Daily life of the vegetarian #9
LAST NIGHT, UNWITTINGLY, I got trapped in meat hell.
The occasion? My wife’s colleagues (all of whom work at a very good sushi restaurant) ate a celebratory meal to mark a former co-worker’s purchase of their own restaurant.
They’re all really nice people, but, for the two vegetarians, it was an awkward, unpleasant experience.
The Diamond Café & Takeaway is an unpretentious Taiwanese cheap eat right up in the Mt Roskill shops, and it’s one of those places that lights up like a candle, so bright is the fluorescent lighting beaming from inside. I’ve always wondered why so many Chinese restaurants have such insanely bright lighting, and I’m none the wiser after this experience, but it certainly doesn’t make for a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere.
Apart from the lights, the interior is unremarkable, unless you want to talk about the train-seat booths that run along two walls, or the motley collection of dining chairs and tables, or the cramped look of the place (how they get in between the fridge and the counter I can’t imagine).
Like many cheap eats, the Diamond bases its reputation on its very affordable and tasty food, and going by the dedicated chowing down that was going on amongst my wife’s colleagues, that food was indeed very good. It just happened to be almost entirely meat-based. I mean, there was vegetable matter in the dishes being consumed, but they were all meat-oriented, and to a vegetarian, both the look and smell was abhorrent.
To Chinese, eating is not only about a social occasion, food is also for sharing, so that immediately cast us weirdo vegetarians to the perimeter. We could choose between vegetarian noodles, or vegetarian rice, and we chose the former. While the meat dishes looked almost artfully constructed and presented – especially the ones on the set menu some of our group were consuming – the vegetarian option was a pallid looking, and bland-tasting, plate of noodles and stir-fried veg. The only distinguishing characteristic was the slivers of ‘vegetarian ham’, which had the porky pink colour of salted pig meat, but the texture of gluten, and the taste of… nothing much in particular.
The pickled onions were a pleasant garnish, and rather spicy-hot. The ‘tofu egg’ was like the kind of mottled egg that goes into sushi, apparently bulked up by tofu (why?) and containing slivers of mushroom to give it a bit more flavour. Finally, a bowl of sweet red bean soup – pleasant enough, but sugary and bland; much more delectable when it’s a paste that’s got a bread bun wrapped around it!
Socially, it was a disaster for us, as most of my wife’s (mostly Korean) workmates speak only a smattering of English, and to make things even worse, were sitting at different tables around the restaurant rather than as a group. Odd! But that’s all bye-the-bye.
It’s from a vegetarian perspective that this kind of thing really grates. The thing is, I really like the couple running this café, they’re warm and personable Taiwanese Buddhists who, ironically, occasionally go without meat. Our experience just reiterates the disjunction vegetarians have to face, over and over again, if they have decided to assimilate with meat eaters, and the fact that even when trying to participate socially, it’s still not possible to really fit in.
Ironically, the Diamond Café & Takeaways is right next door to Sasuma, the vegetarian Indian venue I reviewed here. There were times last night when I wanted to scamper in to the meat-free safety of Sasuma, even if it meant sitting by myself.
Meanwhile, the Diamond Café does what looks like incredibly good value, tasty food for meat-eaters. But not for the likes of us. GARY STEEL
PS, I would love to hear your similar experiences. Do all vegetarians and vegans have the same problem in eating out with meat-eaters?