Impossible Burgers? Vegan Cheese? Pass. We Love Our SG Vegetarian Food, Thanks
STORY: Pearlyn Tham
01 October 2021
These days, every self-respecting café, restaurant or burger joint (yes, even Burger King and McDonald’s!) has plant-based options on its menu, ranging from meatless alternatives made with Impossible, Beyond or OmniMeat to full-on-veggie substitutes like Portobello mushroom patties and tofu “steaks”.
But we Asians were there first with our vegetarian fare, sometimes eaten for religious reasons (and during certain festivals) but generally eaten because who knew bean curd sheets, seitan and monkey-head mushrooms could look and taste this yummy?
So to commemorate World Vegetarian Day (1 Oct), here are some of our favourite vegetarian-friendly local dishes.
Fake it till you mock it
To us, nothing tastes better on a wooden ice cream stick – besides ice cream, that is – than a mock roast goose drumstick.
But don’t ask us why the powers that be didn’t name this mock roast duck or chicken drumstick. Just ask us why we love it. And here are the reasons: layers and layers of tulle-like bean curd sheets entwined under a delicate, crispy, deep-fried “skin” (also made of bean curd sheet but browned), which you then rip off savagely with your teeth.
In fact, we are fans of anything mock and we don’t mean Impossible, Beyond or OmniMeat.
We are old-school like that, and besides mock roast goose drumstick, we head to vegetarian stalwarts like Miao Yi Vegetarian Restaurant and D’Life for innovative meatless dishes that generally use a lot of monkey head mushrooms, bean curd sheets and more monkey head mushrooms, like “chicken curry”, “assam fish head”, and “sweet and sour pork”.
When it’s chicken rice, but not chicken rice
We are a creative lot, okay? These days, even humble kopi tiam stalls are doing vegetarian takes on popular local dishes like chicken rice, bak kut teh, lor mee, kway chap and wanton noodles.
Chee Wei Vegetarian’s “chicken” rice is always sold out by lunch time, even though it’s really slivers of marinated bean curd sheets and vegetables on fragrant flavoured rice. It also does bak kut teh and bak chor mee.
Vegetarian bee hoon breakfast club
Sure, we love our atas crab bee hoon soups or we may queue for our favourite brand of white bee hoon. But there’s a third bee hoon genre that we Singaporeans love: vegetarian bee hoon or zai mi fen.
While you can pick or add to the dishes that get heaped on top of your vermicelli – some common options include fried spring rolls and stir-fried long beans in sambal – a la chye png, the default combination seems to be cabbage curry, mock char siew in the most toxic red, and an often-miserly sprinkling of deep-fried mock goose meat flakes.
But some unusual side dishes that we have seen include fake fishballs, ngoh hiang made with yam, and braised “duck” (which tastes just like the fake char siew TBH!).
Gobi in every way
You can have your hipster cauliflower rice, thanks, but we will stick to our aloo gobi, gobi pakora and gobi Manchurian!
Gobi, which is cauliflower, is used in Indian vegetarian cuisine in many creative and shiok ways which somehow lessen that raw, earthy taste you usually get with the cruciferous vegetable.
Never tried gobi dishes? Start with aloo gobi, great if you must have your carbs. This is a simple, comforting mix of stir-fried potatoes and cauliflower with Indian spices.
We also love a well-done plate of gobi pakoras any time of the day. These vegetable fritters are sometimes served with mint yogurt dips.
And for a meatless alternative to good ol’ sweet-and-sour chicken or pork that even your fussy carnivorous family members won’t mind eating, there’s always gobi Manchurian.
You will probably spot this in an obscure corner of a nasi padang stall’s food spread. Because poor tempeh always takes a backseat in the presence of its more attractive and appetising counterparts like beef rendang, petai prawns and assam pedas.
But tempeh, which is fermented soybeans, is a protein, calcium and probiotics powerhouse – perfect if you aren’t deriving these nutrients from animal products.
While vegans have, in recent years, been experimenting with tempeh and using it in place of minced beef and crisped bacon in recipes like tempeh ragout and tempeh sandwiches, fans of nasi padang will know it best as a simple side dish, fried in sedap sambal.