Vegetarian Food on Lantau Island

On Saturday morning after a hearty local breakfast, we headed to Lantau Island to visit the Po Lin Monastery and try the famed vegetarian food served there. Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s many islands and is among the least populated. More than half of it is covered in park land, making it a pleasant contrast to the densely populated areas of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

When I lived in Hong Kong in 1998-99, a visit to Lantau required a 45-minute ferry ride from Central and, if you wanted to go to the monastery, an additional bus ride to the far end of the island. Since 2006, you have had the option of taking the Nong Ping 360, a nearly 6 km gondola that leads from the Tung Chung MTR station across the water and over the peaks, dropping passengers off just a short walk from the monastery. The gondola ride, which takes about 25 minutes, is not for the faint of heart!

Along the way, you are treated to a spectacular view of Hong Kong International Airport. Built on neighboring Chek Lap Kok Island with tremendous amounts of landfill, HKIA serves more than 53 million passengers a year and will soon be building a third runway and additional gates.

The Nong Ping 360 gondola sets you down in a shopping and entertainment area called the Nong Ping Village. Built in a Chinese architectural style, it contains a number of very touristy attractions and, of course, a Starbucks. We would have hurried past the village and on to the monastery but a stealth storm caught us. We sought refuge in a tea shop for an hour, where we learned the intricacies of the Chinese tea ceremony.

After the rain, we headed to the Tian Tan Buddha, a 34 meter (112 foot) tall bronze seated Buddha statue that was, until 2007, the largest seated Buddha statue in the world. You have to climb 240 steps to reach the statue and on this overcast and misting day, the view was limited. Afterwards, we visited the Po Lin Monastery across from the entrance to the statue. 

The monastery, which dates from the early 1900s, is famous for its vegetarian food. When I visited in 1998, the food was very tasty. With the opening of the Nong Pin 360, the number of visitors has increased tremendously and, it seems, the quality of the food has declined.

The spartan dining room was filled with visitors, mostly Chinese. We purchased a ticket in advance for a set meal and the dishes were brought by a waiter.

The meal began with an odd soup. We struggled to identify the ingredient but eventually decided it was some sort of a yam or sweet potato. The texture was very soft and the broth itself was nondescript.

A dish of stir-fried lettuce and shitake mushrooms. I expected that the mushrooms would have more flavor but these were pretty bland. Of course, I should point out the Buddhist vegetarian food is generally supposed to be bland – no onion or garlic, for example – as the purpose of food is to sustain life, not to bring pleasure.

Stir fried vegetables and firm tofu. While this was a simple dish, the vegetables had a pleasing crunch that added some much-needed texture to the meal.

A stew of corn, peas, and tofu in a tomato sauce. This was pretty tasty because the corn provided a more pronounced flavor than most of the other dishes.

This stir fry dish had a trio of mushrooms, baby corn, carrots, and textured vegetable protein. TVP is basically made from soy flour, the after product of soybean oil extraction, and can be fashioned into meat-like pieces. This dish was actually pretty tasty and did provide more of a meaty feel.

An interesting deep fried dish like a spring roll. The outer skin was very flaky, perhaps made from tofu skin? The inside was very bland but of course the crunchiness offered a nice change of pace.

Interior view of the fried spring rolls. I think the filling was primarily daikon radish strips and carrots, although I may be wrong about that.

Overall, the meal was a disappointment. The experience of getting to and from the monastery by gondola was interesting, though. While on the way there, we noticed a hiking path that more or less follows the gondola’s path from Tung Chung to Po Lin. It looks like it would take about 2-3 hours to hike. Maybe on a future trip the focus should be on hiking the route instead of eating the vegetarian food. 

As we left the monastery, the rain started to fall again. Along the path back to the gondola, Rudy spotted a shop (a tent, really) selling douhua, a dessert made with very soft tofu. You might best call it “tofu pudding” and it is served with a mild sugar syrup and has a pleasing texture. Served warm, this was the highlight of the trip, a perfect conclusion to an otherwise bland meal.

Vegetarian Thai Food – Khun Churn

Recently, we had a friend visit from San Francisco who is vegetarian, trending vegan. Now, I spent two years or so in university as a vegetarian, so my reaction to vegetarians isn’t inherently hostile. Plus, unlike some vegetarian friends we’ve had visit, this friend is very low-key about what he eats and that made it a lot easier to accommodate him. That said, the experience of trying some vegetarian Thai restaurants here in Bangkok was not so positive.

During his visit, we ate at two restaurants that are specifically vegetarian. The better of the two, which I’ll write about here, is Khun Churn. A 15-year old Chiang Mai restaurant, Khun Churn opened a branch a few years ago in the basement of the Bangkok Mediplex building, adjacent to the Ekkamai BTS station. The retail floors of the building are largely deserted and arriving at 7:00 one evening, we almost gave up on the restaurant being open, so many lights were already turned off.

We arrived to find a friendly and inviting space, though, nicely decorated and with welcoming staff. The menu is comprehensive and accommodates not just vegetarians but eaters of “Buddhist Jae” food, a sort of strict veganism that also includes no garlic, shallots, and certain other foods that overstimulate the senses. The kitchen is able to mix and match as you desire, leaving out ingredients that you don’t eat or including them if you do.

Our meal got off to a particularly good start with Miang Takrai Bai Chaplu – a version of Miang Kham, a popular Thai appetizer. The normal dish features betel nut leaves served with a variety of condiments – small pieces of lime, shallot, peanut, dried shrimp, fresh chili, and ginger. The name means, roughly, “many things in one bite,” and provides a nice way to perk up your taste buds in anticipation of the meal ahead. Khun Churn’s version contains sliced lemongrass, mint, roasted sesame, ground peanuts, roasted coconut, cilantro and chili paste blended together. Needless to say, the flavor packs a wallop and is intensely interesting. 

Sadly, the Miang Takrai was the flavor highlight of the meal. The next dish was Kuayteaw Lord, noodle rolls stuffed with tofu, black ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, and served with a black sweet and sour sauce. These were okay, but the sweet and sour sauce (mostly sweet) was the first of too many dishes that relied on the sweet soy sauce. Thai food is known for its balance of flavors – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy – and all too often, “sweet” was the dominant note.

The next dish was called “Merry Mushroom” and featured three types of mushrooms – erringi, Shitake, and oyster – breaded, deep fried, and served with an garlic and onion cream sauce. Well, that’s what the menu said. It was not a cream sauce, but was a soy, garlic, shallot, and coriander sauce. The Shitake mushrooms stood up well to the deep frying but the erringi and oyster mushrooms tasted like breading and nothing else. The sauce was okay, but didn’t stand out.

For the next dish, our guest asked us to order Pad Thai, so we ordered a version called Pad Thai Woon Sen, made with mung bean (“cellophane”) noodles rather than the typical wide rice noodles. This version was less sweet than many of the other pad thai dishes he had eaten on this trip, but the overall flavor was still a bit one-dimensional. Pad Thai relies on tamarind paste to form the sour base of the sauce. Without fish sauce, the dish ended up unbalanced and some sort of salt would have helped round out the flavor.

Since Khun Churn is a northern Thai restaurant, it seemed appropriate to try a famous northern dish, Nam Prik Ong. This dish is usually made with chili paste, ground pork, and tomatoes and is served as a dip for fresh vegetables and deep fried pork skin. Here, tofu was used instead of pork and the pork skin was replaced by a clever “tofu skin” that achieved the same texture in the hot oil. I hate to say it, but tofu makes a poor substitute for pork because tofu doesn’t add any flavor. Something – a little concentrated mushroom stock, perhaps – was needed to give the dish its characteristic meatiness.

We ordered another take on a classic dish, chicken stir fried with cashew nuts – Gai Pad Med Mamuang. This version substituted tofu for the chicken. The problem is, the original version (one of my favorite dishes) is made with oyster sauce or fish sauce, which gives the dish that satisfying umami flavor. Instead, they relied on sweet dark soy sauce which gave the dish a very sweet flavor but lacked the roundness or robustness that would have made the dish satisfying. Again, a pinch of salt or some mushroom stock might have helped deliver the missing element.

We concluded with a Gaeng Kiaw Waan – a green curry with tofu and vegetables. I was curious to try this because the previous Thai vegetarian restaurant we had been to served such a miserably watery version of this classic curry. The version at Khun Churn was more robust and had a creaminess that was enjoyable. Sadly, the flavor was still very sweet and lacked the necessary balance.

As a whole, the meal was good but not enough to make me want to return to the restaurant on its own merits. Instead, it will remain filed in that dusty category of places to bring vegetarian friends to.

Afterwards, we walked across the street to the Gateway mall, a Japanese themed mall, to enjoy some Japanese style shaved ice desserts. This is when vegetarian dishes being very sweet is okay!


Baked Stuffed Peppers

An entry a few months ago by Sonny got me thinking about stuffed peppers.  Stuffed peppers were a regular dinner main when I was growing up, one that I had mixed feelings about.  In general, I liked them.  But there was something about the taste of the green peppers after they were baked that I didn’t enjoy, finding them slightly bitter.  In fact, Roka won’t eat green peppers, pointing out – rightly – that they aren’t ripe yet, so maybe there is something to that.

Tawn has been saying of late how he’d like to eat at home more.  Unlike in the United States, it is actually easy to spend less money and eat more healthfully by eating out here in Thailand.  This, of course, assumes that you are eating Thai food, which is inexpensive, freshly-prepared, and free of most of the bad things that eating out in the US provides you.

The two things, Sonny’s entry and Tawn’s entreaty, came together and I decided to pull together a meal of stuffed bell peppers.  Since Tawn is avoiding red meats and poultry, I had to come up with a vegetarian option.  The various recipes I found online were not satisfactory so I concocted my own recipe. 


The main ingredient was Job’s Tears, a barley-like grain that is indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia.  I added to that a sauteed mixture of celery, corn, Japanese onions (like leeks but a stronger flavor), the chopped tops of the peppers, and garlic.  These were sauteed in a little olive oil, a jigger of vermouth, a few tablespoons of dark soy sauce, and a teaspoon of wocestershire sauce.  After the veggies were softened, I added a teaspoon of brown sugar and some tomato sauce, cooked it for a few minutes to blend flavors, then mixed it in to the Job’s Tears and added three chopped boiled eggs.  I added salt and cracked pepper to taste then chopped several handfuls of fresh basil leaves and added that with about 1/2-cup of shredded Parmesan cheese.

While the mixture cooled I parboiled the peppers for about two minutes each then cooled them under running water.  Stuffing the peppers and arranging them in an oiled baking dish, I cooked them covered with foil for 40 minutes at about 350 F until the interior temperature reached 150 F.  I uncovered the dish, added a dollop of ketchup on top of each pepper and another shaving of cheese, then baked for 15 more minutes until finished.

The result was delicious and beautiful.  There’s still a little something missing, a meatiness that is not there yet.  I think I could pan-roast some mushrooms to concentrate the flavor then chop them up and add them to the mixture.  Maybe.