“Vegan food.” The words often spark disgust and distrust, as Vegan food conjures thoughts of soy byproduct being squished into the shape of a steak, bland tofu burgers and vegan cult members crying, “Hail seitan!”
Along with the buffet and salad bar seen at many Chinese restaurants, Veggie Garden has a corner with literature on subjects ranging from environmentalism to ethical treatment of animals. Despite our murderous tendencies, we meat-eaters can feel threatened in this type of environment; however, the folks at Veggie Garden don’t have a beef with you. In fact, the majority of the customers at Veggie Garden are meat-eaters.
“My favorite customer is the one that’s [usually] eating meat because that means they’re not eating animals somewhere else, and that’s what we want,” said owner Joy Vidheecharoen. “We want to show people that vegan food can be good — good for you and good for the animals.”
It doesn’t matter to Vidheecharoen whether your decision to eat vegan food is based on ethical or health reasons – as long as maybe one day you’ll have ethical reasons. Passionate, but never condescending, she listened intently when I told her about my stint with veganism over some orange chicken fried in soybean oil. At the tractable age of 12 I became a vegan after watching a shocking video made by PETA (this was also the age that I chose to play clarinet to make Squidward Tentacles look a fool). This was a time when my decision between being vegetarian and being vegan was based on which seemed more hardcore.
Vidheecharoen’s much more informed decision to go vegetarian happened after being prodded by her coworkers at the Humane Society of the United States as well as doing some research of her own. She decided to go vegan a short while after for ethical reasons and has since become an unapologetic vegan. Everything served in the restaurant is vegan, but it wasn’t always this way; she cut some popular non-vegan menu items since she felt that as an ethical vegan it would not be proper to profit from non-vegan food.
Veggie Garden was first planted in 1997 as a vegetarian-vegan concept and has seen five owners since then. As a patron, Vidheecharoen had watched them all come and go before buying the restaurant last August. On top of owning and operating the restaurant, she works as a pharmacist and a professor at Richland Community College. She claims that many of her patients have needed her less as they started following vegetarian and vegan diets, but she wanted to help them along in their lifestyle.
“I could go and talk to people all day long about vegan and vegetarian, but I don’t have anything to show them. I think this restaurant is a really good example of how vegan food can be. It’s not rabbit food, we’re not serving salads. Because that’s what everyone thinks, right? ‘You’re vegan? Here, eat a salad!’ I don’t want a salad; I need something a little more in that salad! So the restaurant was an extension of what I already do at the pharmacy.”
For the first time ever Veggie Garden is benefitting from having a professionally trained chef to cook their Cantonese-style cuisine. Chef Jimmy Leung was trained in Hong Kong as an apprentice to a master chef. His 35 years of cooking experience started at the age of 18.
“He still calls his teacher his master. So we’re benefiting from these old, long-running recipes that he’s brought over from Hong Kong. It’s been really good. We’re really pleased with his cooking.”
The ‘meat’ at Veggie Garden is made of soy and wheat. While they currently do not use seitan, Vidheecharoen says she wants to start using it since it is something easily made in the kitchen. “If we’re making it, I know exactly what’s in it,” she adds. All of the sauces are made in-house. While the meats are usually shipped from Taiwan, where vegetarians and vegans are numerous enough to form a voting block, the restaurant’s vegetables are sourced as locally as possible, sometimes even bartered for with customers. When asked which of the restaurants 100 or so entrées she enjoyed, she said that the salt and pepper reminded her most of her past meat and potato indulgences.
“We slice the ‘meat’ into slices and then they stir fry it with red pepper, black pepper, salt and lemongrass. It’s a really simple dish. It’s super delicious and our meat-eating customers go crazy for it.”
Every vegan has his or her vice and for those with a sweet tooth, there are root beer floats, thai teas and gels. The root beer is made with a soy ice cream and the gels are even more interesting. They are a traditional Asian dessert made with some of the same ingredients in a biologist’s petri dish.
Unfamiliar vegan meats may sometimes seem like they started out in a petri dish, but the reality is that these foreign foods are made out of a few incredibly versatile ingredients—ingredients that are easy to grow right here in Texas. In Texas, cattle and soybean, meat-eater and vegan all stand on common ground. The question posed by Veggie Garden is to think about what we choose to use it for.