Charitable Vegetarian Restaurant

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Charitable Vegetarian Restaurant (Quan Chay Tu Thien), Shop 11 Alfrieda St, St Albans. Phone 0435 397 129

Mock duck, vegan ham, vegan crispy chicken?

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the concept of “pretend meat”, even if it is a venerable Asian tradition.

We love, eat and cook quite a range of non-meat food, especially Indian at home.

But I’ve long held that if we are to do without meat, then let’s not pretend … so to speak.

I now suspect my ambivalence about mock meat has had quite a lot to do with the fact the Chinese food is not way up high on our list of favoured cuisines – and it’s with Chinese cooking that I most associate these kind of products.

Because I find that when they are matched with Vietnamese food, my whole outlook is transformed.

I am intrigued and tickled pink as I take in the menu at Charitable Vegetarian Restaurant.

Pho, rice paper rolls, vermicelli, “beef” stew, crispy “chicken rice – the menu is packed with Vietnamese staples done in ways that are completely free of meat and seafood.

But whatever broadening of my mind that is transpiring here, I play it safe by ordering a dish that looks like it’ll be a very close cousin of its non-vegetarian version – bun bi cha gio (8.50).

Instead of shredded pork, there’s shredded tofu.

The spring rolls are much more genteel and smooth of interior than I expect, with none of the crunch and texture of nuts or mushrooms I had foreseen.

There’s lettuce, grated carrot, mint, peanuts and bean sprouts, of course, along with the vermicelli, and the accompanying chilli sauce adds a good seasoning kick.

It doesn’t quite have the same flavour kick of the various meaty versions, but a degree of subtlety is only to be expected.

But it’s a nice change, even if a certain mealiness becomes more apparent as I near the end.

It’s big serve and I don’t quite leave my bowl clean.

It’s not until later that realise there’s been no onion or vinegary tang. Perhaps the spiritual and philosophical outlook of the place prevents it, though I notice there are menu items that include garlic.

I’m very interested in this place in general and what’s in those spring rolls in particular.

But I find the robed and smiling staff are no more adept at English than I am at Vietnamese.

So we’re at a stalemate until I gently accost a customer seeking a takeaway lunch, and discover that, yes, she speaks English and will be only too happy to help out.

The spring rolls contain, I am told, nothing more than vegetables and tofu.

The restaurant has been open since late July.

It’s a Buddhist establishment, basically – as the name indicates – being run as a charity, with all the cooking done by monks and nuns.

My lovely translator, Mo, tells me she herself is Buddhist, as are her parents.

She says that while younger generations of Vietnamese are less likely to embrace such spiritual or food traditions, among older generations she believes adherence may be even higher than 20 per cent.

I’m excited about the idea of exploring the menu further – there’s Singapore fried noodles, some good-looking salads, steamboats, straightahead vegetable dishes such as sauteed pumpkin leaves and a whole lot more (see full menu below).

If anyone tries it, please let us know your hits and misses!

There seems every chance Charitable Vegetarian Restaurant will become a magnet for vegetarians, not only from the western suburbs but from all over Melbourne.

Thanks, Mo, for being so gracious about being asked to provide translation aid!

Wholefoods Cafe

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Wholefoods Cafe, 2 Baylie Place, Geelong. Phone: 5221 5421

Spending some time in Wholefoods Cafe in Geelong is, for me, like being in an echo chamber.

Long before I plonked myself down in Melbourne, I had immersed myself in a sort-of hippie scene that started in Dunedin during my school days, was nurtured in London even as many of us were simultaneously embracing punk rock and its more caustic love children, and became firmly entrenched in Wellington.

Truth is, almost all my mates were and are too young to claim true hippie status, but we ran with it anyway.

Yoga was big – or, in my case, tai chi and a deep involvement in Tibetan Buddhism that has continued to have profound influence on my approach to life long after I became disenchanted with the baggage that went with it.

Patchouli oil was hot and the pretty much the whole gang – of both genders – sported hairy armpits and legs.

The parties were wild.

It was during this time that I started my long love affair with Indian vegetarian cooking.

It is no doubt extremely immodest of me to say so, but my recollections are that my efforts in that regard were far better than what was generally being eaten.

The food was awful!

Brown rice casserole, anyone?

We cooked with woks, but in our utter and complete ignorance, would chop up the onion, throw it in the wok, then chop up the next vegetable, throw that in … and so on.

The results were, as you can imagine, nothing like the flash-fired wok food we all eat today.

More like mucky, mushy stews … edible is about the best that could be said.

But mostly the memories are fond, so I have no hesitation about wallowing in the nostalgic vibe Wholefoods Cafe summons up in me.

It starts with the mandala signage outside and continues inside with the lovely burnished and creaky wooden floors and the wholefoods takeaway section out back.

The noticeboards have signs for share accommodation, budgies and zumba.

But – oh yes! –  there’s all sorts of people flogging the likes of reiki, shamanic hoop drumming, meditation of various kinds, compassion exercises and worthy causes and belief systems too numerous to list.

(Time out here as Kenny cranks up a Grateful Dead CD …)

The deja vu continues with the menu:

Thus it is that in a happy and reflective mood – and, for once, with time to spare in a Geelong working day lunch break – that I look forward to my meal.

Moreoever, having scoped the place out some time ago, I am intent on sampling their “dahl”.

Regular visitors will know that I am never happy about paying upwards of $10 or more for a bowl of lentils when we do such a fine job of cooking them and their pulse cousins various ways at home.

But today I’m relaxed about that, too.

I am expecting a bowl of hippie-style dal (mildly seasoned, unoily) – as opposed to Indian-style-dal (highly seasoned, oily).

Here, customers order at the counter.

The wait seems long, but maybe that’s because I’m standing and the staff seem very busy.

Given my number and taking a seat at one of the communal tables, another longish wait ensues, but I’m happy reading the various newspapers on hand.

What I get for my lunch is a $9 bowl of … hippie-style dal with trimmings.

It’s lovely – and just what I expected and desired.

The dal is smooth and goes down easy.

The yogurt is creamy and even the smear of what I think is commercial chutney works a treat.

The pappadam is crunchy and grease-free.

It’s been more years than I can recall since I had brown rice, but here its nuttiness is the perfect foil for the rest of my meal.

Wholefoods – cafe, shop and catering – has been around for what I am told is “decades”.

These days it’s an arm of Diversitat, so is deeply embedded in its community, offering training and cooking courses and the like.

If I lived locally, it’d be a regular part of my routine … for all sorts of different reasons.

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Dal deluxe

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I learned this style of dal cooking from Yamua Devi’s book, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking.

Sub-titled Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, this book details spiritually inclined Indian cooking that eschews – marvellous word! – garlic and onions.

Instead, many of the dishes use chillis, ginger, lemon juice and coriander.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups pulses

1 tsp turmeric

salt (optional)

good-sized chunk fresh ginger/galangal

1 fresh green chilli

3 ripe or very ripe tomatoes

1 tsp cumin seeds

oil

1 lemon

1 small bunch fresh coriander

Method

Unless using red lentils or moong dal, soak pulses overnight or at least for the best part of a day. In this case I use channa dal and urad dal because that’s what I have most of on hand.

Drain pulses, place in big pot.

Add turmeric and salt.

I know, I know – salt is Bad.

But I find if I don’t add it to my Indian cooking, it just doesn’t have anything resembling the sort of authentic Indian flavour I seek. Moderation is the key – in this case I use a teaspoon of salt. I suspect an Indian restaurant or household may’ve used 3-4 teaspoons!

Give the salt a miss and you’ll end up with a tasty meal that is of vegetarian nature rather than Indian. And that’s fine, too!

Cover with plenty of water, bring to boil and cook on low heat until pulses collapse into a near-mush.

It’s important at all stages to keep the water content very high – in fact, higher than you may think wise.

When served, dal always coagulates on the plate or in the bowl.

It it’s too thick in the pot, it’ll become an unseemly stodge when served.

So keep it really runny!

Meanwhile, dice the spuds into smallish bite-sized chunks and add to the dal about halfway through its cooking process.

You can keep the dal as a pristine dish if you’re cooking a proper Indian meal with other dishes.

But often we find adding spuds or carrots makes for an easier, quick-cook all-in-one meal.

Don’t worry about the spuds being overcooked – if they collapse a bit, it just adds to the texture. A bit like the spuds in beef rendang and the like.

As the dal mix becomes thoroughly cooked, slice the chilli, grate or chop the ginger/galangal and chop the tomatoes.

Sometimes I finely grate the ginger, but more recently I’ve taken to taking the time to slice it into thin strands.

This delivers more of surprising flavour hit and is inspired by the profoundly gingery dal I had at Maurya in Sunshine.

About this time, it’s a good idea to lower the heat under the dal mix even further if possible or take off the heat entirely.

Especially if you’re using gas, it doesn’t take much of a flame to have the pulses sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Heat oil until medium hot.

Throw in 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds and fry until fragrant.

Lower the heat a little and throw in the sliced chilli and ginger.

Stir and fry for 3-4 minutes.

Throw in the chopped tomatoes.

Stir and cook until the tomato pieces are just starting to break down but still holding their shape.

Throw tomato/ginger/chilli/cumin mix into the pot of dal.

Stir and let cook for five minutes or so until the flavours are emancipated.

When ready to serve and eat, throw in the coriander and, finally, squeeze in juice of a lemon.

We try to get small bunches of coriander and use the whole lot in one bang – stalks and all. It doesn’t keep very well.

Serve with rice, raita and your choice of breads and side dishes.

A Taste Explosion!

Atithi Indian Restaurant

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Atithi Indian Restaurant, 730 Mt Alexander Rd, Moonee Ponds. Phone: 9326 0482

Atithi is an Indian vegetarian restaurant that takes its name from the Sanskrit phrase “Atithi Devo Bhavah”, which means “Guest are God”.

We like that approach!

It resides in a stretch of Mt Alexander Rd near Puckle St in Moonee Ponds that often seems ripe for foodie adventures, but along which we find most places closed when we’re in the vicinity, Dr Strangeloves aside.

Earlier in the week, when passing by, we’d parked and gone for a look-see.

Our response to the restaurant’s motto, part of the outdoor signage, was damn near pavlovian.

“For Who Know Value of Taste.”

So eloquent, so adorable – this place went right to the top of our to-do list, and we’re back for real in just a few days.

On entering, we appreciate the whirring fans and AC on the job.

Both the walls and floor are tiled, while tables are dressed with cloth tablecloths and paper. It’s quite a nice , tranquil vibe.

Initially, we’re a little taken aback by the stern words placed at the bottom of each page of the menu warning us to be prepared for a half-hour 45-minute wait for a our meal.

We cover that base by ordering bhel puri from the Indian Street Food Menu – “Round puri, puffed rice and fine chickpeas noodles mix in onion, tomato, Fresh apple, beetroot, and potato served with chutney” for $7.

We know that in India such like as bhel puri are not ordered as part of a meal, but we often find ourselves ordering them as we are normally not in a position to adhere to afternoon snack tradition.

Bhel puri at Atithi.

This is less crunchy and crackly than I expect, but still a tangy way to get our dinner rolling. Bennie finds the raw white/brown onion quotient overpowering.

Mix veg sizzler at Atithi.

Mix veg sizzler – “mix vegies and pettish cooked in special tomato sauce serve in leafs bowl” ($15) – is a voyage into the unknown for us.

It’s super rich, gloopy and tasty.

Mixed under the cheese and tomato sauce is a jumble of a whole roasted green capsicum, corn kernels, peas, diced potato and carrot and more cheese.

It’s a huge serve – more appropriate for sharing among four people with a mix of other dishes.

This is much more than a tomato sauce, I subsequently discover when chatting to chef Mitesh Patel.

It’s actually a bechamel sauce made of, yes, tomato but also ghee, flour, milk, sugar, salt and pepper.

No wonder it seems so rich!

This sort of dish is not really Indian or Indo-Chinese – it’s more an Indian fusion sort of thing generated by Indian chefs working in Europe and returning home full of ideas and inspirations.

The mix veg sizzler comes from the continental section of menu, which also includes Pineapple/Veg Macaroni ($14) and Paneer Stick Sizzler ($17), which I presume must be even richer again.

From the Indo-Chinese dishes we’ve ordered hakka noodles – “Noodles cooked with special sauces and fresh vegetable” ($12).

Hakka noodles at Atithi.

This is OK, but seems a little on the pricey side. Bennie finds it too spicy, even though we’d said medium when asked.

The version enjoyed at the old Pandu’s benefitted from the having little bowls of vinegar and sauces soy and tomato on the side.

If there is an uneveness in our meal we’re happy to attribute it to a clumsy attempt to get to grips with a strange menu. More advanced navigation skills may have allowed us to choose more complementary dishes.

I’d originally envisioned basing our meal around one of the dosa selections, but the dosas are not yet available.

Perhaps we’d have been better off by gravitating towards the standard curry menu, which includes two kinds of dal, peneer and kofta dishes, and entrees such as pakoras. 

You can check out the Aitithi menu options at the restaurant’s website.

Nevertheless, we welcome the addition of a dedicated vegetarian eatery to our neighbourhood when often it seems Indian restaurants relegate vegetable dishes to after-thought status.

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