I love food. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a foodie, the idea of depriving myself of meat means to miss out on many of the world’s awesome flavors. But does my taste for meat come at some cost? I knew there were people living alternative lifestyles, ones free from meat. What if it wasn’t that vegetarians weren’t just missing out on meat, but that I was the one missing out on something?
I think the fact I might be missing out was more important than what I was missing out on so I decided to become a vegetarian for a week. I don’t think you can effectively be told by others to give up meat. I’d heard the arguments before and it wasn’t until now that I felt the need to make the change and experiment on myself. Plus, I’d heard enough horror stories about meat in Vietnam, about the tons of putrid, rotten meat still making its way to local markets, only occasionally caught by inspectors. And I’ve had severe food poisoning on more than one occasion after eating mystery meat wrapped in leaves (bo la lot) and then blackened to the point anything inside was concealed. It’s much easier to fail to cook meat properly here. Too many times I’ve been served still-raw chicken, while I willingly and consciously eat raw beef in my pho. I just try not to think about it too much, which is pretty useful (but unhealthy) general advice for living in Vietnam.
My motivation wasn’t based on religion or wanting to feel self-righteous although I can certainly see the appeal of looking down on others. I wanted to feel better – and feel better about myself – but at the same time not taste less. I was exploring an exciting style of traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The city is full of vegan or vegetarian restaurants, possible over 100 of them. Most of them fall into what are called a quan com chay and are easy to find in any district of the city. Just make sure it says “cơm chay” and not “cơm cháy” (note the tonal mark in this spelling) because the latter is a kind of crispy rice cracker often served with non-vegetarian meat floss. A quan com chay is a vegetarian eatery with a cart by the entrance with vegetarian dishes such as tofu, mock meats, sautéed vegetables, greens, among others, to be eaten with rice.
While Asians have really pioneered mock meat for some time, I’ve found some meatless-meat dishes to be great and others tastefully less so. I’ve had convincing ‘com tam,’ a staple morning breakfast in Saigon which is a rice dish with grilled pork (all faux pork in this case) with shredded pork skin and a slab of pork meatloaf. Other favorites that convert well to vegetarian are cha gio (egg rolls) and canh kho qua (bittermelon soup stuffed with meat). Besides soy-based ‘meat,’ Vietnamese use wheat gluten (mi can) to make mock meats. But I’ve also had very satisfying meat-like mushrooms. There’s more to Vietnamese vegetarian cooking than just trying to approximate meat dishes though. The more proper, upscale vegetarian restaurants will have dozens of choices for appetizers, soups, salads and main courses. They’ve figured out creative ways of featuring plants as the focus of the dish.
During my period as a vegetarian, I found myself feeling a bit more compassion for animals. Not that I’m making huge sacrifices out of fondness of chickens because my neighbor’s roosters crowing when I’m trying to sleep annoy me to hell. But I don’t ever consider eating my neighbor’s whining dogs either. I’m not strictly vegetarian, although I continue to do week-long stints from time to time. For those who don’t eat meat because meat is murder, I’m still guilty. As much as my diet may offend them, I know the animals who die to become part of it find it even more offensive. But now I am more deliberate when I choose what I eat. I make an effort to eat more vegetables, more eggs instead of animals that had to be killed, and fish instead of mammals. I haven’t eliminated suffering from my diet, but I can at least take steps in reducing it. Ultimately I do this for myself, and there are numerous health benefits to eating all kinds of plant-based foods. I came to Vietnam partly to experience new things. There were a few dishes I had been eyeing on the menu at one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants last time I went. I think I’ll go try them now.
Bio: Tomo Huynh is a technologist and entrepreneur who has spent most of the past six years in Vietnam building up e-commerce businesses such as Taembe.vn. He writes about the tech and startup scene along with expat tips at www.saigonist.com and can be found tweeting as @tomosaigon.
Image by Ngoc Tran