I went to lunch with the wife of a friend, to celebrate the 26th-year anniversary of my becoming a vegetarian.
Thanksgiving Day, 2003 was the last time I ate meat. I had my last fix of turkey and went, well, cold turkey after that, and have never looked back.
I did at one point try a bite of chicken (I think it was chicken katsu, a Japanese breaded cutlet, which is served with a spicy ketchup-like sauce.) I expected the taste would leave me nostalgic and wanting to return to my carnivorous ways.
Instead, the flesh was rubbery and tough, and it tasted disgusting. I chewed a few times and spit it out.
Twenty six years is a long time to not eat meat, and I think one reason people think they could never make the switch to a plant-based diet is because their idea of what vegetarians eat consists of a lot of salad, tofu, beans, and bland, tasteless food.
I vow that the complete opposite is true. The food I love to eat is sometimes complex in flavor, with unusual combinations of ingredients.
Other times, I opt for basic, simple preparations that allow the flavors of the food to shine. A favorite meal is rice, raw tofu with shoyu (soy sauce), and homemade kimchi (Korean pickled vegetables.) One of my favorite (and my dog’s, too) vegetable preparations is sauteed cabbage with a touch of garlic.
I love introducing non-vegetarians to my food, because it challenges their perceptions of what vegetarian and vegan diets are like.
So to have lunch with a friend, an omnivore, who had decided on this day, to try to have a vegetarian meal, was meaningful.
Unfortunately, the food left a lot to be desired.
We went to Cafe Pandau, off Thapae Road, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because it was near her working place, on a peaceful side street, and the owner was a friend of her boss. The interior was brightly lit, and I was happy to see brochures, artwork, and products for sale that celebrated organic foods. The furniture was solid wood, and there were beautiful woven palm mats on the tables as placemats.
I decided on the Pumpkin Croquettes With Plum Sauce, which I think cost 180 baht (about $5.80 U.S.).
I was hoping the plum sauce would be an interesting combination showcasing umeboshi plums, since there was a jar of umeboshi on the table next to me, and the owner is Japanese.
Unfortunately, it had no flavor and was just a congealed, semi-transparent, tepid sauce with flecks of reddish pink in it.
The flavor of the croquettes was good, like kabocha pumpkin, rich and sweet, but the texture was firm mush. There was no crusty exterior or anything in the rest of the dish to contrast with the soft texture.
It was served with whole grain, reddish-brown rice (my guess is red cargo rice) and sauteed greens, whose flavor and texture, with some slime to them, reminded me very much of Japanese warabi, sauteed fern shoots. I finally was able to recognize them as Malabar spinach, Basella malabar, a vining, hot-weather spinach substitute, by the little white dot-like branch tips. (Not sure what the botanical term for that part of the plant is…perhaps one of my nerdy, botanical-genius friends will let me know…)
My friend tried the homemade tofu steak (also 180 baht):
It was topped with vegetables, such as carrots, shredded zucchini, and thinly sliced okra–more slime, which didn’t bother me or my friend, but which can be a turn-off to some people.
The sauce on top was rather strange and tasted like peanuts, chilies, and something rather unpleasant, that I couldn’t figure out, which gave it an almost rotten flavor. Miso, perhaps?
The tofu cutlet itself was extremely firm and completely lacking the somewhat metallic and borderline sour flavor that a lot of tofu has, since it tends to sit around at the store for a couple of days before it gets purchased and consumed here.
In Thailand, tofu is sold fresh, floating in coolers with water, unrefrigerated. Most people make a daily foray to the neighborhood market to buy their produce and proteins the same day they cook it, a throwback to the days before refrigeration. It makes for healthier food, since less of the nutrients are lost by long transport and sitting in warehouses and in stores, like much of the food does in our country.
At any rate, I could see why the tofu was one of the best-selling items on the menu. I wish it had been served with a more flattering complement of sauce and vegetables, however, something possibly more inspired…or more simple, to allow the tofu to take center stage.
The food took a very long time to get to us. We were on her lunch break from work, and it took more than an hour to get it and eat it, which was puzzling to me, since all of it was at room temperature. Nothing was hot–the cutlet, the sauces, the croquettes–, and the lettuce leaf and carrot garnishes were not cold, so it’s not like someone was busy cooking it all in the kitchen out of sight.
Also, they weren’t busy. There were two other people at another table, and they weren’t even eating anything…from the sound of things, it was the owner and someone else, who were discussing and looking at embroidery, weaving, and textiles from examples the owner had and that were hung up on the walls.
I convinced my friend to try rooibos tea (55 baht, about $1.75) from South Africa, something I drink all the time at home. She seemed to enjoy its different, aromatic flavor, which is difficult to describe. I told her I usually drink it with mint, ginger, and lemongrass.
I absolutely had to try the organic chocolate (about 80 baht, iced, $2.40), the first and only chocolate I had had the entire two-week trip! Chocoholic that I am, I am a bit of a snob when it comes to chocolate and didn’t bother–although it was mighty tempting–to eat the M and M’s or Milky Way bars for sale in all the mini mart-type shops that I saw. I wanted good quality, dark chocolate, or nothing at all, and I never found any.
(HEY, maybe that’s why I kept getting an upset stomach on this trip…perhaps there is something in chocolate that keeps the digestive system working properly? I normally have some chocolate, about one ounce, every day, and I had none this time, save for this one glass.)
The chocolate was hard, in little crumbly bits, once I got to the bottom of my glass, but otherwise, I loved it, fake whipped-cream-topping stuff on top and all!
Overall, I was glad to be eating organic food, but I was disappointed with the meal and would not recommend the place for flavor or excitement, at least, not judging from what we ate.
If you want organic food that’s not Thai-style, in a quiet, clean environment, you might like it. This is not a vegetarian restaurant. There were meat items on the menu, such as Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce, plus other vegetarian items, such as Spaghetti With Zucchini and Mushrooms and several different omelettes. (Beware the swarms of mosquitoes in one of the bathrooms, though!!!)
It’s too bad, because this ironically, probably reinforced my friend’s idea of vegetarian food being bland and boring. I promised her that when she comes to Hawaii in the near future, I will have her, her husband, and a few choice friends over for a dinner party, and I will cook for her and show her how delicious vegetarian food can be.
I better go practice making that Pad Thai!