Can You Spot the Fish?

Last week I told the happy, if not 100% successful as it turned out, tale of my vegan munch-fest in Toronto, Canada. This week you get to join me on a brief flash-back tour of Japan, from where Alan and I recently returned. It’s quite a different story!

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I’ve been to Japan before and am aware that they seem to have an obsession with dashi – a traditional stock made from dried bonito or sardines along with seaweed. At home I make this without the fish, but in Japan it’s fishy, it’s popular, and it’s in just about everything. I made the choice to ignore the presence of dashi in my food in favour of eating in restaurants while in Japan, especially since I wanted to eat Japanese food rather than spend my holiday dragging Alan to out-of-the-way vegan restaurants serving raw food, Indian curries, or macrobiotic vegan dishes. Happy Cow (as great resource if you’re looking for vegan places to eat) lists about 10 vegan / vegetarian places to eat in the huge city of Osaka, none of which serve Japanese food or happened to be close to where Alan and I found ourselves at mealtimes. Some of the cities we visited had no listings at all. Fortunately I like the challenge of trying to find something to eat wherever we are at mealtimes rather than planning my day around the location of veggie restaurants anyway.

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So, having decided to ignore the dashi it should have been easy for me to eat like an almost-vegan in Japan, right? Wrong. Here’s a little test to get you started. This is a breakfast tray I put together in Okayama for the sake of a photo. No, I didn’t eat all the items on it. Can you spot the fish? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not in the small covered pot. That contains natto (fermented, sticky soybeans), which is a bit of an acquired taste. As a second challenge, can you the dashi-free foods?

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The fish are the small dark brown things in the white dish next to the rice. The rice, pickled radish (yellow), natto, chilled tofu and white slimy yuka puree (top left) are vegan. Probably. 

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Our first day in Japan was spent in Osaka, where we were lucky enough to arrive on the opening day of the cherry blossom viewing at the mint. We, along with “a few” other people , were treated to a spectacular show put on by the various types of cherry blossom trees. It was really beautiful (in an very crowded, hot, sweaty kind of way).

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We emerged from the viewing area and headed down to the market stalls by the river looking for something to eat. To my delight one (and only one) of the stalls had tofu, konnyaku and vegetables simmering away in stock (probably dashi), served with a blob of mustard. I’m not saying it was tasty (it wasn’t), and I’m not saying it was good (I didn’t eat the flavourless, glutinous, squidgy konnyaku), but it was the only almost-vegan food around so I was grateful.

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We were surrounded by stalls selling meat or seafood on BBQ grills or being steamed in large pots, but I was still a bit surprised when we came across a stall with a shallow tank containing small, live, goldfish. What appeared to be serving bowls sat next to the tank with a list of prices. “Do you eat these?” I asked the guy manning the stall. He looked at me in astonishment then began to laugh. And laugh and laugh. I know my Japanese is bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad. He wiped tears from his eyes before replying. “No, we don’t eat these. It’s a game for the children. They try to catch the lucky fish.” He’s probably still telling his friends about the hilarious foreign woman who thought his goldfish were food, and laughing every time.

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But, really, why weren’t they food? I’ve lost count of the number of fishy meals I had in Japan after specifically ordering something with no meat and no fish. Chilled tofu with ginger, coated in a thick layer of shaved bonito. Vegetarian noodle soups with a pile of shaved dried fish sitting in the middle. A “romantically lit” restaurant in Kyoto served me a vegetarian meal of tofu, salad and rice. It wasn’t until I ate a mouthful that I discovered the tiny white fish coating the surface of the rice. Oh for goodness sake! Fortunately I’ve mastered the art of spitting food into a tissue.

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It wasn’t all fishy doom and gloom however. On Mount Shosha, where parts of the Tom Cruise movie “the Last Samurai” were filmed, I had a very seaweedy vegan soup, which was lovely. As a bonus Alan might have visited the very same toilet at the top of the mountain which Tom Cruise himself used! It even had a heated seat! Although, as some party-pooper pointed out, Tom probably had his own trailer and never used the public washroom.

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In Okayama we found a cafe serving Japanese style curry suitable for vegetarians! It was fabulous. So much so that when we found a restaurant by the same chain in Takamatsu we went in for dinner. I ordered the exact same curry, but when it came it looked…different. I poked it with my chopstick. “Is this meat?” I asked the server. “Yes, of course” she replied. I showed her the menu. “But I ordered this one. This is vegetarian?” “Yes.” she answered. “But this is meat?” I poked it again. “Yes.” she replied. “But I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.” At last she understood the problem. “Ah. I’ll get the chef.” He came over and looked at the dish. “Shall I make you the vegetarian one without the meat?” “Yes please. Thank you.” And when it came, it was fabulous.

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I learned from this experience, and when I saw a restaurant in Osaka advertising a 12-vegetable curry I asked the server if it contained meat before heading to a table. “It’s vegetarian” she said. “It has 12 vegetables. It’s very good.” “But does it contain meat?” I asked. “Yes, of course.” she replied. We headed back into the rainy streets of the Dotonburi area where I had vegetables on a stick. With no fish. Although, in retrospect, there might have been both dashi and egg in the batter.

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がんばりました. Hey ho. I tried. 私は試した. 

Karen 🙂

 

 

 

Does my Butt Look Big in This?

I’m writing this in sunny Toronto (pronounced trono if you’re linguistically lazy), where I’ve watched my younger son graduate from university with a specialisation in psychology and a minor in biology. As you can see from the photo, he’s matured significantly as a result of spending the last four years surrounded by academics. He makes his parents very proud.

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Hubby and I are staying in our favourite B&B place, which in reality is just the bed without the breakfast. We have access to a shared kitchen, allowing me to bring my own food for breakfast and circumventing the sometimes frustrating B&B conversations about what I do or do not eat, ending up with a bowl of fruit (if I’m lucky). I like to start my day with almond milk on home-made granola so damn healthy it almost makes me want to wear yoga pants or go for a jolly good jog. Almost. I actually only wear yoga pants when I do yoga, which doesn’t happen often, and jogging is something which happens to other people. Alan is happy here too, cooking his oatmeal in the microwave and putting veggie-bacon on his toast just like he does at home.

Yesterday we shared the breakfast table with two Germans, who looked as bewildered by our breakfasts as we were by theirs. Pickled onions, olives, stinky cheeses, thinly sliced meaty things and brick-like bread, served with multiple cups of thick black coffee. A Danish lady has just moved in upstairs, and judging from the contents of the fridge she’ll be having strawberries and cream cheese on bagels for breakfast tomorrow. Different people like different things.

I’ve been on a bit of a mission here in Trono, going to different types of eateries and trying to answer a question people have been asking me. “Now that veganism is becoming trendy is it easier to find restaurants which serve vegan food?” Is being vegan becoming trendy? It would be nice to think so, and I obviously hope that not eating animals will become much more mainstream, but time will tell. At a writers’ workshop recently someone said “Isn’t it great that it’s still socially acceptable to make fun of vegans, now that we can’t tease people because of their race or religion?” What????????? I’m not sure what kind of look I gave her, but I probably looked pretty stunned. Vegans have feelings too.

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No, her comments didn’t drive me to drink. I just needed a spot to insert a photo of some rather…unusual…cocktails hubby and I had recently.

Anyhow, back to the plot. Is it getting easier to eat out as a vegan? In a big city like Toronto, yes it is. I started my munch-fest at a random Vietnamese restaurant at the bidding of a young lady standing on the street waving the menu at passers-by. “I’m vegan” I said. “No problem!” she replied, so hubby and I went in. She took the waitress aside and spoke to her before going back outside to drum up more trade. The waitress came over. “You need meals with no animal in it? Try this…or this….or this…” We selected ma po tofu (with no meat) and soy sauce eggplant, peppers and potatoes along with steamed rice. It was inexpensive, and it was excellent. Well that was easy!

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For dinner I decided to try something more up-market, reserving a table at the R&D restaurant co-owned by one of the winners Masterchef Canada. He works as a sous-chef in the kitchen of this trendy, bustling eatery so I was expecting great things. I made a note on the reservation form that I was vegan, and mentioned it again when we were seated. “Not a problem” I was assured. There wasn’t much on the menu which could be veganised, but I started my meal with brussel sprouts in black bean sauce, minus the Chinese sausage. It was a bit unusual, but I ate enough of it to give myself a nasty case of gas, which is a recommendation of sorts. I followed it up with the bimibap rice bowl, minus the egg, topped with fresh tofu instead of tofu which had been deep fried in the same oil as chicken. Well done to the wait-staff for being aware of that.  The bimibap was nice enough, but not something to write home about. But the point is, it was an expensive, trendy restaurant and I had a stress-free vegan meal there.

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Lunch the following day was at Ryus ramen house, which was recommended to me by someone in the Toronto vegetarian association. It was easy to get something to eat – there were vegan options sitting right there in the menu. Hurray! One bowl of ramen in shitake broth topped with veggies and tofu later I was happy and full. It looked so good that my omnivorous lunch date ordered the same and declared it to be good, although he would have liked some seaweed in it.

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(Edit – I’ve just been informed by someone else in the Toronto veg group that these noodles might contain powdered egg! I’ve contacted the restaurant and they do indeed contain egg. Obviously I should have asked while I was there 😦 Sometimes when something looks too good to be true it actually isn’t true at all.)

Dinner was a family affair at a place called Hogtown Vegan. Between us we demolished not-chicken-wings (sorry – I was a bit too late taking the photo, but they were delicious), burgers, fries with mushroom gravy, pulled not-pork, not-beef stew, gluten-free mac n’ cheese, ice cream cookies and deep fried oreos. Yes, it sucks to be vegan lol.

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Lunch today was a mango bubble tea to give my body some time off before the next onslaught. This came in the form of delicious food at a place called Vegetarian Haven which, despite the name, is a 100% vegan restaurant. As we were seated I heard the guy at the next table talking to the waitress. “I only came here because my girlfriend (who was in the washroom at the time) is vegan and she wanted to come. I can’t believe how good the food was! I’m going to come back and try some of the other dishes. It was just…well….really good….!” And was it good? Damn right it was! My dinning partner for the evening is gluten free, but he was more than happy with the choices he had on the menu. We settled for a bowl of tomato and veg soup, faux shrimp and mushroom tempura (which was so good I have to admit we ordered a second one), veggie California rolls (meh) and the chef’s special of sweet potato stuffed tofu skins with rice noodles and a broccoli salad. I didn’t eat my salad. Afterwards we shared a slice of amazing blueberry cheesecake (yes, it was both vegan and gluten free) then wobbled off on our separate ways feeling very satisfied.

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So, all-in-all, this was a very successful adventure. Cheap, expensive, Vietnamese, ramen, comfort food, gluten free dishes….. I was made to feel comfortable in all the places I ate regardless of whether they were exclusively vegan restaurants or ones which served meat dishes, and I was able to have tasty vegan food in all of them. Happy days.

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Actually, that’s not quite true. I also visited a place called Kupfert and Kim, and I wasn’t at all comfortable or happy. But not because I’m vegan. This meatless, wheatless café serves salad bowls, minimally processed foods, smoothies and healthy gluten free vegan treats, but….it’s not the most comfortable place for curvy middle aged women with wide hips. The chairs were built for people who eat a lot of salad. And, judging from the other diners, wear yoga pants to dinner. Two strikes and I’m out. As I lowered myself into the chair I had to ask hubby the time-honoured question “Does my butt look big in this?” I know that in some cultures the answer “yes” is a compliment, and in others “no” is the socially acceptable reply, but in Kupfert and Kim’s there was no questioning it. My butt looked big.

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I was afraid that when I stood up to leave I would be stuck in the chair and Alan would have to pull it off my behind, to loud laughter from the audience. So I ate my (tasty) buckwheat waffles sitting sideways on the edge of my seat to prevent my wide child-bearing hips from wedging themselves in between the bars. Unless I lose a ton of weight (which I don’t need to or want to) or my hip bones magically shrink, I won’t be going back there. Not all vegans are slim, salad-eating, yoga-pant-wearing young people who actually go for jogs. I’ll stick to places where I “fit in” both metaphorically and literally lol.

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But what’s the moral of today’s story? It’s that vegan food can be totally yummy, and it looks like more restaurants, in Toronto at least, are realising that there’s a market for it. And that’s a good thing for the planet, for the animals and, of course, for me. Why not see what delicious non-animal meals your local restaurants are serving?

I loved the ease with which I could dine in Toronto, especially after my recent experiences in Japan. Tune in next week to find out what happened when I said “ベジタリアン です。魚 や 肉 が 食べません.” in Kyoto, Takamatsu, Kotohira, Himeji and other places. But I’m warning you – there was something a bit fishy going on.

Karen 🙂

Sometimes I Hate Being Vegan

Sometimes I hate being a vegan. It can be a total pain in the ass way to live. It restricts where I can eat and what I can eat. It rules out huge sections of food in grocery stores and involves an awful lot of label-reading, doubly so if my gluten-free son is visiting. It causes confusion among my friends and an awful lot of eye-rolling in certain circles. I get mocked, teased and, on rare occasions, shouted at. So why on earth don’t I just give up and grab a chicken leg or munch on a steak sandwich?

Let me try that last sentence again. It’s not “grab a chicken leg.” It’s “grab a chicken’s leg”. Or munch on a bloody slice of a slaughtered cow. Ah. Now I’m beginning to remember why. But sometimes it just seems so damn hard!

Alan and I have just returned from a trip to Montreal, which is the reason for my heavy sighs. We went to see the UFC (ultimate fighting championships for those of you not well versed in such matters) on Saturday night, which required us to find meals in Quebec. French is the first language over the river from Ontario, but it’s not the European French I learned in school. It’s Quebec French, and I don’t understand a word of it. To make matters even more fun, Quebecois apparently can’t understand my French either. I kinda gave up years ago and now claim that I don’t speak French, period. My attitude towards this works fine most of the time, but the knock-on effect is that I can’t read much French anymore. Give me a German menu and I’ll have a good go at it. Give Alan and I something in Japanese and we’ll pour over the kanji, grinning happily every time we find one we know. But if you put me in a Quebec city where everything is written in French I get an instant headache, even if the English translation is written (in a government regulated smaller font) underneath.

Here I am getting a lecture about speaking French by a Montreal statue:  MontrealaskAVegan (Copy)Lunch time on Saturday found two hungry Ontarians wandering along Rue De St Catherine in the newer part of Montreal searching for food. We found many (and I mean “many”) diners boasting about their excellent Montreal smoked meat sandwiches. We found French-style restaurants with the words “cheese” and “cream” written so often that I think sometimes they overlapped. We found cheese panini, pulled pork and quiche. We were just starting to despair when I spotted a sign up a side street with the words “Resto Vego” on it. I accosted two people as they were descending a flight of stairs. “Is there a vegetarian restaurant up there?” Yes, there was!! So up we went. The food was buffet style, and wasn’t very hot, but there was a good selection and at least 4 of the dishes were vegan. Woo hoo! I had Indonesian tempeh, stir fried peppers, bean chilli, rice and a vegan cheezecake, and it was all good. Phew. Omni-Alan was equally happy with his vegan meal. Why can’t eating a plant-based diet always be this easy and tasty?

Fast-forward to dinner time, and we’re seated in a Korean restaurant which had assured me that providing a vegan meal would not be a problem for them. “Korean food is very adaptable” the server said. Alan’s dinner arrived first, and was piled high with thick udon noodles, crab pancake, stir fried beef, salad with an orange dressing, steamed rice, miso soup and kimchee. My dinner arrived shortly afterwards. It was a small bowl of plain rice topped with shredded vegetables and a few pieces of cold tofu straight out of the packet. Alan laughed. “This is why I’m happy to be vegan at home but an omnivore when I eat out.” I could see his point. Sometimes it totally sucks to be a vegan. Thank goodness there would be lager at the fighting later on!

On the morning after the night before, we decided to skip the $18 per person buffet at the hotel and find a diner for breakfast. We settled on one which was clean and friendly, with about 50 items on the menu. Of which I could eat……..three. My choices were dry cereal (they didn’t have soy milk) with a banana, a plate of fruit (for $12!!!!!!) or a BLT without the bacon. There were baked beans on the menu, but they contained pork 😦 I looked at Alan’s plate piled high with a variety of items, then at my meager meal of sliced tomato on toast and understood why people might be reluctant to give up being an omnivore.

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And as for Sunday’s lunch…..don’t even go there. Old Montreal is a very pretty place to wander around, but totally sucks as far as vegan food is concerned. Maybe locals and frequent visitors know the secret vegan haunts, but as a tourist I found no joy there. We got in the car and left, munching on a bag of chips as we drove, heading for the well-stocked vegan fridge back in the comfort of our home. Being vegan is sometimes a total pain in the ass.

But all is not doom and gloom in vegan-land. Today, back in my old stomping grounds of Ottawa, I headed out to Strawberry Blonde Bakery to buy some vegan, gluten-free, nut free cupcakes for my son’s 21st birthday. They’re delicious, nicely priced, and make being vegan sooooooo easy. Then I walked across the road to “the Herb and Spice Shop” to pick up some vegan “chicken” bites and veggie bacon for Alan to have for breakfasts with tofu scramble. They’re tasty, healthy and cruelty free, and cook in minutes. My next job is to book a table at the Taj restaurant for dinner tonight, happy knowing that they serve vegan and gluten free items and everyone will have a good meal.

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The next time someone tells me they can’t be vegan because they can’t give up meat  I’ll remember my meals in Montreal, and maybe have a bit of sympathy for them. But then I’ll recall how easy it is to buy and cook vegan meals at home and my level of sympathy will go down considerably. Yes, sometimes it sucks to be a vegan. But most of the time it’s a great way to live. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and grab a cupcake and a cup of tea. Right now being a vegan doesn’t suck at all!!

Karen 🙂

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Whatever NeXT?

Last week the hubby and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. That’s twenty five years, two kids (both now in Toronto), two countries (goodbye England, hello Canada), two graduate degrees (Masters for him, PhD for me), two college diplomas (both me), 5 houses plus an in-between rental, 5 different places of employment for him, 6 and counting for me (I’m now self-employed), and the start of our adventures to see the world, checking off Alaska, the UK (I LOVE Stonehenge!), Europe, Japan, India and more. We’ve been richer and poorer (mostly the latter, thanks to the kids), had better and worse, and stuck together in sickness and health.  It’s been quite a ride! We’ve both changed a lot in the 27 years we’ve known each other, but somehow, despite the divorce statistics, we’re still married and loving it. And, of course, each other.

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Despite the changes, there are some things which have stayed the same. When our paths first crossed I was vegetarian (I’m now as-vegan-as-I-can-be-in-any-given-situation) and he was an omnivore with vegetarian habits. He introduced me to the best veggie burgers in the world, sold by a food truck up a side street in Nottingham, England. He was happy to have lunch in veggie cafes and eat meat-free meals which I cooked. And now, many years later, he’s still happy to be vegan at home (he’s finishing up a breakfast of marinated tofu on toast as I type) and sometimes, but not always, chooses meat dishes when we eat out. We’ve both always respected the other person’s right to choose what they eat. He never makes fun of my vegan nature, and I never tell him he can’t choose a meat dish. Respect is important in a long-term relationship.

Another thing which has remained the same is that friends and family believe I am hard to feed, while firmly believing that because hubby is an omnivore he’s not a problem at the dinner table. The truth of the matter is the reverse. Give me a meal without animal parts in it and I’m as happy as a clam sitting on a rock. Spicy, mild, fruity, salty, green, red, whatever – I’m grateful and happy. Unless it tastes “cheesy” – there are too many bad memories of internal “upsets” associated with cheesy products! But hubby…..well – that’s a different story. He’s difficult, and quite vocal about it. The first meal I cooked him early in our relationship was sweet and sour tofu. “I don’t like cooked pineapple.” he said.  A friend invited us for dinner shortly afterwards. Hubby looked at his dish. “I don’t like tomato soup” he grumbled as he put down his spoon. I quickly realised that his list of “don’t likes” was extensive. Broccoli, cauliflower, onions-chopped-too-big, tomato chunks, peas, sprouts, cabbage, okra (bhindi), jalapenos, avocados, pears, strawberries and all other berries, cherries, bananas, mangoes, any type of salad dressing, jam, butter and margarine, and that’s just the ones I can remember off the top of my head! He has a great loathing for cooked cheese, mayonnaise, cream sauces and anything cooked in butter., but he loves ice cream and puts milk in his coffee. I’m telling you – I’m not the fussy eater in this relationship!

Eating out has always posed problems for us, but for our anniversary we decided to dress up and go somewhere “nice”. I spent ages googling and asking facebook groups for recommendations, and stumbled upon a place called NeXT about 20 minutes away from our home – on Hazeldean Rd just past Stittsville for you local folks. I’d been told they could do vegan food, but the menu on-line was meat-meat-meat. I phoned up to check and was told that “they often provide meals for vegans and it wouldn’t be a problem.” Great! So on our anniversary hubby and I headed off to NeXT.

Our coats were taken at the door by our waiter for the evening and we were shown to our table by the fireplace in a nicely decorated room with an open-concept kitchen. It’s probably really noisy on a busy night, but mid-week it wasn’t too bad. The waiter brought us the menus and then the fun started. “I phoned ahead to let the restaurant know that I’m vegan. I hope that’s still OK.” The waiter’s face was one of poorly disguised horror. “But our menu – it’s on-line- you can see it’s all meat!” “Yes, that’s why I phoned ahead.” “So you don’t eat no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no nothing?”  I won’t go into details of the conversation which followed, but the poor guy was a bit flustered. He eventually went to talk to the chef, and returned happier. “If you will let our chef chose your dinner for you, he will create a 3 course meal without any meat. Will that be alright?” “Yes, that would be lovely. Thank you.” Huge sighs of relief all round. He turned to Hubby. “And for Sir?”  The husbando placed his order, specifying that he didn’t want any cheese or mayo on his food, and he didn’t like cream sauces or butter. Once again the waiter looked a bit concerned. “You don’t want anything cooked in butter?” “Well, it can be cooked in butter, but it mustn’t taste like it was.” Oh heck.

A shared appetizer of papaya salad arrived, and it was enjoyed by both the vegan and the hard-to-please omnivore. Next I had garlic mushrooms on toast (there’s probably a posh name for it) and hubby had fried fish on small rounds of flatbread. And there, sitting under the fish, was a creamy sauce. Arrrgghhhh! My years of training must have worked on him, because instead of throwing his hands up in horror and sending it back the hubby deconstructed his dish, scraped off the offending mayo, and stuck it all back together. Hurray! Our main courses were fried chicken on rice for him, and udon noodles with mushrooms and eggplant in a miso sauce for me, which was really nice. Our waiter came back, pleased to find that his “difficult vegan customer” was happy and said that if we wanted desserts “the chef would be delighted to create one for me.”  Woo hoo! One fresh fruit, nut and sorbet dessert later I was stuffed.

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As we sat drinking our coffee and tea (they had no soy milk or non-dairy creamer, and I don’t like black coffee) a lady came to check if I had enjoyed my meal. She’s vegetarian and it was important to her that a vegan customer left happy. And was I happy? Yes. The food brought to the table was delicious. But……if a restaurant wants vegan customers, and wants them to have a good experience, why does it have to be such a performance? I felt like I was in the spotlight for most of the evening – the waiter talked to the chef about me (I could see them both looking at me as they discussed my eating habits) and the end-of-meal-interview was a bit uncomfortable. It would have been so much nicer if this high-end restaurant had actually had some vegan-friendly dishes on the menu and non-dairy creamer for coffee. If I hadn’t been told by someone that NeXT was able to do meat-free meals I would never have gone there based on their on-line menu, which almost screams “What do you mean, you don’t eat no meat?” So would I recommend this place to local veg#ns? Well…yes, and no. Was the food good? Yes. Could I chose my own dishes from the menu and ask for them to be made vegan? No. It’s a place full of contradictions – they say they’re happy to feed vegans, and have catered vegan / vegetarian weddings, but they’re not what I would call vegan-friendly.

I would love to hear your stories about eating-out as a vegan. Is it easier in some places than in others? I remember it as being much easier in England than it is here in Ottawa, but maybe things have changed. Do you find that being veg#n automatically labels you as “difficult”? Let me know!

So here I am. Married for 25 years to the same man. Turning 50 any day now. The kids have grown up and left home. It’s just the hubby and me (and a whole bunch of cats). I wonder where life will take us NeXT?

Karen 🙂

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And Then There Was Zen…

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Originally posted 3/15/2014 – moved to wordpress

I love eating out. It’s a delight my English parents introduced me to at an early age, taking me to places like a tiny Chinese restaurant behind the market it Birmingham where every piece of pottery was chipped, or to a home-baked pie restaurant above a bakery in St. Anne’s. I have happy memories as a student of grabbing a falafel pita late at night, wolfing down burningly hot curries in Manchester, and feasting on the best veggie burgers EVER up a side street in Nottingham.

But at the same time, I also hate eating out. The trials and tribulations of finding good, tasty, non-meat, non-dairy food in restaurants sometimes makes me wish I’d just stayed home. Last week I was listened to a waitress explaining to me that when she said they had vegetarian items she hadn’t actually realised I WAS a vegetarian, and there were in fact no vegetarian dishes on the menu. At other times I’ve been told that a chicken soup is vegetarian because it has vegetables in it, or that a dish is vegetarian apart from the meat. Forgive me for rolling my eyes at this point. Sometimes, after I think I’ve been successful in ordering vegan food I’ve been surprised by the final dish, and not in a good way. A plate of tofu and vegetables, which I checked 3 times was JUST tofu and vegetables before ordering, was chock-a-block full of tiny deep fried fish, complete with heads and eyes. One of my favourite memories is of a vegetarian hot-sour soup which had a huge house fly floating in it. I showed it to the waiter who responded by shouting “Shit! Oh shit!”. After taking a moment to collect himself he tentatively asked “would you like another one?”. I assumed he was talking about the soup rather than the fly….

I’ve eaten at many vegetarian restaurants over the years (and there have been MANY years, believe me) and have always left disappointed. The food was often either buffet style (OK for a lunch, but for dinner I want to have a menu and my own table) or extremely “earthy”. You know the sort I mean – it leaves you feeling good about “saving the planet” but offers little in the way of taste or texture. Or, as my son Chris puts it “It’s so healthy it just makes you want to go for a jog”. It’s not just a problem I’ve had in England and Canada – a veggie restaurant in Tokyo served Alan and I with slimy bowls of unidentifiable squidgy blobs in grey goop, brightened up in colour and flavour only by the addition of sliced cherry tomatoes. To this day I have no idea what we ate, but know that we wouldn’t do it again!

Having said all that, I’m sure you can understand my hesitation before booking a table at Zen Kitchen in Ottawa on Tuesday night. I’d heard good things about it and figured it was probably time to see what the hype was about. It only serves vegan items so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding fish heads in my stir fry, but on the other hand it only serves vegan items so “bland” might be the word of the day. Wow, was I wrong! The evening started well with a beer for my non-vegan hubby (this is the trick to getting him to places he might not want to go…I simply say “You can have a beer and I’ll drive home”. It’s never failed me yet!) and a shared Zen Platter. Soft, chewy rice noodle rolls with a peanut dip, 3 types of pickles (which all had a unique flavour), crispy home-made potato chips, tofu with apple-butter and miso (Alan politely removed his from the bamboo skewer and ate it with his fork. I was so excited that I just shoved it in and chewed with a happy smile on my face) and dehydrated kale. I’ve previously mocked all things dehydrated, but this was delicious! Never before have Alan and I fought over the last piece of kale on a plate. That sort of thing is simply unheard of. The main courses were also wonderfully flavoured – Alan had seitan (moist, nicely textured, with a smokey topping) and I had the Mexican themed plate. We were both very happy. Afterwards, Alan somehow managed to fit in a chocolate cake with hot Mexican chocolate sauce, and I ordered the dessert sampler but found I was too full to eat it and brought it home with me. All in all it was a fabulous meal out. Lots of flavour, no dried fish, no grey goop, and no flies in my soup 🙂

After having such a positive experience at Zen I’m now willing to give other veggie restaurants a chance (or, in some cases, a second chance) to strut their stuff. Let me know if there’s somewhere you recommend, and keep an eye open for more reviews in the future.

Karen 🙂