All-you-can-eat that’s not meat: Jendow Vegetarian buffet (人道素菜)

Let’s face it: almost all all-you-can-eat deals around are, at best, not great value if you don’t eat meat, or, at worst, as with Brazilian BBQ buffets with their mobile meat servers, downright hostile to vegetarians. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never enjoy a lavish buffet at a 5-star hotel again. Sad, but ultimately good for my wallet and waistline.

Well, turns out there’s an innovation for every need. Jendow Vegetarian (人道素菜) is an upscale buffet establishment with several locations in vegetarian-friendly Taiwan (where it first opened in 1982) and one in Shanghai. Hidden away next to Long Hua Temple in Xuhui District, the restaurant is unassuming, even unappetizing, from the outside, but upon entering one is transported to a large, tastefully furnished hotel-like dining area with a seemingly never-ending, well-presented array of food. The seats are quite comfortable, a must considering buffets are generally minimum two-hour affairs.

The buffet consists of maybe a dozen spreads like this, representing primarily Asian cuisines but with a couple western plates thrown in for good measure. Its offerings range from create-your-own salad to Chinese-style cold dishes, from a Japanese sushi/sashimi and tempura station to dimsum and Taiwanese snacks. There are also a couple of stations where cooks will make you a bowl of soup noodle, a plate of pasta, or a veggie hotpot on the spot. Drinks include juices, Chinese herbal teas, coffee, and even Hong Kong style milk tea. There is a bar closer to the entrance but it was unmanned the night Sean and I were there.

Considering it’s all vegetarian, the selection is impressive, even overwhelming, making it a hefty challenge to get to even close to all of it even if you get there when it opens and don’t leave til they start shooing you out (not that we tried).

We started with the soups, a pumpkin soup and a cream of mushroom. The pumpkin was good, but the latter, rich and creamy and full of several varieties of mushroom, was so amazing I had two bowls. Not your average Campbell’s.

We tried maybe half the dishes in total, tasting only a bit of each in order to save room for the next plate and getting seconds on the stuff we liked. From the Japanese station, the sushi was good; the “salmon sashimi” was bland and rubbery; the tempura and made-to-order handrolls were delicious. There were a lot of dishes — aloe slices, coral, pumpkin cheese — I’d never encountered before, even at vegetarian restaurants, and they were a bit hit and miss.

For some reason I got full pretty quickly, so I didn’t get to the made-to-order noodles and such. Out of the Asian main course section, there was a pumpkin fried noodle that warranted seconds, but most of the other hot dishes were either not particularly memorable or not available when I was up there (one staff told me they were getting refilled in the kitchen, but I didn’t go back to check).

We saved room for the vast array of desserts: all manners of cakes, puffs, donuts, jellies, Chinese sweet soups, an interesting custard cooked in an eggshell, “homemade” chocolates (i.e. dark chocolate-covered nuts), and Häagen-Dazs as well as an egg-free brand of ice-cream. Not sure why they didn’t find a truly vegan ice-cream, but one kid who we saw make at least 6 trips to the ice-cream freezer seemed quite the fan. Though eye-popping in variety, only a few of the desserts were actually of decent quality; after a while, all the cakes started tasting the same.

As we were there on a Tuesday evening, the crowd was a bit thin, meaning more attentive service but less frequent turnover for the dishes. By 8:30pm they were already packing up. While it seemed at times they were going for quantity over quality, as in the case of the desserts, there were enough solid choices to get me happily full, and enough that I’d left untasted that could warrant a return trip. At 168 RMB (148 RMB for lunch, 15% gratuity on public holidays), it’s not a cheap meal, but the classy environment and the very fact of it being a genuine all-you-can-eat for vegetarians (a minority of the food is off limits for vegans) make this a good place to go for a special occasion.

After dinner, we biked over to the newish Xuhui Riverside Public Open Space (a.k.a. Shanghai Corniche) for a digestive stroll. On that summer weekday evening it was populated with locals of all ages dancing, rock-climbing, walking off their dinners and in general enjoying the breeze on the spacious, peaceful promenade.

Jendow Vegetarian (人道素菜)
2787 Longhua Road, near Longhua West Road (by Long Hua Temple), Xujiahui
龙华路2787号 (龙华迎宾馆内,近龙华寺)
(21) 6457-2299
Lunch: 11:30-14:00 ~ Dinner:17:30-21:00 (get there early!)



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Homemade PBJ frozen yogurt pops

Warning peanut-butter-jelly fans: this may keep you by your freezer for the rest of the summer.

While looking up a jiaozi recipe the other day, I caught sight of a link for “peanut butter frozen yogurt” and was instantly intrigued. It’s been hot. Sean loves peanut butter. I’ve been dying to expand my repertoire of desserts not requiring an oven. When I found how out easy it was to make (frozen yogurt really is just yogurt that’s frozen! Well, plus a few things around the kitchen), I headed immediately for the fridge.

Inspired by the recipe that recipe was inspired by, I added a fruity twist by throwing a spoonful of raspberry jam in with the peanut butter, milk, yogurt, and honey. The raspberry seeds and peanut chunks gave this sweet (and slightly salty) treat extra texture and a sort of natural, healthier feel.

While these creamy ice pops do contain whole milk, full-fat yogurt, and Skippy peanut butter (yes, not the most natural PB around), I’ve already convinced myself that this is still better for me than store-bought ice-cream with its chemicals and artificial flavourings (sorry, Magnum, I still love you). Once you try these, you will too :-)

And if you’re trying to do with fewer carbs this summer, this perfect combo of ingredients is basically a breadless breakfast on a stick that you can even take for the road. No, I’m not even kidding.

Berry peanut butter frozen yogurt pops
Adapted from this recipe. For enhanced texture, use crunchy peanut butter and jam with seeds/fruit pieces instead of jelly.

1/3 cup peanut butter
1 tbsp strawberry or raspberry (or other berry) jam
1/2 cup milk
1 cup (160g) plain, sweetened yogurt
2 tbsp honey (or more if using unsweetened yogurt)

1. Put all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. Do a taste test: it should taste very sweet (the sweetness will lessen once it’s frozen).
2. Pour mixture into popsicle molds or into shot glasses and place in freezer. If using shot glasses, stick a wooden stirrer or half a wooden disposable chopstick in the centre of each after about an hour. Freeze for another two hours or until completely solid.
3. Remove the frozen treat from its mold by running under or dipping in warm water. Enjoy!


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Cleansing the body and spirit at Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食)

Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食) is a vegetarian restaurant located on tranquil, tree-lined Xinhua Road. Its storefront window claims a menu free of mock meats, fried or deep-fried dishes, MSG, and carbonated beverages.

Wu Guan Tang is another name for zhai tang (斋堂), the hall where meals are taken by monks in a Buddhist temple. Wu Guan refers to the five observations a monk must keep in mind during the meal. (Some more info in English and Chinese.) And indeed, the interior of the restaurant evokes a serene, spiritual atmosphere — ironically hard to find in Shanghai’s touristy and money-grabbing temples — that encourages slow and thoughtful eating.

Sean and I had come here once before when our vegan friend came to visit over a year ago, but had somehow forgotten about it since then. Another friend of mine told me recently he’d tried the place and didn’t like it at all (too bland), which subtly kept me away until a reminder from an employee at vegan dessert shop The Freshary (which I’ll write about soon) inspired us to give it another go on Friday.

Their Chinese and English-Chinese menus are handwritten, showcasing daily selections of juice/congee/soy drink/etc. that repeat by week. Unfortunately, there are no pictures and the English names of many of the items aren’t very descriptive (e.g. “Mixed vegetable in sauce”), so it can be hard to make informed choices on a first visit unless you have done some research beforehand or ask the server for recommendations.

We started with two cold dishes, a refreshing Cold noodle in vinegar-pepper sauce (酸辣凉皮, 25 RMB) — mung bean strips with peanuts, walnuts, cucumber strips, and three sauces — and an Eggplant in sesame paste (麻酱茄条, 22 RMB), which was melt-in-your-mouth tender but barely tasted of sesame paste, if at all.

We also ordered two of their signature dishes. The Special baked potato (烤土豆, 18 RMB) is to die for: soft and buttery (not sure if they actually used butter though) with a thin, slightly chewy skin that’s full of flavour. The Steamed potato with carrots and pears (一品鲜, 28 RMB), more like mashed potato/carrot with slivers of mushroom served inside a large bell pepper, is also one to be savoured. A photo of this dish graces every English and Chinese webpage about this restaurant.

We also threw in a recommendation from the waitress, drawn in by the word “pita”. The Pita with kale borecole and wing beans (榄菜龙豆口袋饼, 35 RMB), with its funnily-shaped beans and inky sauce, looked a bit ominous at first, but was quite good with the warm pita pockets. We added a strip of cold eggplant to each pita to add textural variety.

All of these dishes exhibited delicate flavours that some may find too bland. But Sean, who likes to add salt to every other dish I make at home, really liked it, so this says something! In a quiet, secluded environment like this where loud flavours would be out of place, it is perhaps easier to find appreciation for a more subtle set of flavours. While I enjoy Vegetarian Lifestyle’s flavourful mock-meat dishes, there is only so much deep-fried bean product I can take in a month. I like that this restaurant dares to celebrate the vegetable for what it is, and to make vegetarian food truly light and healthful.

All in all, Wu Guan Tang is the place to go if you are in the mood for a clean, unpresuming, well-made meatless meal (and some killer potato dishes) in a relaxing environment, or if you’re a vegetarian looking for a break from oily mock meats. I’ve read that there’s an outdoor third floor dining space, and plan to check that out when the temperature starts to drop again and mozzies go back into hibernation.

Wu Guan Tang (五观堂素食)
349 Xinhua Road, near Dingxi Road
(21) 6281-3695 (reservations recommended)

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LightRefreshingCool: soba noodles with dipping sauce

Shanghai summer, electric with the endless buzz of cicadas, is in full swing. With the mercury hitting — and passing — 35C for days on end, hovering over a gas stove to make a hot meal begins to its appeal. Ice cream and fruit smoothies keep me cool, but what to do for an actual meal?

Enter soba noodles, which I’d prepared before in various ways. This very useful blog post I came across when googling how to cook soba noodles properly inspired me to do it the summertime Japanese way, served cold with dipping sauce.

I’ve made a few modifications from the above-linked recipe based on what I’ve got in the kitchen and to suit my own taste: plates instead of bamboo sieves (which look pretty but look like a pain to wash), peanut/sesame-based sauce rather than the traditional soba tsuyu, and whatever cool toppings I have on hand (or none at all).

The result is a quick-to-prepare and fun-to-eat meal that’s high on flavour and low on heat. And kinda addictive — I’ve had this three times in the past 4 days! The recipe below is my twist on the theme.

15-minute cold soba noodles with nutty dipping sauce

100g soba (buckwheat) noodles (荞麦面)

Dipping sauce
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tsbp peanut butter or pure sesame paste (black or white)
1 tsp black rice vinegar (鎮江香醋)
1 tsp sesame oil
4-5 tbsp lukewarm water
1.5 tsp sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce

1 tbsp finely chopped green onion
Half a carrot, cut into matchsticks
Half a cucumber, cut into matchsticks
Other raw veggies or cold tofu

1. Sprinkle soba noodles in large pot of boiling water. Use chopsticks to immerse all noodles in water, and cook on medium heat for 5 minutes or until cooked through (taste to test).
2. While noodles are cooking, prepare the toppings by cutting up the vegetables. If using carrot and/or cucumber, sprinkle lightly with salt and drizzle with a little sesame oil.
3. In a small bowl, mix all sauce ingredients together with a spoon. Peanut butter may remain in small clumps. Taste and adjust amounts to suit your preference. Place green onions in sauce.
4. Once noodles are cooked, drain into a colander, then rinse under a steady stream of cold water until noodles are cool to the touch. Wash the noodles actively by picking up bunches and swishing them around directly under the water until they are no longer gummy. Or follow these detailed steps. Because Chinese tap water isn’t safe for consumption, either do a final rinse with potable water, or pour (fresh) boiling water over the noodles as a last step.
5. Take small bunches of noodles and place them one by one on a plate or serving platter.
6. To eat, pick up a portion of noodles with chopsticks and dip briefly in sauce, then eat immediately. Serve with cold vegetables.

Serves 1. Increase amounts proportionally to suit additional diners. Each person should get their own bowl of dipping sauce, unless you don’t mind sharing :-)

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In love: light green spaghetti

I’m in love with the zucchini in noodle form.

Although its heavy-handed supermarket packaging upsets the environmentalist in me, I’ve learned to peel back the plastic and see it for the astonishingly versatile vegetable that it is.

Having come across pictures of enviable zucchini noodles, I just had to get my hands on a julienne slicer and try it for myself. After a good long look in my local Trust-Mart last week, I settled for a clunky 8.9 RMB double-ended vegetable peeler/grater that, while decent with the zucchini, birthed bruises on my finger with its half-brained non-ergonomic design.

The great thing about the zucchini is that it’s firmer than a cucumber but not hard like a carrot, making it a delight to handle on the chopping board. Once I got the hang of it, my zucchini-noodling quickly got up to speed. I left the zucchini strands to “sweat” for 15 minutes — not sure if this step is necessary, but I’d rather wait than risk having the stuff go watery on me. Plus, this gave me time to cook the rest of the ingredients.

As zucchini water drip-dropped away, I cooked up some button mushrooms, doufu gan (dried tofu) strips, and the chopped zucchini, and made a simple white sauce. Once this was done, I cooked the zucchini noodles with some green pepper strips, threw everything else back in the pan along with some herbs, and got them nice and cozy with one another.

WOW. I’d thought my ribboned zucchini was good, but this was mind-blowing. These zucchini noodles had the look and feel of spaghetti: firm but yielding with just enough bite, substantial (not watery or mushy) and perfectly al dente. Tastewise, the mild-flavoured zucchini “held” my rather thin cream sauce very well in each forkful, making for delightful slurping.

The other ingredients, especially the mushrooms, were excellent accompaniments, which was a relief considering I hadn’t followed a recipe. The tofu, which is mildly flavoured with five-spice, had been a last-minute throw in, but rather than clash with the western flavours, it gave the dish a welcome meatiness (kinda like chicken strips).

The most divine aspect of this meal was that I was getting the pasta satisfaction from a vegetable, and felt completely guiltless about it. Who knew that simply cutting a vegetable differently could transform its identity, and even allow it to unabashedly take the place of something so comforting as pasta?

Next time, though, I’ll try to make it an even lighter, greener spaghetti by getting the zucchini from the wet market, where it is sold wrapped only in its own skin.

Zucchini spaghetti with mushrooms in cream sauce
I’m sure these zucchini noodles would also be at home in a tomato-based sauce, though I like the idea of a creamy sauce because the noodles are already low in calories — if I’m doing all this work to make my own noodles, might as well indulge a little bit :-) Feel free to play around with the toppings, but don’t let their volume overwhelm the noodles.

The noodles
4 medium-sized zucchini, peeled
1 tsp salt

The topping
1 pack (12-16) button mushrooms, thoroughly washed and sliced
2 pieces dried tofu (the less flavoured the better), thinly sliced
1 green pepper, julienned
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

The sauce
1 cup milk (I used whole milk)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
Salt to taste

Black pepper
Italian herb mix (basil, oregano, rosemary, etc.)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Olive oil

1. “Noodle” the zucchini by running a julienne slicer/large-holed grater along the length of the vegetable. With each zucchini, stop when you reach the seeded core. Chop up the cores into small bits and set aside. Place zucchini noodles in a colander and toss with salt. Set a dish underneath the colander to hold drained liquid.
2. Heat 2 tsp oil on a pan and add mushrooms. Sautee 2-3 min until soft, then season with black pepper. Remove from pan.
3. Add tofu slices and chopped zucchini (I added half and saved half for the next meal, but feel free to add all) to pan and cook for 2-3 min in leftover mushroom liquid. Remove from pan.
4. Prepare a basic cream sauce by melting butter on low heat, stirring in flour until smooth (about 3 minutes), and adding milk and cooking on medium-heat heat for another 3 minutes, stirring the whole time. Add salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl.
5. Heat 2 tsp oil in pan, add garlic, green pepper, and zucchini strands. Cook, tossing, for 3 minutes, then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Add herbs, red pepper flakes, and salt to taste. Allow sauce to be thoroughly reheated, then serve with freshly ground black pepper.

Serves 2 as a meal (4 medium-platefuls).

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A bad phone break-up with our neighbourhood Dongbei diner

I broke up with one of my favourite restaurants yesterday. I’d been collecting photos to write a positive review of this place, but what I already have will do for a farewell.

As Sean and I don’t eat out super often, there are few restaurants where we would be considered “regulars”. The one place we’ve found ourselves going back to again and again, and has in recent weeks become our Sunday night ritual, is a small Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) restaurant at the back gate of East China Normal University, a pleasant 15-minute walk/5-minute bike ride from our apartment.

The love

Known for its jiaozi (dumplings) and other solid, cheap eats, Dong Bei Ren Jia (东北人家, a very generic name) is somewhat of an institution among nearby residents as well as current and former students at the university. Sean and I have written about it on CNNGo and I gushed about its caramelized sugar-coated sweet potato fritters in a long-ago post.

It used to be a tired, grubby place with a dozen or so tables and way too many bored-looking employees, but early this year, after its usual month-long Chinese New Year hiatus, half the space was turned into a fried chicken stall, while the other half was given a makeover, its staff and menu — including the fritters — trimmed and delivery made available.

We loved it for its homestyle dishes, cheap and delicious jiaozi (including 2 vegetarian varieties), and its reliable presence in the midst of constant change along the back gate food street. I’ve taken out-of-towners here despite its unimpressive decor. We had been devastated to hear a few months back that the food street was going to be demolished, but had been elated to learn the closures wouldn’t reach this restaurant. While its laoban (owner), a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who barks and spends most of the time reading a magazine at the cashier, is less than charming, we grew to appreciate her gruff manner as part of the experience. On one of our recent visits, she asked if we were vegetarian, and that’s when I thought, awesome, she recognizes us now! and began to get that fuzzy feeling of home: This had become our Chinese neighbourhood diner.

This past Sunday, we decided to try out their delivery since I wanted to make a cold appetizer at home. As free delivery requires a minimum 30 RMB order, we ordered 4 dozen jiaozi — 2 dozen chive & egg, 2 dozen zucchini & egg — for 32 RMB. The dumplings arrived, hit the spot; our love for the place grew.

The break-up

Then yesterday. I’d taken the day off to rest up at home, and we were both in the mood for jiaozi even though we’d had them just three days ago. I called up the place at 11:30am, but was told that they couldn’t deliver to our apartment since the laoban‘s son wasn’t around. Sean agreed to bike over to pick up the 4 dozen dumplings, so I told them fine, I’ll come pick it up.

Ten minutes after Sean left for the restaurant, I got a call from the laoban, demanding to know why I wasn’t there yet and if I was coming ’cause the food was getting cold. Puzzled, since I’d assumed Sean would’ve arrived by then, I told them “Will be there soon”. I called Sean immediately after hanging up, and he said he’d just picked up the food. Cool.

A few minutes later, I got a call back from the woman, who immediately started yelling at me. She asked if I’d sent a “foreign student” to come pick up the dumplings, and I said yes. Why didn’t you tell me on the phone?? You didn’t say you were sending a foreigner to get your food so we made another 4 dozen for you. Now we have 4 dozen jiaozi that’s going to go to waste. What kind of customer are you??

A bit confused — how did she not have a clue that Sean was there to pick up the food I’d ordered? — and not knowing how to fight back, I took a deep breath and simply said Sorry.

Which unleashed another round of barking that made it seem as if I had tricked her into cooking a duplicate order. Feeling personally attacked at this point, I told her her attitude was bad and I was never going back there again… to which she snapped, It doesn’t matter if you don’t come back. The point is you made me waste all this food.

To that, I suggested that she serve the food to someone else, and hung up.

This was outrageous. How likely was it that two different parties had placed the exact same (vegetarian, no less) order at the same time? She had misinterpreted the situation, given him “my” dumplings that were ready to go, then called me to ask if I was still coming before I knew Sean had already been there and left, and when I told her “will be there soon” had started making another batch. A communication mix-up that could’ve easily been avoided if she’d checked with Sean — or asked me straight out if I’d sent a “foreign student” — before doing anything with the food. (Sean told me later that he had told her “I ordered” not “I want to order” so it wasn’t even a language problem.)

And really, what kind of business would call a regular customer (I’m sure she figured out who were were) and scream at them, and then basically tell them I don’t want your business? Maybe I hadn’t been clear on the phone, but it was she who made the mistake, so why not swallow the loss rather than end the relationship over 32 RMB (which really could be salvaged if she fed the food to someone else)?

Perhaps that — her lack of business and common sense — is the reason half her store got taken over by a fried chicken take-out. Dongbei diner, it was lovely getting dinner with you, but you’ve given me no choice but to look elsewhere for my dumpling fix. I’ve ripped up your delivery menu and deleted your number so I won’t be tempted to call, and won’t be coming ’round to your parts again ’til I’m in love with another.

Bulldozer, come get ’em if you want.


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The obligatory soup noodle post

There’s one of these homemade-Asian-noodle-soup photos in practically every food/cooking blog, it seems, so I might as well add mine now: buckwheat (soba) noodles with plump shiitake mushrooms in homemade stock, drizzled with sesame oil.

To up my vegetable intake for this meal, I fried up some well-salted and -sesamed zucchini ribbons (now my favourite way to eat zucchini :).

There’s something hugely satisfying and — in a land where broth or stock is often another way of saying MSG-water — wonderfully pure about slurping a simple bowl of noodles in stock I’ve made myself.

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Carrefour salad bar, revisited (hold the chicken essence)

The other day, I returned to Carrefour’s Chinese salad bar for the first time after my bad experience with the “chicken essence” seasoning (鸡精) a few months back. This time, hoping for a lighter, MSG-free meal, I told the guy to hold the chicken essence and to go easy on the salt. As he seasoned my salad, his ladle obediently skipped the bowl of yellowish powder.

I came back and dug in, expecting to find it a bit bland. On the contrary: the taste of MSG was overpowering and lingered in my mouth and throat late into the night, as did my disappointment. Very sad to report I won’t be going back for another few months, if again at all.

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