When I grew up, I never understood my ancestral culture and background that much. A simple reason – I was brought up in an English educated school and influenced by western culture in music, movies, televisions, food (Big Mac, KFC) and clothing. I never understood why I had to light a set of 3 sandalwood fragrant incenses and murmured some blessing words to Taoism Deities at home. In the morning before going to school and at night before going to bed.
I was brought up in a Taoist family with different Deities (ie Gods) in our family home. To me, Taoism is a religious tradition that is passed down from generation to generation. I practice the tradition from young and never question my mother why I have to do it. There are exceptions that I do not follow strictly to the rule. My mother does not eat beef, which is against her religious practices of Buddhism and worshipping of “Kuan Yin” or Goddess of Mercy. She eats vegetable based food (in Hokkien, we called “Chia Chai”) on certain religious time of the month and year.
I may not understand the religious meaning of my mother becoming vegetarian at certain time of the year. But I do know that vegetarian food that are prepared for such religious and auspicious occasions in Penang is nothing I have ever seen or eaten in places that I have been. The vegetarian dishes prepared in Penang is traditionally Chinese and Taiwanese style infused with local Malay spices to create a unique flavour that is distinctly Penang. Some of the dishes are cleverly created to intermingle the different flavour of Thai and Malay cultures in the Chinese vegetarian cuisine – Penang being so close to southern part of Thailand, which is predominantly Muslim. The flavour is spicy, sour, sweet and tangy – a combination of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chillies, curry leaves and tamarind juice.
When I first started work in Hobart, about six years ago, I was based in one of the CBD building. There are café and takeaway places for lunch. But lack in choices. They are either takeaway sandwiches or soups, with the exception of a Bain-Marie style Indian, Thai and Indonesian takeaway shops about 2 blocks from my office.
One day, I started exploring a little arcade called the Bank Arcade. It is a tiny arcade of maybe 5 shoplots on either side, and they are mostly food stalls; a Sushi Bar, a Bakery, 2 cafes on either end of the arcade, a spice shop (called “Spice World” posted here) and believe it or not, a Chinese Vegetarian sit-in/takeaway shop! That was 5 years ago.
The place is called “Shu Yuan”. At the time, it was operated by a young Asian family, Lydia and Edgar. The business grew fairly quickly and became very popular with lunch crowd and loyal returning customers. The food cooked by Lydia is creative, imaginative, wholesome and tasty. It is Chinese with a strong South East Asian influence in its flavour. The business was sold about two years ago to a Thai owner. The place is still operating as Shu Yuan with the regular cook-to-order meal and Bain-Marie style dishes. I can only assume that Lydia has sold her business together with her recipes. I have been to the place twice since the change of ownership. The food looks the same but the flavour is definitely different from Lydia’s cooking.
Then early this year, I found out that Lydia and Edgar has reopened a new vegetarian shop in Mathers Lane, a small laneway between Liverpool Street and Bathurst Street. I visited them and had lunch there a few times. It is nice to see them in their new premise, called “Chai”. It is bigger and brighter. The food is still as good as before, when they had “Shu Yuan”. There are more choices on small items, freshly make daily. On my last visit, which was probably about a month ago, I was hoping to take some photos of the food to feature in my post. I never had a disappointing meal cooked by Lydia before, not even on my last visit. Unfortunately, Edgar was not pleased and preferred I do not publish my comment and review on the food. So his wish is granted.
A third and final place in Hobart that sells Chinese vegetarian dishes is the “Hobart Noodle” shop located on 12 Letitia Street, North Hobart. This is a family run business by Daniel and Maple. The place is humble and exudes a relax layback atmosphere. It is simple and homey. It feels like stepping into their dining room for a friendly chat with a cup of delicately brewed Chinese or Japanese tea and a bowl of noodle soup or stir-fry noodle dish. The difference with this place compared to the other two places is that the noodle is the best noodle I ever tasted in Hobart. It is very fresh and smooth. It is organic and homemade by Daniel. I ordered the “7 chilli spiced” stir-fry noodle. It is a simple home-style cooked dish. The flavour is unpretentious and not overpowering with too many spices. The flavour and the taste are mainly focused on the fresh, organic noodle.
When I left Hobart Noodle Shop, I asked if I could buy some “Mock Meats” from them. A mock meat is basically food made from non-meats to imitate the texture, flavour and appearance of a meat (such as duck, beef, pork, chicken and sausage). This is very common in Chinese vegetarian cuisines. The following are three types of mock meat; slices of duck breast, chicken ball and beef ball.
With the mock meats, I have created a Spiced Vegetarian Dish in Tamarind Sauce and Kaffir Lime Leaves. It is rich in textures with 3 kinds of mock meats, sweet, spicy, sourish and tangy.
8 Chinese shitake mushroom
1 Red capsicum
A bunch of coriander
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped ginger
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tablespoon chilli paste
2 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 pinch tamarind pulp
- Soak mushroom in warm water until soft. Discard the stem. Set aside.
- Soak tamarind in cold water. Extract juice. Set aside.
- Chopped the coriander. Separate the greens and set aside to garnish. Chopped the coriander stems. Set aside.
- Diced the capsicum. Set aside.
- Finely sliced lime leaves
- Heat some cooking oil in a wok. Toss in garlic, ginger and coriander stems. Stir fry gently until fragrant.
- Add mock meats. Stir fry a few minutes, then add mushroom and capsicum.
- Add chilli paste, oyster sauce, fish sauce and lime leaves.
- Add tamarind juice, some salt and sugar to taste. Garnish with coriander leaves