Vegetables can be delicious too, you know

Like many people, I grew up not liking vegetables. They were always the least tasty part of any meal and something that I had to forcibly swallow to finish my meal. If you grew up in a Chinese family, you know that you have to clean your plate or face the consequences of your (in)action.

And by consequences, I mean the non-negligible possibility of saying hello to the rotan, depending on how hard, how long and how loud you protested. We all know the health benefits of consuming sufficient vegetables, the most important one being avoidance of the dreaded cane.

It took a while for me to get over my childhood trauma dislike of vegetables, and over time, I found that I actually started to like them. Not just as a necessary evil to be tolerated, but as a delicious dish to be enjoyed. So much so that I regularly seek out vegetarian restaurants to have an entire meal comprising *gasp* only of vegetables.

It started many years ago, possibly even a decade back, when The Wife suggested that we try having a monthly vegetarian day and brought me to New Green Pasture Cafe on the fourth floor of Fortune Centre, which was within walking distance of her previous office in Bugis.

For those of you who are familiar with Fortune Centre, you know that it’s famous for having a large concentration of vegetarian Chinese restaurants, due to its proximity to 观音堂 (Kwan Im Thong) temple at Waterloo Street.

The bigger and more well-known restaurants are on the ground floor, but if you ever find yourself there, head up the escalators for some interesting vegetarian versions of familiar dishes.

Most of the time, we end up ordering the sushi roll and soba salad, which are fresh, crispy and light. But they also have other more substantial dishes like bibimbap, turmeric rice with rendang and even bak kut teh. After The Wife’s office moved location, we don’t visit much nowadays, but I’ll always remember the clean and healthy-tasting food.

The dish that we do have fairly frequently is one that’s closer to home, with the added benefit of being on the food delivery platforms — thunder tea rice, from a stall in the basement food court of the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh called, you guessed it, Thunder Tea Rice.

Apparently, the dramatic name of this Hakka dish comes from the loud noise arising from grinding all the ingredients for the green soup in a mortar and pestle. I don’t exactly know the specific ingredients that go in, but judging from the shocking green colour of the end product, I’m guessing it’s predominantly green vegetables and herbs.

Thunder tea rice is definitely an acquired taste which took me three tries to acquire. The first time I had it was at the China Square foodcourt next to my then office. A colleague recommended it, I tried it and immediately hated it. It basically tasted like blended grass.

The second time was at the Lau Pa Sat food centre, again recommended by another colleague. I tried it and immediately hated it (again). Because, yes, it basically tasted like blended grass (again).

The third time was at the HDB Hub foodcourt, this time forced recommended by The Wife and surprisingly it wasn’t that bad. The green soup still looked like blended grass, but it didn’t taste as — how do I describe it? — green.

It tasted good either as a soup-on-the-side, or mixed into the rice and chopped vegetables. You can choose a fully vegetarian version or, as shown in the photo below, with fried ikan bilis for a more savoury and less grassy-tasting dish.

But our favourite vegetarian restaurant has to be Greendot, a local chain with several outlets island-wide, including the one at the Bishan Junction 8 basement that we always buy from.

We used to travel all the way to their Paya Lebar branch but were ecstatic when they opened their Bishan outlet, although it was bittersweet because it took over the space from Prata Wala, which we also really liked and ordered frequently from.

Most of the time, we order their takeaway bento set and choose the dishes on display at the counter. You can choose white, brown or turmeric rice and then you just point at the dishes you want, like what you’d do at a chai png stall.

Each dish is cooked in small batches to keep them warm, and while there aren’t many choices, they all taste fresh and clean, especially their fried vegetables and including the oily-looking brinjal and ladies fingers.

By now, we’ve tried all their dishes and our all-time favourite is the monkey head mushroom rendang. Remember, it’s a vegetarian restaurant, so no monkeys were harmed in the making of their food. I’m pretty sure the mushroom is named as such because of the way it looks and not how it tastes (I hope).

It’s cooked so authentically that you might not be able to taste the difference between theirs and the meat version in a blind taste test. The texture of the mushroom mimics that of slow-braised beef, and the flavour tastes almost exactly like rendang that a makcik would cook. You have to try it to believe it.

Besides the bento sets, they have quite a large variety of ala carte dishes like mala xiang guo (last picture below), laksa, burgers and even veggie and mushroom hotpots. Again, we’ve tried most of their dishes, and while some of their burgers are a bit iffy, the rest of their menu is good.

Another local eatery that we like a lot and order frequently from is Food in the Woods, located in Ang Mo Kio Ave 10. It’s a bit of a distance from where we stay and while we make occasional physical visits, we end up ordering via the food delivery platforms most of the time.

They have a very extensive menu featuring mainly local dishes, like their very good satay beehoon, yam ring with kung pow “chicken” and monkey-head mushroom satay. Their menu used to include a 四大天王 (Four Heavenly Kings) rice bento which we ordered frequently, but sadly seems to have disappeared.

The sambal-fried dish of brinjal, ladies fingers, wing beans and petai is one of the best that we’ve ever had. While they still have it on their ala carte menu as a standalone (larger) portion, it’s too powerful for the two of us. If you’ve ever had petai, you’ll know what we mean.

When it comes to vegetarian food in Singapore, the most flavourful dishes are probably those from Indian restaurants, especially Indian vegetarian ones such as Nalan. We’ve been eating there since the days they were located in Funan Centre, when it was still an old-fashioned IT mall and not the newly-renovated and fancy lifestyle mall it is now.

The years-long rebuilding meant that they had to find another location and they moved to the Capitol Singapore building just down the street, and went with an updated décor to blend in with the overall ambience of the building. They even bought new plates and cutlery!

Luckily, that didn’t affect taste of the food and Nalan is still our go-to place for a hearty Indian vegetarian meal. Whenever we’re there, we always say that we should try dishes from their extensive menu that we’ve never tried before. But we always end up choosing from our trusty favourites.

Like the oh-so-smoky mashed brinjal Baingan ka Bharta, the flavour bomb Gobi Manchurian, the super crunchy Onion Pakora and my standard Thosai, Vadai and Idly set. And to wash it all down, a warm and comforting cup of spicy Masala Tea. Not chilli spicy of course, but spice spicy like cardamom, cinnamon, ginger etc.

Once in a while, we head down to Elemen for a vegetarian course meal. Our usual place was the branch at Thomson Plaza, near where we stay, but that was closed down during the extensive mall renovation (I guess shopping malls get renovated a lot in Singapore, huh) and so we migrated to their outlet at Millenia Walk.

We usually go for their eight-course set, where we get to choose our salad, soup, main, beverage and dessert courses from their seasonally-updated menu, together with the standard starter, bread sticks and apple cider.

Some of the dishes that I particularly enjoy are their Quinoa Salad with a tangy (passionfruit?) dressing, Tofu Salad with a Japanese-style sesame dressing, Black Truffle Porcini Pasta and Prata with monkey head mushroom (Remember this? It features a lot in vegetarian dishes) curry.

To keep things interesting, they also offer a special set menu that changes every two months or so, like the “Oldie-licious” one below featuring dishes like classic Teochew appetisers, poached rice and orh nee dessert. While some of the creations have tasted a bit strange, there are more hits than misses and I do appreciate their willingness and courage to cook outside-the-box.

These are just some of the vegetarian restaurants that we like, and doesn’t even begin to include regular restaurants that feature vegetarian (and vegan) dishes. So, as you can see, vegetables can be delicious too. Definitely something that 10 year-old me would never have imagined was possible.

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