Vietnam is Buddhist and Buddhists don’t eat meat, right? So, Vietnam is veggie heaven.
Although the logic is sound, a Vietnamese meal without meat – preferably the feet, ears or other extremity – is as rare as steak tartare. Even eggs are served fertilised, concealing such delights as partly-formed feathers and beak.
And unless you’re a vegetarian who eats fish, such controversial dishes as broccoli may be out of bounds, as fish sauce – Vietnam’s pungent answer to soy sauce – is doused over almost everything. Veg are often boiled with non-veggie stock too.
But for vegetarians coming to Vietnam, all’s not lost. It doesn’t have to be plain boiled rice and fruit for two weeks because, although it’s rare for Vietnamese to shun meat for ethical reasons, every town and city boasts a handful of vegetarian restaurants.
The restaurants serve Mahayana Buddhist monks, nuns, and strict devotees to the faith, who avoid meat for spiritual reasons. With each new generation, though, religious vegetarianism fades ever more. Except, that is, on the first and fifteenth of each month of Vietnam’s Lunar calendar, when people visit vegetarian restaurants after paying their respects at a favourite pagoda.
Apart from its spiritual and health benefits, vegetarian food (com chay) has another great attraction – the price. A starter, main course with rice, and dessert can cost as little as $4.
Don’t be confused by the ‘beefs’, ‘chickens’ and ‘shrimps’ on the menus, as most vegetarian restaurants mimic carnivorous dishes with mock-meat – usually gooey gluten wheedled out of wheat. Some places even go as far as imitating the unwholesome fat that hangs from much genuine Vietnamese pork.
Adidaz don’t sell badly-faked German sportswear – it’s a vegetarian restaurant between Hanoi’s Sheraton and Sofitel Plaza hotels. The restaurant’s name is a crushed version of the Buddha A Di Da (pronounced A Zi Da). The Z is stuck on the end, our waitress informs us, as the actual name should really only be uttered in prayer.
After complimentary peanuts in floppy jelly, we plump for Beef Sautéed Pepper Unlucky for our first course, hoping for the best.
Far from being unlucky, the bogus beef is actually the most persuasive ‘meat’ we try. While not entirely convincing, it definitely has a meaty texture. The dish is actually Sautéed ‘Beef’ with Black Pepper, but as the Vietnamese word den means both black and bad luck, something got lost in translation.
Next up is a hot-pot (lau). If you’re new to Asian cuisine, a hot-pot is a steaming broth encircled by raw bits and pieces patiently waiting to be plunged into the pot. Nearly all hot-pot meals have at least some vegetables, and the only difference here is the meat is mocked and the broth uses a vegetable stock.
Alongside the hot-pot are some Adidaz-brand spring rolls. There’s no sleight of hand here – just clean fresh veg in a light and crispy case. And unlike their non-veggie cousins, you’re safe from any nasty bits of gristle lurking inside.
Dessert is che – a super-sweet, black bean porridge – with definitely no meat in sight.