One would imagine that in a society where roughly 85% of the people are practicing Buddhists, vegetarian restaurants could be found on every corner. While this may be true in some parts of Asia, it is certainly not the case in Saigon, where eateries specializing in com chay are few and far between.
Exceptions to this general trend appear on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month, when all Buddhists shy away from meat. On these particularly auspicious days, nearly all workers’ lunch establishments (com binh dan) serve vegetarian options.
Whereas vegetarian cuisine in the West often means a bland plate of grilled vegetables, pasta, or strange faux meat products, Vietnamese vegetarian fare sticks to familiar flavors and ingredients. Unlike scientifically derived products such as Tofurkey and Boca Burgers, which tend to leave eaters feeling deprived, the fresh vegetables and soy products employed at com chay restaurants are skillfully transformed into wholly satisfying delights.
One of the best features of vegetarian establishments in town is their extensive menus. From rice entrees to noodle soups, it seems that every Vietnamese dish can be deliciously vegetarian-ized.
For those seeking meatless fare for dietary reasons, religious leanings, or just personal preference, there are a handful of well-run and exciting Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in the city worth getting to know. Just a warning, there is a good chance that you will be dining next to a group of Buddhist nuns or monks while digging into a hearty plate of meatless goodness. My two favorites are Huong Vien and Giac Duc.
Huong Vien’s specialty is vegetarian renditions of Vietnamese classics such as pho, lau (hot pot), and bun rieu. The xoi ga chay (sticky rice with “chicken”) is especially stellar and unbelievably similar to the meaty xoi ga and xoi man sold street-side. Another winning dish is the banh hoi thit nuong (vermicelli noodle cakes topped with grilled “pork”). The meaty mouth-feel and smoky marinade of the soy “pork” is nothing short of excellent.
A must-try treat at Giac Duc is the thit heo quay (barbecued pork). The dish looks and tastes so ridiculously pork-like, it is hard to believe that no swine were harmed in the process. The true genius of this dish lies in the tapioca film that brilliantly fakes the layer of fat found in real thit heo quay. Giac Duc also makes one of the best canh chua (sweet and sour soup) in town. The bowl of soup is brimming with okra, elephant ears, tomatoes, and bean sprouts.
About the author: Cathy Danh is spending her Odyssey years in Saigon, Vietnam where she works as a copy editor and writer. She aims to eat five-a-day and avoids trans-fats like the plague. When Cathy’s not blogging, talking or reading about food, she’s most likely getting in some high-quality mileage along the Saigon River. Running + eating = perfection.
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