Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sadly, sadly, or: I well

I've had my first vegan food related cry.

I'm not an emotional person and as a rule my teary moments are restricted to funerals and times of self-induced self-pity. It's just not something that comes easily to me and I try hard to keep a publicly positive demeanor most of the time. I don't well up and I don't sob.

A recent work retreat had me otherwise. A number of factors contributed to a bittersweet few days, including the departure of a good friend and colleague across the ditch, but it was really the food that got me.

Last year we went to the same venue and I only attended for one day. The buffet lunch was not vegan-friendly but ever prepared, I had brought my own green bag full of Saladas, Nuttelex, Vegemite and Tofutti slices which kept me full. This year, staying for two days, I knew that our branch's efficient and thoughtful EA had already arranged a vegan menu for me (thanks Sarah) , including an excellent looking dinner, and I was more hopeful of a better spread at lunch. Just in case, Scout-like, I still brought my little green bag.

And I needed it. Nothing on the buffet was ok except for some dried apricots and dates (and the ubiquitous mixed green salad). Some items were labelled and vegetarian and gluten free, and I assumed that if they went to that trouble, then anything vegan would also be labelled. Bucking up, I ate my Saladas and Vegemite at the table once again.

I returned to my room feeling downhearted, but confused about why I was taking it so hard. I'm more than used to having limited options; indeed having made my choices it's not something I really like to make a fuss about. I'm used to eating different food from everyone else at the table, and I'm used to being prepared and BYOing. And then I realised that I was embarrassed.

It was a shock. I am not embarrassed of my veganism - I am proud and happy to talk about it until I'm blue in the face. But I was embarrassed to sit at the table amongst my friends and colleagues and have to pull food out of my own bag and make it in front of them. I was embarrassed that I had nothing nice to eat. I was embarrassed to be the centre of attention. I was embarrassed to be receiving stares and comments. I was embarrassed to have to explain why I couldn't eat the roast vegetables (butter) or bread (milk solids, whey, egg). I was embarrassed that people would think that vegans never get to eat good food and that it must be so very difficult, when I really try to tell people that it's not.

If it was a problem to cater for me, then I wouldn't have minded, but I would have made sure that I had something proper to eat.

I wrote a lengthy essay on the feedback form. I went to dinner and was pleased to have a separate dish from the vegetarians that was filling and well made. I spoke to Sarah, who had already spoken to the organisers, and they had said that there were vegan options at lunch and I should just ask about them. I put the feedback form in my bag and decided not to hand it in.

At lunch on the second day I did as I was asked and spoke to one of the staff about which buffet options were vegan. I was hoping it was the rice paper rolls.

She went to the kitchen. It wasn't the rice paper rolls or the mashed potato or the roast vegetables or the tomato soup or any of the other hot meals that I thought might be ok. She returned with a bowl of green salad. With cashews and sesame seeds. And that was it.

I like green salad; I'm all in favour of green salad; and it was certainly a big serve. But it was a green salad, and it should be a side dish, not a main meal on a cold day with twenty other options on the buffet table.

I ate some of it, went outside by myself to eat the rest of my Saladas and Vegemite, and got a little bit teary.

Again, it's not that I expect a full three course meal. It's not that I demand to be fed a gourmet alternative. It's that I want some honesty about what the kitchen is and isn't prepared to make for me, and a green salad, even with cashews, just doesn't cut it. I don't think I should be put in a position where I have to rely on food brought from home when my work has paid for all my meals. I don't think I should be so upset and embarrassed that I have to leave the table to eat on my own. I don't think that an international standard conference centre should think that a bowl of pick'n'mix salad is an acceptable meal. I would have happily driven into the nearest shopping centre to arrange my own food if catering for me was a problem, but that option wasn't given.

And so I welled up, and I left that feedback form where they'd find it. I hope they ring me because I would like the opportunity to explain in person why I am so upset. I would like to explain that vegan food is easy and tasty. I would like to explain that I was made to feel like a pain in the arse and unimportant. I would like to explain that I feel really really sad.
I would like to explain that they should refund my workplace for my two lunches.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kapow! Hero Foods, or: Idea Food and Wine validates my love of eggplant

Some restaurants have Hero Foods. It might be a widely acknowledged cult item, like Shakahari's avocado tempura trumpet rolls, or a drop-dead personal favourite that you simply must order or will feel like you were cruelly cheated, like the way I cannot conceive of going to Lord of the Fries and not ordering satay sauce on my chips. And then there are little teeny gems, passed on through osmosis or blogging, that take hold of your imagination and keep you going back and drooling for more.

Like three times. In a row. Shlurp.

I first read about Idea Food and Wine at where's the beef?, when Cindy and Michael found their way there from The Melbourne Veg Food Guide and sampled the recommended Szechuan eggplant hotpot. Well crack out the cape and flying boots, and start imagining an intergalactic backstory. This is a Hero Food.

I have eaten at Idea on three occasions, once with Miss Snax, once with Miss Sarah, and once with the Misses Julianne and Zaana. Each time I have been impressed with the cut-above service and the willingness of the staff to make egg- and dairy-free versions of the extensive vegetarian menu, and each time I have been kapowed by the Szechuan eggplant. Like, lick-the-hotpot-clean kapowed.

But, in order must I blog. Entrees first.

Miss Sarah and I ordered the vegetarian san choi bau, which was finely diced and sprinkled with sesame seeds, giving it a substantial mouthfeel before you crunched through the lettuce cup. Not having had much opportunity to eat san choi bau pregan I'm sorry to say that I spilled it terribly, but unashamedly scooped the rest up with my fingers. I ordered it again with Misses Julianne and Zaana.

Snax and I shared two entrees. We ordered spring rolls, which were light and freshly crisp. The innards were simple and were a mash of two or three veg, which when compared to the bog-standard takeaway fare of oily, soggy spring rolls from the shopping centre bain marie is an even greater achievement.

A spinach dumpling was also fresh and hot, lightly steamed and containing a fine mince of vegetable and more spinach. I felt not like Popeye at all.

The Misses Julianne and Zaana and I shared another kind of dumpling, which I am including solely for the adorable yet slightly anthropomorphically weird picture I took:

Snax and I shared a spicy tofu main. Silken tofu swam amongst a very hot and spicy sauce, with onion sunken within and plenty of spring onion sprinkled atop. It was a punchy dish with a range of flavours from a thick tomatoey base to the heights of the chillied top, but it was a little too much for me and had the misfortune of being served next to a Hero Food.

I repeat: three times I ordered the Szechuan eggplant, in a row. The Melbourne Veg Food Guide was bang on the money when it highlighted this dish for special mention, and I hereby declare and affirm its status as a Hero Food.

The Szechuan eggplant is a spicy, soft amalgamation of eggplant and mushroom coated in a thick, smoky sauce with deep bottom notes and a pepper kick.

Small pieces of chilli, spring onion and, I think, capsicum, provide a lighter, more watery contrast to the thick and soft eggplant and mushroom.

The eggplant and mushroom are browned to a slightly charred finish, which works back with the smokiness of the sauce.

So there you have it, a dish capable of rescuing kittens from trees, finding lost children, stopping muggers in their tracks and restoring peace and order to Gotham. Or whatever. It tastes great, and I highly recommend and crave it.

Idea Food and Wine
146-148 Little Bourke St, Melbourne 3000 VIC
Phone: (03) 9663 8829