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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

entry arrow3:43 PM | The Search for Leafy Greens

UPDATE: There's a raging controversy whether those who eat fish and no other meat can ever be called a vegetarian, as in "pesco-vegetarian." I just found a more correct term for my preference: non-ovo-non-lacto-pescetarian -- someone who eats fish, but no dairy or eggs, and certainly not red meat. It's a mouthful, but here's to clarity.

When I was growing up in the early 1990s, my family lived in what was then the quiet boundary along Airport Road between Piapi and Bantayan, which was the veritable end of the world as far as Dumaguete was concerned. It was a place so far-flung from the rest of everything else that there was virtually no traffic, and the atmosphere -- unlike how it is now -- was almost that of the countryside’s. What is ABC now was empty lot then. Right across the street from where we lived, there was a small and quite popular restaurant called Tocho (in a house which has now become a part of the ever-spreading ABC).

Tocho, basically a converted garage with the front lawn taken over by little huts that covered customers from prying eyes, was owned by a certain Jun who had created in his small food business what would be the precursor for many of the current al fresco joints in town -- from Gimmik to Barefoot to Habhaban. Tocho was short for “tocino and chorizo,” which were the house specialty -- and everyday, many people would flock to Jun’s door to take their regular bites of the famous sweet meat. People like my old friend Krevo, for example, but who, one day, abruptly decided he needed to become a vegetarian.

Krevo had to approach Jun to make a deal with his boarding woes: since he could no longer eat meat, was it possible for Tocho to make vegetarian dishes as well? Perhaps careful not to lose a regular customer, Jun quickly said yes, and Krevo seemed genuinely happy with the prospect that his vegetarian restrictions could finally be met in a city not too keen on having meat as absent fare in everyday meals. Being a vegetarian in Dumaguete, it had seemed then, was to undertake the almost impossible: most Dumagueteños could not comprehend the slightest idea of a meatless dish, so much so that even an ordinary “vegetable” dish was often to be found sprinkled with tiny morsels (or worse, shreds) of pork or beef to make the presentation complete. But with Tocho seemingly on board with his lifestyle change, Krevo was happy.

Only much later did I notice he had not been going back to Tocho as he used to. “What happened?” I asked. Krevo shrugged with weary surrender and said, “They kept serving us cabbage, meal after meal after meal” -- an unfortunate instance that defines the very ignorance -- or apathy -- of most people when it comes to strict leafy dieting.
How time has changed since then.

A few weeks or so ago, I too decided that maybe it was time to give up on meat altogether. The reason was partly for health, and partly for principle: as Mark had often told me, it would not seem right for anyone to call himself an animal lover and still condone the eating of pork or beef or mutton or chicken -- meat that come to us tainted by the very cruel nature of the slaughterhouse.

It was Mark who first decided to make the switch to leafy greens when he saw on YouTube some videos from PETA that detailed the inhumane (and industry-standard) methods of animal massacre, just so we could sate our taste buds primed for dead flesh.

For me, it was easy enough to give up pork or beef altogether. Chicken, however, was another matter, given that I had always been a chicken boy all my life: my longtime idea of culinary heaven was a banquet of grilled chicken cooked Jo’s style.

Sometimes, though, principle wins, and I have never looked back since then, having found to my delight that not only were salad and tofu and vegetable dishes a delight, they also were quite healthy. My digestion improved, I seemed more energetic, even with the avalanche of stress that has come to define my work life -- and within mere weeks, I lost a total of 10 pounds and two inches from my waistline.

While Krevo’s unfortunate cabbage incident no longer holds true today, the hunt for leafy greens in the city can still prove to be a daunting task -- or, if not daunting, then quite limiting, given the fact that in this small town meat is still the byword for any ordinary meal. There’s the vehemence from most people I tell the news to: most seem bent on debunking the whole idea, sometimes foolishly suggesting that “pigs were there to be eaten, or else they will overpopulate the world.” Mark has since debunked this notion, which can take another article.

Then there’s the availability. Not a lot of eating places know their vegetables, and when they do have such dish purporting to be "all vegetarian," it is often dismaying to find they have sprinkling of either meat or seafood. How many times have I come across menus that have very long lists of meat dishes, sparing only a few entries of the vegetable kind? How many times have I ordered from this meager list, only to be told that the vegetable dish I wanted was not available at all?

Last Friday, we had gone to Imay, the new restaurant at the ground floor of Check Inn, to -- well -- check out its menu and its much-ballyhooed ambience. Truth to tell, its ambience was basically cafeteria-style minimalism, nothing special at all. Its poor service -- the lack of professionalism and significant product knowledge of its waiting staff was appalling -- did not rectify our immediate disappoint. Still, we ordered because we were hungry. Imay had five or six dishes listed under the heading of “Vegetables” in a haphazard-looking menu. I pointed to the first entry: “Do you have tofu with mixed vegetables?” We were given a quick “no” by the clueless waiter -- much to our dismay. When the waiter did come back from the kitchen, he was excited to report to us that the dish was, in fact, available. So we ordered that, plus a plate of adobong kangkong. The tofu vegetable mix was all right but completely boring, but the adobong kangkong was one major disappointment soaked in an abundance of soy sauce -- it was all stems and no leaves. But Imay is typical of many Dumaguete restaurants.

A long time ago, I had asked another friend, the cultural aficionado and fervent vegan Dessa Quesada-Palm, about the establishments around town she knew offered the best vegetable dishes. From her report, she said that old Mei Yan was notable for sizzling tofu and its lohanchay; South Sea Resort has adobong kangkong and monggo guisado, although one might have to specify a special preparation without meat or seafood; Chow King has tofu and kangkong sans bagoong; Chantilly has spaghetti alfunghi; CocoAmigos has frijoles refritos, vegetable curry, and salads; and Why Not has tofu schnitzel, salads, vegetable curry, and vegetarian pizza. Among the pizza places, Shakey’s has a vegetarian or plain cheese pizza, mojos, and their salads (their Greek salad is Dessa’s favorite), and Chez Andre has pizza margherita and gourmet vegetarian pizza. Sta. Monica Beach Resort -- apart from their puso, seaweed, and eggplant salads -- offers a wide selection of vegetable dishes which the staff can prepare according to one’s preferred style. Sta. Teresa, too, occasionally serves various vegetable dishes and salads, but it’s mostly a hit-and-miss affair.

Three restaurants stand out however in relative degrees of vegan seriousness, and they are -- in ascending order of leafy delight -- Boston Market along Santa Catalina Street, the Persian Palate in the Spanish Heritage along San Juan Street, and finally Mr. D along Silliman Avenue.

Why are they the best vegetable joints in town? I'll tell the reasons why in a while...

Becoming a semi-vegetarian in Dumaguete City, like I said, is not easy, although I have made it easier on me by choosing a more relaxed -- some would even say cowardly, even traitorous -- route towards food purity: I have chosen to be pesco-vegetarian, which means I eat fish, the main source for my protein. Anything else -- poultry, pork, mutton, beef -- I cannot eat.

Vegans (as opposed to “vegetarians”) like Mark consider that a sad compromise, just as much as ovo-vegetarians (those who choose to eat eggs) or lacto-vegetarians (those who choose to eat or drink dairy products, like butter, cheese, or milk) break their hearts. Vegans choose a stricter (and often moral-laden) sense of food intake -- nothing is ingested or used that remotely comes from an animal, and they go as far as foreswearing honey, leather accessories, and silk. There are also the extreme ones: the fruitarians, for example, do not eat anything else but fruits, but also only fruits that have fallen to the ground by themselves -- plucking one from a tree for them is the equivalent of “murder”; then there are those whose preoccupation is macro-dieting -- which meant eating only nuts and berries. There are other kinds, and many of the adherents can be fanatical about their food philosophy. But I steer by my own principle, dictated by my own needs: no red meat, period.

Of course, there are those who find such change of diet horrific: they make pronouncements such as “I simply cannot live without meat,” and then eye me with such amused bewilderment, like I were a freak with an agenda. This does not bother me at all because I have since learned to accept that many people can be blinded by custom and habit and find an alternative lifestyle discomforting to even consider. I, too, have given such pronouncement. Upon learning that Dessa was vegetarian, I had been one of those ignorant boors who patronized her choices with false-sounding “admiration,” and then declared to her face my own immovable sense of carnivorehood.

Truth is, after you make that fateful decision about meat, the days soon pass you by and you realize you don’t miss meat at all. You don’t even think about it. In fact, you feel lighter, more energetic. Have you ever stopped to consider that sense of lethargy that consumes you after eating lechon, or any such food? Nothing like that in the leafy green world. And like I said previously, I’ve since lost 10 pounds -- and counting -- since turning vegetarian a few weeks ago. And this even with the amount of rice I am eating again. And sometimes even soda. Mark has lost a total of 30 pounds.

Becoming semi-vegetarian (I still eat fish, after all) for me was a consideration brought about by principle and a want for healthier living. We do not parade our disdain for meat, nor seek to convert meat-eaters to a “cause.” I chose to be like this because, really, spinach is so much more yummier than the grease-laden instant gratification of pork shanks.

Still, as I've said before, it is difficult to be vegetarian in a society that worships its red meat. Boston Market, the new restaurant along Santa Catalina Street which is increasingly becoming popular among Dumagueteños that the staff often has to turn loyal customers away because of the quickly-filling capacity, has five choice salad dishes that go beyond merely being “salad.” Because I don’t eat chicken anymore, I cannot order Boston Market’s Christina’s Salad, which the chef specifically concocted for those who want to lose a few pounds. It is an ultra-low carb dish consisting mostly of greens, cucumber, broccoli, avocado, tomatoes, and chicken topped with Boston Market’s special brown dressing. It was my transition dish to eventual vegetarianism.

Of course, the typical Caesar Salad (greens topped with black olives, croutons, and Parmesan cheese) is present in the menu. What’s more or less delectable for me is Boston’s tuna nicoise (tuna and hard-boiled egg -- yay -- on fresh greens, tomato, and cucumber) and lunch salad (tomatoes, cucumber, turnips, broccoli, bell pepper, sweet onions on a bed of greens and fresh straw mushrooms, with a choice of seared chicken breast -- which I cannot consider -- or fish fillet). The grilled veggie kebabs is a wonder of assembly, it being a savory blend of grilled tomatoes, aubergines, okra, bell peppers, and sweet onions, with brown vinaigrette and fresh straw mushrooms on a bed of greens, served with roasted potatoes.

It is Boston’s Garden Fresh Salad that I consume more often though because of its utter simplicity, and its straight-on veganism: one only gets lettuce and assorted greens, with tomatoes, broccoli, and cucumber, and with a choice of dressing, although I constantly choose the herb-garlic one that has enough tang to it to consider an addiction.

Sometimes, though, they add slices of egg to everything, so you may have to tell the waitress to take that thing out.

In Persian Palette -- because of its Indian culinary tradition -- vegetarianism is so much more pronounced, it is sprinkled everywhere in the menu. For starters, you have a choice of veggie samosas, which are triangular pies laden with spices and potato, but most of the time, I vacillate between the hummus (with chick peas, lemon, and garlic served with pita bread) and the Babagamoosh (with eggplant and garlic dipped in olive oil and spices). Its soup entrees range from tomato, to spicy tofu, to dal or lentil, to spinach. The curry entries are a mixed lot, some with mutton and beef thrown in, but for those who wish to avoid an encounter with meat, there is the generous list that goes from spicy mongo curry, to lentil, to spicy chickpeas, to spinach lentil, to tofu potato, to tofu spinach, to veggie beef curry—all of which come with rice, of course, but for those dishes that don’t, the rice entrees that are leafy friendly are a choice between tofu biryani and veggie meat biryani.

And having mentioned veggie meat, I must talk about this secret among vegetarians who may still have some pangs of memory for meat. The secret is tofu -- which, when prepared in imaginative ways, are excellent substitutes for poultry, pork, or beef, complete with taste and look. I’ve eaten tofu “chicken” nuggets -- Jollibee-style -- that are grand approximations of the real thing. In Persian Palate, this tofu illusion comes via veggie adobo or asado dishes. They even have spinach pizza and spaghetti, which are cheesier than most ordinary pizzas, and more filling, too. And most of all, guilt-free.

But for instant veggie gratification, there is finally Mr. D, an eat-all-you-can joint along Silliman Avenue (beside PNB) that has, for its philosophy, the mantra “Eat your life to the fullest.” Which sounds positively sinful, were it not for the discovery of the owners who found that its growing clientele seemed to prefer vegetable dishes more than the meat dishes. After a little more than two weeks of operation, vegetarian dishes became more than a staple for the establishment.

My attraction to the place springs from various reasons. There is a certain gaiety to the place that I find hard to ignore -- everybody’s friendly, and one feels instantly at home. At P88 per weekday meal (strictly no left-overs), the culinary deal seems more than a bargain. Then there is the home-cooking factor: all of its dishes are meticulously prepared around the clock, each of which brings with it a touch of mother’s cooking. That you have to follow ten specific dining rules is part of the charm of this restaurant where limitless eating of “comfort food,” as proprietor Ramon Diaz insists its menu to be, is held sacred. The first time I ate there (before I became a vegetarian), I had my fill of Indonesian onde-onde, baked biko, crunchy fish, spicy fish fries, sautéed ground pork, paella valenciana, Chinese paella, green mussels in garlic, crabs in coco milk, and dinuguan.

We did not come back for a long time after turning green because we thought that meat would be Mr. D’s biggest come-on for local customers. When we did come back, Mr. D surprised us with its variety of vegetable dishes, which Mary Ann Diaz has made sure have not been compromised with any kind of meat, ground or otherwise -- a practice many local restaurants seem to do. Consider the sprouted mongo, the banana heart salad, the adobong kangkong, the ginataang gulay, the mongo soup, the sautéed Baguio beans, the fish with sweet chili sauce, the lumpiang hubad, and the crispy kangkong -- all of which we had in our last full meal in Mr. D. The dessert they offer -- sharing a commonality of being wonderfully native -- usually consist of strawberry or pandan maja blanca, cassava cake, and sapin-sapin, a delicious tri-colored rice cake.

There are, of course, other restaurants in the city with one or two good vegetarian dishes to offer, but these three seem more serious than the others in pursuing the interests of an often ignored segment of society. For that, we salute them. Bon appetit.

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