to vegetarian food is their love and respect for the original cuisine. The Buddhist monks and practitioners have given attention to every detail from the vein in the shrimp to the skin of the fish to create a cuisine in which no animals have been harmed palatable to all. Rather than making the renunciation of meat a rejection of a culture’s gastronomy, many of the Buddhist vegetarian cuisines of Asia are a celebration of the cultural importance of food and religion.

I have tried most of the Chinese vegetarian restaurants in the Los Angeles area, many of which are situated in the San Gabriel Valley. Succumbing to fierce competition from a high concentration of authentic restaurants representing specialties and regions of China, I’ve watched as vegetarian businesses close their doors permanently only to be replaced by a BBQ or chicken noodle soup shop with nothing on the menu for a vegetarian. Even though I prefer the hallucinogenic blast of chili and prickly ash offered in the Szechuan restaurants and the buns in Taiwanese noodle houses, it is partially out of loyalty, partially due to the safety of the menu, and partially the joy of eating a dish that I can’t have anywhere else that I continue to support the remaining vegetarian establishments. I wish I could say that one stands above the rest as outstanding but each has their strengths and weaknesses. So, for all of you vegetarians out there, here I begin to attempt to outline the vegetarian Chinese landscape of Los Angeles as I’ve experienced it.

Mighty Vege House, Alhambra

Mighty Vege House is located in an Alhambra mini mall built around a bowling alley. I’ve never bowled there but the idea of enjoying lane-side seaweed tofu bamboo veggie ham soup from Mighty Vege House and dumplings from 101 Noodle Express (also in the same mall) is appealing.

Most of the soy or gluten meats on the menu have been disappointing with the kind of off flavor that anyone who has ever attempted making soy milk will recognize as the hardest thing to eliminate in its production. Many restaurants attempt to mask the conspicuous soy flavor by deep frying the “meat” which is why a meal at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant can be a heavy affair. I generally avoid the deep fried dishes which is why I’ve never tried anything from the fried appetizers selection such the veggie kabob with spicy BBQ sauce.

veggie chicken, mushroom, water chestnut, green pepper with Szechuan sauce
I can't recommend the "chicken"

I have however, been impressed with the entire dish as well as the flavor and texture of the “pork” in the steamed veggie pork with pumpkin and lotus leaves and in the veggie pork sliced with cabbage and green pepper.

They offer a decent variation of “veggie five ingredients with chili” sometimes called chili eight (or five) treasure - a stir fry of small uniform sized cubes of bean curd, some other form of soy meat, water-chestnuts, pepper, and sometimes peanuts in a mildly spicy brown sauce.

The spicy soup hot pots are a unique feature at Mighty Vege House. Hot pot can be a great joy and it is possible to buy all of the necessary ingredients to make a vegetarian version at home. In restaurants however, the base is a meat broth and even if the restaurant is willing to make a water based broth, the fillings are limited to just a few vegetables. Mighty Vege House brings out every fake meat form in the kitchen from shrimp, to squid, to meatballs to beyond identification for their meat intensive (boiled, not fried) variations of hot pot. The soup is indeed spicy and comes close in flavor to Szechuan hot pot broth.

"many veggie ingredients with spicy soup" (Szechuan hot pot)

I haven’t tried the six hot pots on the menu that are not served in a spicy soup but I assume they are just as laden with a sampling of non-animal protein.

Their steamed vegetable buns (large, round, thick-skinned dumplings also available fried), filled with vegetables and tofu and are satisfying and I would probably order them more often if a superior dumpling were not available a few doors away at 101 Noodle Express.

There are still enough interesting sounding menu items that I’ve yet to try:

dried bean curd & water spinach with Satay sauce
dried bean curd, celery with soy sauce
sour bamboo, veggie pork with soy sauce
veggie sausage, basil, mushroom with soy sauce
vege abalone, Shimeji mushrooms, green pepper, carrot
vege pork steak with spicy black bean sauce
vege ham in honey with sliced bread
Chinese herbal yam, green vegetable, veggie pork
sesame gobo
special tofu with green sauce

The average price for dinner menu items are $8 with $4.50 lunch specials.

1400 East Valley Blvd. (West of New Ave.) 626-293-8189