Sunday, March 8, 2009

田园素食煮艺 - Tian Yuan Art of Vegetarian Cooking

Chinese vegetarian, with its roots in temple food, is well known for mock meat and dishes made from tofu and wheat gluten. I don’t normally walk into any vegetarian restaurant expecting to eat really, really, well – the cooking usually is more about avoiding meat than showcasing vegetables, and restaurants that cook for omnivores often do a better job of preparing vegetables. However, the ability of the vegetarian restaurants to do really beautiful and creative food within strict dietary confines is really impressive when it is done well. Tian Yuan (Field and Garden) is a newer place near the first ring, so I went in to check it out.

The interior looks much more like a Western than a Chinese place:

The well-trained servers are very efficient as they bring your menu and place setting and top up your millet sprout tea. The menu has pictures but no English, and can be confusing since this is its own genre of food. The servers are very helpful with suggestions and can answer questions about the ingredients though I haven’t met any who speak English.

Crispy tofu skin wrapped around carrots, mushrooms, noodles:

We also ordered a dish of vegetables, mushrooms, and mock meatballs wrapped in tofu skin that was just ok.

Millet sprout tea, edible (extremely sharp!) toothpicks, pao cai:

The last time I went I really wanted to try their version of stuffed eggplant fritters (茄饼 qié bĭng) or the spicy rice crust (锅巴 guōbā) dish that a previous server had recommended, but let the server talk me into a couple of dishes that she said were new and not on the menu.

Three treasure 'bai zhuo' (bái zhuó sānbăo 白灼三宝) Fake snails, mushrooms, beansprouts, spicy red and green peppers, narrow mushroom stalks. Nothing wrong with the ingredients, but the combination isn’t doing anything for them. The server said this was a very healthy recipe. No argument on that point.

Homestyle sea cucumber (家常海参 jiācháng hăishēn). Apparently sea cucumber is animal-like enough to be given the fake protein treatment. ‘Homestyle’ flavour on a Sichuan menu is usually spicy, sour, and a little funky from spicy bean paste. There were juicy cubes of bamboo shoot mixed in too and the greens on the perimeter (though cold) were a very welcome addition to the plate. Whoever made this was paying definite attention to both flavour and texture. Delicious.

Tian Yuan is all about promoting vegetarian eating as well. On my first visit, I was given a couple of pamphlets. One of them had a table illustrating the qualities of different vegetable proteins, and had cartoon animals saying things like ‘We are your friends!’ and ‘Thank you for your love!’. The other had a long list of famous vegetarians, which seemed to include nearly everyone in history who has made any kind of contribution to science, religion, medicine, or entertainment.

If resemblance to actual meat dishes is the point the food at Tian Yuan does not really succeed, but the cooking is good enough to enjoy for its own sake and very reasonably priced for this style of restaurant. They score points for having a nice and comfortable interior and the service is professional and accommodating. Looking forward to going back and exploring more of the menu.

Address: 成都市衣冠庙超洋路香槟梧桐二楼; very near first ring and Yiguan Temple. Website here (all Chinese).

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