Most of the challenges of being a vegetarian center on having an odd diet—one at odds with what most people dine on and consider normal.
The challenge is compounded when one is travelling. It starts with airline food. Along with confirming your flight, you have to arrange your meals and be specific: Asian vegetarian can get you spicy Indian food so we settled for something more friendly to our palate: Oriental vegetarian.
In recent years, “vegan”—to mean a non-dairy, eggless meal—has been added to the health-specific airline menu that may include dishes that have low sugar or low fat. However, if you’re flying on budget airline fares, you won’t have any choice at all.
The next must-know is a travelling guide to eating healthy the way you define it. There’s happycow.net, a website that tells you how to get to places where you can dine according to your choice of diet—vegetarian, vegan, organic, natural or just vegetarian-friendly. Through the years, our search for comforting food always brings us the company of like-minded people, which makes eating sublimely more fun.
Recently in Indonesia, where vegetarians are a minority, we had something much better than happycow: We had as host a vegetarian who has lived as a Filipino expat for 20 years there.
Our friend Tony gave us our first rule of survival eating out of hotels in Bahasa-speaking countries. Learn to say “no chili” in localspeak, he said. And we had to say it empathically, “tidak pe-das!” as in, “no chili at all!” if we were to be taken seriously as a foreign tourist.
In the world’s largest archipelago with 17,000 islands, we did not find Elizabeth Gilbert’s (“Eat. Pray. Love.”) Ketut but we did find his equivalent in Thomas, a gentle Buddhist who runs the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the north side of Jakarta, far from the Central Business District.
Thomas, a Chinese-Indonesian with a Western name, is a Buddhist who practices metta, which is loving kindness to all beings without selfish attachment. While history says Buddha was unlikely to have been a pure vegetarian, he had told his followers not to partake of food that causes cruelty and death to animals, fowls and fish to be a truly compassionate person who would wish to mitigate all this suffering.
The lotus in the signage is a Buddhist icon and our thumbs-up sign for happy eating.
Thomas welcomed us to his Padmanadi (meaning Lotus Spring) Restaurant and served us a sacred smorgasbord of fresh juices and vegetables in a colorful presentation of leafy greens, carrot-orange and tomato red juiced blueberries-strawberries-green mango that are evidently alive with nutrients and laden with love. It was a visual and gustatory delight and we ended up bowing to our lunch in reverence!
Proximate to our shopping on another day, we had lunch at a vegan cafe called Loving Hut in Plaza Semanggi mall in the heart of the capital city. Entering the cozy green cafe, we were greeted by graphic affirmations in lieu of a Thomas, starting with its slogan which reads, “Be Vegan, Make Peace.”
Founded by Taiwanese spiritual leader Ching Hai of the Quan Yin method, the international restaurant chain is advocating compassion by being vegan and speaking out for animals.
On its wall, a poster in Bahasa reads, “Loving Hut was conceived with a vision that all creatures should live together in peace, love and harmony. Loving Hut is already the largest vegan restaurant chain in the world, with more than 121 outlets in 21 countries. All food ingredients in Loving Hut are made from soy beans and mushroom, free from egg, milk and MSG. We also use selected organic rice and almost all vegetables used are organic.”
We made peace with all creation by eating our animal-free lunch. The restaurant sells only vegan food, so extreme dieters are happy to order straight off the menu.
As a mall eatery, the menu is tourist-friendly, the food is tasty, service is good and prices are reasonable. Tempe, tofu, vegetables, creative “non-meats” and a plethora of juices gave us a lot of options.
There’s fish that really looks and taste like fish, while the sushi and barbecue are animal-free. You’d easily forget that there’s no meat and no dairy; your body won’t miss them.
Venturing further out of the city, Tony and wife Lynn took us to Karunia Baru Restaurant, the first vegetarian restaurant in Bogor, West Java. The owners are Chinese-Indonesians from Me-dan City in Northern Java who are Buddhists. Karunia means “blessing” and is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “compassion,” the key word that crops up in a Buddhist diet. Baru means new and describes its contemporary cuisine.
The extensive Chinese, Indonesian and Western-style vegetarian menu features dishes that are a bit more pricey as the unique cuisine uses beans, floral and herbal food, and eschews the use of MSG and artificial ingredients. There’s even vegan pan pizza for Western tourists.
Inside the restaurant is a corner store that sells take-out Indonesian vegetarian delights like pickles and crunchy krupuk (kropeck). Just watch out for the salt and spice content which are best neutralized in garlic and vinegar when you get home. Crunch without the guilt!
Bogor is a quiet little town of trees and flowers as compared to neighboring Jakarta, the bustling capital. While dining in Karunia, you can enjoy the view of the city of Bogor through the restaurant’s picture window where, on a clear day, you can see Mount Salak (which means “Silver Mountain”).
Over at Kuala Lumpur where we went next, we had our first vegetarian meal at the Petronas Suria Mall Food Court under the shadow of Malaysia’s tallest twin towers. On a busy shopping holiday we bumped into another kindred tourist making the same inquiries and were led to the vegetarian counter. For R14 Malaysian ringgit, the equivalent of Php98, we had a complete vegetarian meal of soup, red rice and pickles.
Since we stumbled on our vegetarian find at the peak of lunch hour, we ordered a take-out to bring to our hotel, a good 10-minute walk away. There, we had a slow-food sit-down lunch and explored the novel taste of longan coral seaweed soup (on the sweet side), mildly spicy soya ramen topped with sprouts and organic vegetables and a very filling nasi lemak. These healthy organic foods have to be slowly digested and savored to enjoy its full nutritional value. We did, and did not find the need to eat merienda (snacks) later.
As its flyer says, Simple Life healthy vegetarian restaurant, which also has fine-dining outlets in the city, serves meals that are organic, natural and nutritious. No MSG, preservatives or coloring, it uses only organic bran oil and rock salt for seasoning. The other ingredients are as healthy: multi-grains, herbs, legumes and vegetables. Low-sodium. Low sugar. Low oil. High fiber. Brown instead of white sugar. Cashew nut powder instead of coconut milk. Alkaline water.
Every vegetarian restaurant has a philosophy. Founded in 1992 by a Malaysian health-conscious chef, this one says, “Because we are what we eat, we can literally transform our bodies and minds by choosing an inspiring diet.”
Simple Life is different from traditional vegetarian outlets we have tried thus far in that it avoids processed vegetarian products that are mostly seasoned flour, coloring and additives, anyway.
On another day, our Finnish acquaintance in KL introduced us to an Italian-Argentinian with a French family name who had settled down in Malaysia to be an art dealer. Marcelo Lebeau happens to be a vegetarian steeped in Hindu philosophy and diverse forms of art and culture. He took us to Chef Lim Organic Kitchen which is about 30 minutes’ drive from the city center to, as he says, “bring our vegetarian lifestyle to the next level.”
The restaurant is vegan and gourmet, and does not just exclude dairy, meat and egg but also uses 70 percent to 80 percent organic ingredients and only natural flavorings and substitutes high in fiber and nutrition, with less salt, sugar and oil. The chefs do not use any mock meat. Instead, they substitute meat with home-made Chinese bean curd skin called fu-chuk to provide that meaty texture. The grilled beef is made from mushroom stems blended with a few types of other mushroom instead of flour and preservatives. Every ingredient used is fresh and unprocessed down to the button mushrooms.
Opened less than a year ago, Chef Lim’s restaurant has already established a reputation for healthy delicious dishes suitable for those with medical conditions such as cancer, hypertension and diabetes, or are lactose- and gluten-intolerant. Just customize your request from their a la carte tourist-friendly (meaning, with English text) menu.
The restaurant’s white, modern interior highlighted by colorful food posters provide its patrons with a clean, smoke-free environment. Despite not having flavor enhancers like MSG, or even onions and garlic, the dishes are tasty and redolent with the gentler aroma of herbs and spices.
One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is Coconut Tom Yam. Made using homemade tom yam paste and young coconut water, the healthy soup hardly uses any oil, extraordinary in palm oil country.
One of the more surprising item in the ultra vegan menu is the garlic bread because it has no garlic at all, although the taste is there. To simulate the taste of garlic, various natural flavoring are used to produce the garlic flavor.
Another surprising dish is the cheese cake, because it does not contain any cheese. Instead of cheese, yoghurt is used. It is also not too sweet.
From the restaurant’s selection, you know you’d have to pay a lot more here. But a comforting thought is that a percentage of what you pay goes to an environmental cause that the establishment advocates.
Our Asian vegetarian food trip has affirmed for us why we’ve stuck to being vegetarians despite the occasional challenges we face. The reasons vary: from spiritual compassion for sentient creatures to personal health to maintaining the balance in nature.
The simple act of choosing a vegan diet means that we eat for life, even as we pray for divine forgiveness and manifest love for all creation. •