Vegetarian diners don’t have to subsist on salad alone…
Did you hear the one about the rutabaga? No, probably not. Vegetables don’t tend to inspire great jokes. On the contrary, they conjure their very own brand of humorlessness, the tight-lipped officiousness of grim nutritionists that is captured in the phrase “eat your vegetables.” As it happens, not only can vegetarian food be far better than the dispiriting notion of a pile of raw vegetation, it can be exquisite when done well.
Enter …Hum (32 Vo Van Tan, D3), an eatery devoted to serving vegetarian food to please the senses. …Hum derives its name from the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but the literal translation is “behold the jewel in the lotus”. Crossing the threshold whisks you from the bustling streets of Saigon to simple, placid surroundings perfect for a relaxing meal.
Starting off with cocktails is always the right move, and …hum offers some interesting twists on old favorites. The kumquat mojito and cucumber and ginger martini both proved refreshing, not an oft-used adjective for alcoholic beverages. The martini in particular was a striking blend of sweet kumquat and spicy ginger that makes you forget that it’s a cocktail. For those wishing to eschew the booze, order the kumquat and mint beverage, it’s crisp, fresh, and delicious.
Not knowing our way around a vegetarian menu, we asked for recommendations. The manager selected some of their signature dishes for us to enjoy. We started off with the square, deep fried spring rolls (VND75,000) filled with three kinds of mushrooms (chicken leg mushrooms, button, and black mushrooms) along with carrots, glass noodles, and black pepper and served with a vegetarian version of fish sauce for dipping. The first thing you’ll notice is the black pepper popping in your mouth. The mushrooms are cooked to perfection, and when balanced with the glass noodles and carrots they stood out. The texture, the taste, and the fact that they were deep-fried made them moorish. Having two orders is advisable.
As we basked in the after-glow of the spring rolls, the salad a la …hum (VND70,000) made their way to the table. Their signature salad consisted of sliced papaya, carrots, baby tomatoes, peanuts, and green beans. Everything about this dish is fresh and it definitely has a kick provided by the spicy, chili vinaigrette dressing. The papaya counters it with tanginess that will make you pucker, but only a little.
The seasonal fried vegetables (VND85,000) included sake, tarot, green beans, and sweet potatoes. Their batter is akin to tempura, so they’re light. If you enjoy tempura these are right in your wheelhouse and should be consumed with gusto. They’re served with a plum sauce for dipping. It’s a tad viscous, which is a bit of a surprise, but so sweet you’ll find yourself dredging the bottom of the ramekin hoping to get that last dollop onto your final sweet potato. If that wasn’t enough to make eating your vegetables fun, they arrive in an edible tarot basket that’ll make you wish you had saved some of that plum sauce.
All Thai’d up
Pad Thai (VND80,000) was something we hadn’t expected. The manager explained that the head chef, who is Vietnamese, lived in Thailand for seven years and absorbed a great deal of knowledge about the cuisine there. Having not yet had a satisfying Pad Thai in Saigon, I was curious to see what a vegetarian place was capable of producing.
While I have a strong anti-tofu bias, it mixed well with the eggs, crushed peanuts and sprouts. To our delight, the noodles came out wonderfully. It felt like good Pad Thai in just about every way that’s important. While the texture of the noodles is most often the Achilles’ heel of Pad Thai around the city, …hum’s chef has figured a way to get it right, albeit without chicken.
Keeping us on the Thai side of their menu, we rounded out the meal with steamed mushrooms served in a coconut (VND85,000).
Easily the most interesting item we tried, it combined lingzhi mushrooms, eggs, and chili in a sweet coconut milk curry served in a coconut husk. The curry is a great rendition of the familiar Thai staple and has just enough oil to be naughty without making you feel bad. The coconut meat inside lends a sweetness to balance out the chili’s spiciness. One order was enough for us as we were losing steam by this point in the meal.
Of course the health benefits of vegetarian cuisine are obvious and something to consider. But it’s because …hum places good taste and enjoyment ahead of religion and morality that their food sparkles.
Images by Adam Robert Young