December 26, 2019

It’s that time of the year again: festive events, get-togethers, reasons (or none) to get drunk and a license to throw caution to the wind. I know it’s a little bizarre to read about a piece on moderation. But why wait till the beginning of the year to work on resolutions? 2019 has dealt me numerous ‘green cards’, from vegetable-centric fine dining menus to interviews with chefs and restaurateurs spearheading the #GoGreen movement. The steady accumulations of “Maybe I’ll try that soon” has led up to this moment, in late November, when I stowed away my fish sauce and put the bacon in the freezer. 

I used to care about what was on my plate, unabashedly rich with protein usually flanked with a thin sliver of bread or a couple of spoonfuls of rice. Or, a weighty juicy stack if circumstances permitted. Growing up in the 90s and in a middle-class Chinese family, meat has always been the centrepiece of nearly all our meals and throughout the years, as living standards rise, that put to bed the notion of having to fight for chicken thighs. Now, we each have a Wagyu ribeye lounging on our plates.

Netflix’s The Game Changers was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t so much about achieving athletic prowess that struck me, but the fact that we were destroying our rainforest for livestock-based food production to feed us, humans. ‘Sustainability’ had found a new meaning in my food dictionary and I was about to grab the bull by its horns, or not.

So I gave myself a challenge: I would go vegetarian for 2 weeks. So says the food editor who devours back-to-back courses of Hokkaido Uni, Mangalica pork, Ohmi Beef in one seating.

Day 1:

Who would have known that the simple act of roasting vegetables intensifies its natural flavours? Case in point, the paprika roasted pumpkin soup I whipped up for dinner was undeniably legit. 

Day 2:

I was beginning to struggle with meal ideas which led me to wonder: Am I getting enough protein on this diet? I’ve been told that if that’s your worry, then you are certainly getting a sufficient supply. Eggs offer a cheat method of ‘crowning’ the meal (FYI, I subscribe to the lacto-ovo-vegetarian class, because I adore eggs and can’t muster enough willpower to quit cheese). Thick, creamy drifts of yolk hiding a multitude of sins which included slightly enthusiastically browned toasts that I had neglected for my kimchi and tomato sandwich.

Day 3–4:

I tackled a bar crawl fuelled with green nosh along the way. Chef Alton Huang of The Guild Singapore worked his magic with the humblest of veggies. There was spicy grilled cabbage spiked with tomato vinaigrette and a light scatter of scallions that brought to mind kimchi, with an edgier char. On that note, kimchi (the kind without the fermented seafood products) will become your best friend. It will find its way on steamed brown rice, miso tossed pasta and even by the spoonful into your mouth.

Side dish starlets such as cabbage and eggplant could instantly be transformed into headliners, when cooked by creative chefs who care. The initial evaluation of a bar food menu definitely aided in the decision-making process as to whether I was staying for a second drink or not.

Stay for Employees Only’s Grilled Cauliflower with charred spring onions, sesame oil, and gochugaru and Limehouse’s Doubles—a Trinidadian breakfast special of curried chickpeas on homemade Barra bread.

Day 5:

I had been sleeping poorly. The lack of fat intake was causing me to be less resistant to the blasting gusts of air-conditioning at night. Made a mental note to incorporate more seeds and nuts into my diet.

Day 6:

The digestive perks of being a vegetarian were starting to show. Besides the fact that I was not carrying a food baby around with me for unhealthily extended periods of time, I noticed the reduction of water retention in my legs and face in the morning. Dark leafy greens high in magnesium and plant-based sources of potassium definitely helped to alleviate my situation. I walked with a spring in my step. 

Day 7–8:

The folks over at Three Buns celebrated their 1st birthday and I became a little resentful about the diet at this point. Thankfully, Chef Adam Penney rose up to the occasion with not one, but three vegetarian burgers including the zippy Vegan Seagal which combines Impossible™ burger with soy milk mayo and fermented cashew cheese. It was a tidy package jammed packed with flavours albeit easier on the arteries. Not missing meat at all. I took that statement back the moment I witnessed a ravenous diner swooping in on his bak chor mee.

Day 9–10:

The very premise of my work means that I can’t be a vegetarian and not mention it, since I’m expected to deliberate dishes. Alas, I had been reduced to a house-dweller for the past few days since most chefs weren’t too enthusiastic about parading their vegetarian prerogative.

Then I met Chef Beppe De Vito of Art restaurant and Chef Aaron Tan of Man Fu Yuan who demonstrated the importance of conjuring texture to compensate for the lack of innate flavour in vegetables, yet still staying respectful to their lineage. Common mistake: Vegetarian cooking not only takes excellent kitchen skills but a lot more time. At both their restaurants, I walked out of there more than willing to fork out a substantial amount of greens for the innovative degustation menus.

Day 11–12:

The finishing line was fast approaching and I had grown familiar to certain dishes: Broccoli and tofu bowls, Red curry and vegetables, Nasi Dengaku (miso-glazed eggplant), just to name a few. In that context, the settings were the same with vegetables replacing the usual pork/chicken/beef/lamb option—the key is to always try new things, or risk having a 9-year old kid who incidentally fell into the thick of things throw hissy tantrums.

There were vegetarian gyozas (that he safely assumed to be meat-filled) and cauliflower gratin buried in warm blankets of béchamel that followed. By right, it shouldn’t have worked but I guessed we have an adventurous eater in our midst.

Day 13–14:

Tasked to prepare Sunday lunch for the family, the smell of beef drippings as the oxtail sat languorously in a red wine bath in the slow cooker almost broke my resolve. We had to escape the 16-hour torment with a trip to Moosehead for a casual meal that brought Mediterranean and Vegetables to the table with panache.

Stay for the Broccolini with Hoisin Aioli and Peanuts & the Roast Cauliflower with garlic miso and leek confit.

I must admit that going vegetarian was an experiment, but in truth, the results made a winning case. Most notably, I felt at ease—less bogged down by the pressing issues of the world plagued by demands of industrialisation, and lighter for not having to process meat and other sins. Sins, I use that word lightly as I believe that the whole world falling into a state of veganism is a Hail Mary for biodiversity.

Diets have seen many incarnations, but we’re tipping this to stay. Would I do it again? A flexitarian, maybe. I was almost close to tears when I heard the crunch of fried chicken nearby.