Wednesday, July 29, 2015


July 20-21, 2015

I had a speedy few days in Perth last week and hassled Steph for dining tips. She gave Formosa/Utopia the thumbs up, so I swung by a couple of times to suss it out. It’s tucked away in Northbridge, in a little courtyard back from the street a bit, so keep your eyes peeled to avoid walking straight past. Once you’re in, you’ve got to figure out the ordering process – the best thing to do is grab a menu, a pen and a little form for ordering and settle in at a table. The menu is humungous, with something like 200 dishes to choose from (plus seemingly millions of bubble tea and related drinks). Everything is pretty clearly labelled – I’d guess about half the dishes are vegan and spice levels are marked. It’s not cheap, but it’s not outrageous either – most mains are between $16 and $20. It’s heavy on the mock meat, although there are enough veggie and tofu based dishes if that’s not your thing.

To order, you fill out the form with the code from the menu and take it up to the counter – they double check what you’ve ordered, so there shouldn’t be any confusion even if your handwriting is as bad as mine. On my first visit I ordered the vegan version of the tom yum chicken ($16.50) with a side of the fried crispy mushrooms ($6) and rice for one ($2.50). This was way too much food, which is always the risk when you’re dining alone and trying to sample as much of the menu as possible.

On my first few mouthfuls I was mad for the mushrooms – crispy, salty and with a nice spicy dipping sauce – but I gradually tired of them as I went on. You should probably hold off on these unless you’re sharing, the mushroomy texture got a bit overwhelming as the batter cooled down and lost its crisp. Still – five stars for the first 10 or so. The tom yum chicken was a complete success, a nice mix of hot and sour flavours in the soup and a decent amount of veggies to go along with the mock chicken.

On my return trip I took Steph’s advice and ordered the fried kuay teow ($11.50) and was once again unable to resist some accompaniment, going with the salted fried chicken ($9). For some reason the chicken isn’t marked vegan, which confused me a bit – maybe there’s egg in the batter?

Either way, it’s delicious – crispy and salty and impressively chicken-y. The texture works better than the mushrooms over a whole plate too. The noodles were solid as well – a rich, smoky wok hei, dotted with sprouts, greens, tofu and a few chunks of mysterious mock meat.

You wouldn’t really go to Utopia for the ambience – it’s brightly lit, simply furnished and there’s nothing fancy about the service. Still – there’s a lot going for it: the staff are friendly, the menu ridiculously long and the food that I sampled a pretty decent version of mock-meat heavy vego Chinese food. They’re open late, they do a good line in bubble tea and they’ve got a karaoke room out the back somewhere – you can see why Utopia is a Perth vego favourite.


There are positive reviews of Utopia on vegan about town, foodieatwork and watermelon3.


109 James St, Northbridge, Western Australia
08 9227 0238
menus: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve
facebook page

Accessibility: The restaurant access is up a flight of stairs (although there may be a lift somewhere - I forgot to check). You order and pay at a low counter. The toilets are gendered and accessible.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Pear & caramel icecream

July 18-19, 2015

Last week I enthusiastically renewed our vege box order with CERES.... except that I actually ordered an all-fruit box instead of a mixed fruit & veg box. We were beset by multitudes of bananas, apples, kiwi fruits, oranges and grapefruit, more than a dozen mandarins, a couple of limes and four pears. We've been working through them - stirring the limes into creme fraiche for sweet potato wedges, packing apples into our bags for work and punctuating our days at home with mandarin peeling. I made a big batch of rice pudding to enjoy with the kiwi fruits and some apple & walnut pancakes once, too. The bananas are only just ripe now.

Three of the four pears went into this David Lebovitz icecream recipe, prepared for dessert when we had some friends over. They're cooked in caramel, blended smooth, then strained and churned into a rich, velvety scoop. The caramel procedure, which I've used for salted caramel icecreams, always gets me nervous - it teeters on burning in some spots while others wait their turn to melt. The flavour in the mixture stayed just on the right side of bitter and mellowed out a lot during churning and freezing. The pear ended up playing subtle too - sweet and fruity pre-churn, later forming flecks of texture and leaving just a whisper of flavour. It was rather upstaged by the excellent chocolate self-saucing pudding that one of our guests brought, and we've made a point of eating the leftovers without that kind of delicious distraction.

The most striking feature of this dessert was the 48% milk fat cream that I used. It made for a rich, languorous icecream that was easy to scoop and didn't melt, even after half a hour of sitting at the table, waiting for us to serve seconds.

Pear & caramel icecream
(a recipe from David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop)

3 medium-sized ripe pears
3/4 cup castor sugar
500mL heavy cream
pinch of salt
a squeeze of lemon juice

Peel the pears and remove their cores. Dice them up finely.

Place the sugar in a medium saucepan and set it over consistent medium heat. Given enough time, the sugar will liquefy and turn brown. You can use a wooden spoon to gently shift the unmelted sugar towards the heat.

When the sugar has entirely melted to amber caramel, add the pears. A bunch of the caramel will seize up around the pears, but don't worry about it - just keep stirring the pears into the caramel and allowing the sugar to melt back down. Let it all to cook, stirring regularly, for about 10-15 minutes, until the pear is tender.

Turn off the heat and add the cream - just a couple of tablespoons to start, and then bigger and bigger portions until it's all well mixed. Stir in the salt and lemon juice. Refrigerate the mixture until it's very cold, preferably overnight.

When the mixture is very cold, use a stick blender to puree the pears until they're as smooth as possible. Strain the mixture to make sure the worst fibrous bits are out. Churn the smooth icecream mixture an icecream maker and freeze it for at least 4 hours before serving.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

David Chang's Brussels sprouts

July 19, 2015

When I got all excited over Brussels sprouts last week, there was another recipe I took a good look at. This one was developed by David Chang of Momofuku fame, and enthusiastically endorsed by The Amateur Gourmet. It's certainly not your standard sprout treatment, involving a fish sauce-based dressing and crunchy sprinkle of puffed rice and shichimi togarashi. We got ourselves organised to make this for dinner with friends on Sunday night.

While these were happily gobbled up by all at the table (including a Brussels sprout first-timer!), they were not everything I'd hoped for. Half an hour in a very hot oven rendered the sprouts near-burnt on the outside and pretty mushy within. I prefer a bit more bite, and will remember to limit their baking to a quarter hour in future. The butter tossed through the sprouts right after baking softened all the crispiness out of their outer leaves and isn't needed at all. Finally, as a shichimi togarashi lover, a quarter teaspoon is nowhere near enough!

I reckon there's something really, really good here worth pursuing, but it'll take me a couple more iterations to find my favoured version.

David Chang's Brussels sprouts
(adapted slightly from a recipe on epicurious,
found on The Amateur Gourmet)

roasted sprouts
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
900g Brussels sprouts, sliced in half lengthways
2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup vegan fish sauce
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons mint, finely chopped
2 tablespoons coriander stems, finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 small red chilli, sliced into circles

crunchy sprinkle
1/2 cup puffed rice
1/4 teaspoon shichimi togarashi
mint and coriander leaves, to garnish

Preheat at oven to 230°C. 

Divide the oil between two baking trays, using the flat side of a sprout to spread it out evenly. Arrange all of the sprouts cut-side-down across the two tray. Bake them for 30 minutes, until they're well browned and crispy on the outside.

While the sprouts are roasting, whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a small-medium bowl.

Spray a small frypan with oil and set it over medium-high heat. Add in the puffed rice and shichimi togarashi and stir-fry them until they start smelling good. Turn off the heat and set them aside.

When the Brussels sprouts have finished roasting, transfer them to a heat-proof serving bowl. Add the butter and 1/4 cup of the dressing and stirring them through as the butter melts, to evenly coat the sprouts. Sprinkle over the puffed rice and garnishes, and serve with the remaining dressing on the side.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Vegan fish sauce

July 18, 2015

Fish sauce probably doesn't rank up there with bacon and salami as an animal product that veg*ns desperately miss the flavour of. Nevertheless, it does pop up in recipes that otherwise look delicious and veg-friendly. I came across one such recipe this week and rapidly turned up a vegan fish sauce substitute to try it out with.

The sauce recipe uses wakame (I substituted dulse flakes) and mushroom 'oyster' sauce for a taste of the sea, plus garlic and miso for extra umami. Everything's boiled down to a barely-palatable concentrate. I'm not confident that it resembles fish sauce, precisely, but it certainly has pungency in common with its namesake!

Vegan fish sauce
(adapted slightly from a recipe on The Kitchn)

1 tablespoon dulse flakes
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons peppercorns
3 cups water
1/2 cup mushroom 'oyster' sauce
2 teaspoons miso

Place the dulse flakes, garlic, peppercorns and water in a saucepan and bring them to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer them for 20 minutes. Strain the liquid, discarding the solids and returning the liquid to the saucepan. Add the 'oyster' sauce and boil it down until it's reduced by half, about 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the miso. Store the sauce in the fridge.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Kale & Brussels sprout salad

July 12, 2015

On our first fridge-stocking shop back home, I noticed that the Brussels sprouts were looking particularly good, each one balled up firmly with a clean green sheen. I didn't buy them on the spot but I did go home and flip through some recipes, mulling over how to use them. Of the options I came up with, Michael picked a kale and Brussels sprout Caesar slaw with pine nut "parm" from The First Mess.

Once he got past the pretty photos and actually started with the prep, Michael voiced some doubts. The kale and sprouts stay raw? I was hesitant too - these cruciferous veges (the original recipe includes cabbage too!) can be bitter and even tough. There's not a lot of sweetness to counteract them here, either. Instead, there's a thick sunflower seed-based dressing with a pungency that really did remind me of anchovies - I put it down to some combination of those seeds, the tahini and the garlic. The dressing goes some way to softening the texture of the finely shredded kale and sprouts.

The other toppings are more accessible - chickpeas stained rust-red with smoked paprika and a bright, crumbly parmesan cheese imitation. Though it's mostly made of pine nuts, it's the sesame seeds and lemon zest that brought out the best in the salty sprinkle.

This winter salad served as a light dinner one night, and we deconstructed the leftovers over a few meals more, eating the kale and sprouts with some Kentucky fried tofu and using leftover dressing to marinate some grilled tofu. It's definitely one for folks who already eat and love their greens - novices should stick to springtime snow peas and asparagus!

Kale & Brussels sprout salad
(slightly adapted from a recipe on The First Mess)

1/2 cup sunflower seeds
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1/4 teaspoon tamari
2 teaspoons tahini
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon maple syrup
salt & pepper
1/4 cup water

smoky chickpeas
1 x 400g can chickpeas, drained
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon tamari
1/2 teaspoon maple syrup
salt & pepper

parmesan sprinkle
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
salt & pepper

1 large bunch kale
500g Brussels sprouts 

Cover the sunflower seeds with water and soak them for at least 2 hours.

When you're about half an hour away from wanting to eat, get to work with the rest of the salad. Preheat an oven to 200°C. In a small-medium bowl, stir together all the smoky chickpea ingredients. Line a baking tray with paper and spread the chickpeas out evenly across it. Bake the chickpeas for 20-30 minutes depending on whether you want them tender or chewy.

While the chickpeas are baking, throw the parmesan sprinkle ingredients into a spice grinder and blend them until they're well-mixed and crumbly.

Drain the sunflower seeds and place them in a spince grinder or blender. Add the remaining dressing ingredients and blend until smooth.

Shred the kale leaves and the Brussels sprouts very finely. Place them all in  a large salad bowl. Toss through half of the dressing. Sprinkle over the chickpeas and parmesan sprinkle, either in the bowl or over individual portions, and serve the remaining dressing on the side.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Kuala Lumpur

June 28-30 & July 8-9, 2015

Our travels in Vietnam were bookended with a bit of time in Kuala Lumpur, a city we previously visited in 2010. This time round we had friends in residence, and they guided us to drinks by a 33rd floor pool on our arrival, followed by banana leaf curries for dinner. If memory serves, the dinner venue was Devi's Corner. Their full menu included a range of mock meats and vege curries, but sadly these were unavailable when we turned up late on a Sunday night. It's a good thing their basic vege plate is so impressive! We were treated to mountains of rice, as much dahl as we could handle, chilli pickles, milky cucumber chunks and an irresistible pink fry-up that we think was bitter melon (though it wasn't actually bitter at all, more sweet and silky like eggplant). While many other diners ate their meals adeptly with their hands, we were grateful for the cutlery available at the table. I was also pleased by the lime barley drink recommended by my friend, almost like a tangy bubble tea with its chewy grains.

In a third episode of lucky accommodation location, we were within walking distance of Blue Boy, a food court that caught our fancy those five years ago. I couldn't stomach fried food so early in the day but Michael and Clamps gave it a good go. Between them they put away a nasi lemak, fried noodle, kopi o ais, and a bowl of assorted battered veges - it all lived up to Michael's fond memories. Only one staff member was proficient in English during Blue Boy's quiet morning rotation; his assistance, accompanied by a bit of pointing, served us just fine given the all-vegetarian options. (Note that there is egg and dairy here though!)

After exploring the Islamic Arts Museum (see a few light, airy photos in the slideshow at the end of this post), we wandered Chinatown seeking lunch. Plan A failed but the Happy Cow website on my local friend's data-enabled phone turned up a fine Plan B in Wan Fo Yuan. It was a little smoky and claustrophobic but provided a revolving tabletop of fine mock meats, which we'd picked from pastel-coloured albums of over-exposed photos. We disagreed whether the pepper fish, claypot or spicy beans, eggplant and okra were best... that is, until the satay sticks came out. Friends, they were THE BEST.

We hit Brickfields for our second dinner, seeking a veg*n Indian meal. I didn't realise we'd been to Gopala before, and was overwhelmed all over again by the 150 items on their menu. Michael and Clamps ordered up big, sampling roti canai, mushroom "65" (more pink batter!) and two kinds of fried rice. My paneer butter masala was specially recommended by the staff but only so-so, in spite of some nice spices. I was way more into their orange lassi.

We circled back on veg Indian food for the final night of our holiday, recognising Sangeetha from the street. With another long menu, we couldn't help ordering large - Milo ice, lime mint cooler and a fiery ginger lemon cool, palak paneer, breads, and a spectacular triumvirate of mushroom masala dosa, chilli gobi fry and veg manchurian. It left no room for even looking at their neon-hued sweets cabinet.

Already nostalgic for cơm chay, Clamps sussed out a serve-yourself food court buffet for breakfast before check-out (though we don't know its name, it was located at street level next to the Ocean 77 Hotel on Petaling St). It was an omnivorous spread so Michael and Clamps picked through the options cautiously, nevertheless creating sizable plates of food.

Instead, I settled on a couple of fried sweets from a nearby market stall.

Our final KL shout-out must go to Be Lohas, an organic health-centred vegetarian cafe located in the airport (level 2, KLIA 2 - outside security). Twice we fueled up there while waiting to board a plane. Their mini hot dogs and soy cheese toast fingers were as delightful as their larger meals were satisfying - Clamps was very nearly defeated by his claypot with noodles! While their dishes had a distinctly macrobiotic edge, they weren't short on flavour - my avocado smoothie was the first one to taste more of the fruit than of sugar and Michael gushed about his spicy soy milk laksa. I stretched out my Ramadan-special nasi lemak for some time, browsing between the brown rice, crunchy coleslaw, and curried yuba, before finishing with fruit tea and a couple of dates.

Though we didn't spend as long exploring Kuala Lumpur as we did in Vietnam we enjoyed the city's distinctly different approach to veg*n eating. The thick sauces and curry noodles even suit the Melbourne winter we've returned to.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City

June 30-July 1 & July 5-8, 2015

We spent the biggest chunk of our trip in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), split by the few cooler days we had in Đà Lạt. We stayed right in the heart of the backpacker district Pham Ngũ Lão at the wonderful (and affordable) Duc Vuong Hotel. This had a few upsides beyond the decent, air-conditioned rooms and ridiculously friendly staff - in particular the spectacular rooftop bar atop the hotel and the location, right in the thick of the city's densest cluster of vego restaurants.

The rooftop bar offered lovely views across the rooftops of the city, cold beer, an array of excellent smoothies, ludicrous multi-coloured cocktails and some very mediocre chips. We also sampled the deep-fried tofu (a bit bland) and eyed off the  mushroom dumplings all week, but never got around to ordering them. Next time.

We sat on the rooftop on our first evening in town scanning the Happy Cow app, puzzling over the vegan restaurant located 0.05 miles from where we were sitting. Somehow, on our initial explorations we'd walked straight past Saigon Vegan, which is literally directly across the road from the hotel.

It has a pretty straightforward selection of Vietnamese dishes - noodle soups like phở, rice dishes, hot pots, tofu dishes, salads and so on (mains 45,000-60,000VND ~ AU$2.80-$3.70). Somewhat unusually, it doesn't offer much in the way of mock meat. We grabbed some excellent lunchtime bánh mis one day (pictured above, centre right), stuffed with pate, tofu and sweet, onion-based veggie floss (25,000VND ~ AU$1.50 each). At other meals the lemongrass fried tofu (pictured top right) and the vermicelli with spring rolls (bottom left) were among the highlights. The main reason we kept going back though was for the Vietnamese iced coffees (top centre), a vegan version of the classic mix of drip coffee, condensed milk and ice (35,000VND ~ AU$2.15). It's a lovely spot to sit with a snack and a coffee and watch the hordes of pedestrians, cyclists and motorbikes on the teeming Bùi Vien.

Before we discovered Saigon Vegan, we stumbled onto Bee Saigon, a hotel and restaurant on a side street off Bùi Viện that has an eight-page vego section in the menu (20,000-40,000VND ~ AU$1.25-$2.50 per dish). Our lunch here was simple and successful - avocado salad, coconut fried rice, a bánh xèo and some vego spring rolls, plus a couple of (non-vegan) iced drinks. The food was decent and cheap, but probably didn't hit the heights of some of our later meals in the city.

Sen Quan Chay was another local option that we visited a handful of times, often starting the day with a quick stop at their bánh mi stand out the front to grab a quick second breakfast. These were probably my favourite rolls of the trip - a good hit of chilli, a mix of pâté, mock meat, noodles and salad on a fresh crunchy roll. The roast duck version at Trang is probably still superior, but at 16,000VND (~ AU$1), this is a damn good value snack. The sit-down restaurant is more impressive, with three levels and a mix of tables and traditional Vietnamese floor seating. We made a couple of lunch-time visits, exploring as much of the mock-meat heavy menu as we could (meals are between 40,000 & 65,000VND ~ AU$2.50-$4).

Cindy ordered the mango salad here and it was so good that we wound up ordering salads almost everywhere else we visited. The chicken wings were memorable, as were the ludicrously real-seeming grilled pork. The tofu-based mock egg in the braised pork hot-pot was intriguing as well. We broke the mock meat up with some rice and tofu dishes, but the mock and the salads were the stars.

As in Đà Lạt, we fell back on the food court at the market for the occasional cơm chay - a trusty and cheap way to eat a wonderful and varied lunch. We only found one veggie place at the Ben Thanh Market, but that was enough. The drink selection at this place was great - I had a dragon fruit juice, while Cindy spurned the jellyish noodle drinks in the cabinet for her first sugar can juice of the trip. Food-wise, you pay 40,000VND (AU$2.50) and they serve up a plate of rice with a selection of mock meat, veggies, pickles and condiments - these ones didn't quite measure up to the amazing lunches we had in Đà Lạt, but they were still probably the best value meal we had in HCMC.

We spent a later morning wandering around the Bin Thay Market in Cholon (Saigon/HCMC's Chinatown) and found a couple of intriguing little vego stalls in its food section, but we'd over-eaten at breakfast and couldn't justify another meal. It seems like a pretty safe bet though - if you're after a quick and cheap vego meal in Vietnam, just aim for the market food courts and explore. We also stumbled across a little restaurant and banh mi stall near the nearby Ha Chuong Hoi Quan Pagoda - there are very few vego restaurants listed on Happy Cow in Cholon, but we found a handful without even really trying, so there'd be no harm in setting off without a particular food destination in mind.

Some of our other sightseeing took us to the excellent War Remnants Museum and fascinating Reunification Palace, both of which are located conveniently close to ...hum, Trip Advisor's #3 rated restaurant in the whole city and the fanciest vego place around (which means dishes cost between 75,000 & 100,000VND ~ AU$4.60-$6.20).

The pomelo salad was a surprising highlight - bursting with spiciness, sweetness and tangy citrus flavours, while the fermented tofu was a bit blander than we were expecting. The deep-fried veggies were tempura-esque, while the tofu in spicy sauce was probably my favourite. Cindy even splashed out on dessert, sampling a toddy palm and coconut milk concoction that was jellyish and sweet. The food in general was fresh and a bit lighter than most of the other meals we had in Vietnam - it's clear that ...hum are trying for something a bit higher end than cơm chay. They generally succeed, helped a lot by the lovely setting and atmosphere - there's a peaceful courtyard and the inside areas aim a bit higher than plastic seats and tables. It's definitely worth a visit - especially when a big splurge for a meal and drinks still means you're paying less than $15 a head.

We did most of our other eating within close walking distance of the hotel, making a couple of visits to Ngoc Tho, a place that is no longer totally vego but still has a massive and separate vegetarian menu. The array of average looking pizzas and Mexican food on the menu had me worried that the standards were going to be pretty low, but the Vietnamese dishes we ordered were pretty ace. Dishes cost between 35,000VND and 60,000VND (AU$2.15-3.70). There are eggs in a number of dishes, so vegans need to tread carefully.

We had the veggie pork ribs both times we visited and were completely blown away - the mock pork in Vietnam is really next level. We were so enamoured that we tried an order of the special veg BBQ pork with rice noodles and veggies as well - the pork was typically great, but we were a bit confused about the construction process. The garlic fried rice was probably the best rice dish of the trip, and the mock chicken with lemongrass and chilli was a standout as well. Cindy snuck into the Western menu to sample a mango pancake for brekkie, which was pretty good, but didn't come near my fried rice with eggs (even if I thought I'd ordered Indian fried rice).

We stumbled across Pham Chay just around the corner, a supermarket reminiscent of Footscray's Vincent's. It's basically a temple to mock meat, and really not much use unless you've got access to a kitchen, but it did have us daydreaming about living in Vietnam and perfecting our BBQ pork ribs. We brought back some pate and mock deer jerky, but there was so much we were sad to leave behind.

Happy Cow also pointed us towards Hoa Khai, a vegan place with more than 100 menu items to choose from and nothing more expensive than 55,000VND (AU$3.40). We were into a pretty good ordering groove by the time we came here - some fried mock meat (chicken wings this time), spring rolls, a tofu dish (Sichuan tofu), a salad (coconut sprout salad) and some more fried mock meat (chilli and lemongrass 'vegetarian meat'). 

This was a massive success - the coconut salad was probably my favourite salad of the week (I'm still not sure what the chewy jerky-like things were on top) and both the mock meat dishes were superb. The Sichuan tofu was lacking a bit of bite, but that's a minor quibble among a magnificent meal. Added bonus: the restaurant had some air-con and a few fans cranking the cool air around, making it a welcome respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Our final local vego visit was to Com Chay Mani, a short walk across the park from our hotel. It's another air-conditioned place, working a similar style of food - salads, rice dishes, soups and mock meats, all for between 30,000VND and 55,000VND (AU$1.80-$3.40). The 35,000VND (AU$2.15) set breakfast/lunch menu (main course, stir-fried veggie dish and a soup with steamed rice) looks like incredibly good value, but we didn't make it back to try it out. Instead Cindy and I split the green tea fried rice and a Thai salad (no mock meat!), which were both excellent - the fried rice in particular knocked my socks off. It was a shame we discovered Mani so late in the trip, it definitely deserved another visit.

Our final morning didn't leave much time for eating - just a quick breakfast at the hotel buffet (which has a good range of fruit, but is not otherwise super veg friendly) and then a sneaky walk around the corner for a final banh mi at Anpham. There was a steady stream of motorbikes pulling up and grabbing rolls, which was reassuring - the stall sells a mix of meaty and veg dishes, but it's pretty simple to point at the 'banh mi chay' sign. The rolls here came in at 16,000VND (AU$1), among the cheapest of the trip, and had a nice mix of mock meat, mushrooms and salad. There was a condiment that was suspiciously mayo-like, so these might not be vegan-friendly - I'm not sure how to check. Still, it was a great way to finish our time in Vietnam - cheap and delicious street food ordered with pointing and sign language. 

We had a brilliant time in Saigon/HCMC - along with all this food, there's loads to see and do. We were particularly knocked out by the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace and the Fine Arts Museum, as well as all the beautiful buildings downtown (the post office in particular stands out). Our walk through the pagodas in Cholon was great too, although the heat got a little overwhelming. It's a wonderful city - buzzing with ludicrous traffic, stuffed with glorious food and filled with so many amazingly friendly people. We'll be back for sure.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Đà Lạt

July 2-5, 2015

We've made an escape from wintertime Melbourne to Vietnam and Malaysia for a couple of weeks with our mate Clamps. He's eaten vegan through this part of the world several times before, so he's the ideal IRL complement to our usual Happy Cow research.

The major revelation has been seeking out cơm chay in market food courts. This translates as vegetarian rice, but you can expect much more than that. Stalls routinely offer a dozen different vegan-friendly pickings on their set plates, from pickled vegetables and braised mock meats to deep-fried fritters and tofu triangles. The ones pictured from the Đà Lạt market set us back 30-40,000VND (AU$1.80-2.50) per plate and were spectacular. With only a limited ability to interact with staff we were left to guess at how many of these dishes came together - were those crispy bits some kind of fried root vegetable, or processed soy? could those mock anchovies be battered banana blossom? what are the chances of us making our own fake shrimp meat to wrap around lemongrass stalks? We can only hope that cơm chay will be the next food trend in Melbourne.

Đà Lạt has a handful of other veg*n restaurants, all variations on the local Buddhist cuisine. Hoa Sen is one of the more expansive ones, with lacquered tables and decorative fountains. The menu included English translations, usually clear, although we wondered what the 'pies' were that featured throughout the menu. There was only one way to find out! The 'fried pies with lemongrass and hot pepper' (pictured above, centre) turned out to be some very tasty shredded mock meat, rivalled only by the chilli tofu rice (above, centre-right). Fresh spring rolls, a soft bready dumpling and a plate of braised gluten were also very good. (Main dishes were 35,000VND ~ AU$2.15 each.)  Michael and I took advantage of their cold drink repertoire too, with a condensed-milk Vietnamese iced coffee for him and a soft serve-like avocado shake for me.

For two nights we stayed at the lovely Thien An Hotel (which includes a complimentary breakfast of baguettes and tropical fruits, with a jar of Vegemite on offer!). We couldn't believe our luck when we spotted a bánh mi chay stall two doors down, and an entire vegetarian family restaurant Quán Chay Đại Lộc behind it. (Main dishes were 20-40,000VND ~ AU$1.20-2.50, banh mi 10,000VND ~ AU$0.60.) A few of the dishes we sought were unavailable, but the ones we hit on were terrific - I had mock fish with lemongrass sauce one night and a peppery tomato braise the next. Michael loved the beef noodle soup so much that Clamps was moved to order it on a subsequent night. Fried spring rolls are common place, but these ones were particularly toasty and enjoyable.  Michael and Clamps even stopped in for breakfast banh mi in between, but were mildly put off by the gelatinous fat on their mock meat filling. I thought the corn milk was a better punt, sweet and refreshing.

Of course we found plenty else to do between eats (see slideshow below for some highlights). We browsed the central markets several times, Michael went on a bird-watching tour while Clamps and I walked around the lake and visited the flower park. We took a taxi out to the Crazy House and Bao Dai's Palace before being drawn back to the central market for more cơm chay. Mostly we revelled in the cooler days up in the mountains before returning to the steamy cities below.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Chickpea sauté with Greek yoghurt

June 27, 2015

The fifth gathering of our semi-regular Ottolenghi potluck posse was booked in for Saturday night, part of a ridiculously busy weekend for Cindy and I. We scaled back our usual ambitions and found an uncharacteristically simple Ottolenghi recipe in Plenty as our contribution. By the time we'd done our grocery shopping, dinner had been called off due to illness, leaving us to enjoy this dish without having to share.

It really is surprisingly straightforward given the usual rigmarole involved in an Ottolenghi meal - you can do it all in one pot over about 25 minutes and the ingredient list is  modest dozen with only sumac falling outside our standard kitchen stocks (thankfully we'd been given a little take home stash of sumac at Maha on our previous visit, so we were good to go).

For all its simplicity, this is a lovely meal - we were generous with the garlic (just one clove, but a really ginormous one), which I'd recommend, while the lemon, herbs and caraway seeds mean every mouthful is bright and interesting. The dollop of yoghurt on top is nice, but not essential - we took leftovers with us the day after with just the sumac sprinkled on and it was still excellent. File this one away for an occasion when you want to bust out one of your Ottolenghi books but don't have the time or energy for anything complicated - its a simple, satisfying winner.

Chickpea Sauté with Greek Yoghut
(a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty)

1 small bunch silverbeet
1/3 cup olive oil
4 carrots, peeled and diced into 1cm cubes
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 large garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped coriander
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt and pepper
Greek yoghurt
sumac for sprinkling

Cut the silverbeet into stalks and leaves

Blanch the stalks in a large pot of boiling water for 3 minutes. Throw in the leaves and blanch for another couple of minutes. Drain and refresh with cold water. Squeeze the water out and roughly chop it all up.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Throw in the carrots and caraway seeds and cook for 5 minutes. Add the silverbeet (stems and leaves) and chickpeas and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring all the time. Add the garlic, herbs, lemon juice, salt and pepper and stir through, before killing the heat.

Serve immediately, topped with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of sumac.