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Sunday April 3, 2011

Busy time for vegetarian outlets

For the annual Qing Ming festival, observers are not only relying on take-away food to offer to the souls of their dearly departed, there is a preference for vegetarian meals as well.

DURING Qing Ming festival in the olden days, families would slave over a hot stove for hours, from the crack of dawn, to cook a myriad of traditional Chinese dishes for the customary offerings to their dearly departed.

These days, though, homecooked offerings seem to be the exception rather than the norm, especially for those returning home from other states to visit the cemeteries or columbariums of their loved ones. For them, pre-packed food offerings are both a delicious and also a convenient option.

In George Town, Penang, food outlets catering to these customers are doing brisk business, and more so the vegetarian outlets as there seems to be a preference for healthy fare these days.

For the For You Yen Vegetarian Centre along Jalan Dato Keramat, Qing Ming Festival has been a hive of activity over the past 25 years.

Colourful variety: Happy Realm Vegetarian Food Centre’s Qing Ming package.

It will be no different this year. In fact, the outlet famed for its steamboat sets is usually closed on Monday, but it will be open throughout the 20-day festival period. During Qing Ming, which falls on April 5 this year, prayers can be conducted 10 days prior to or 10 days after the date.

For You Yen chef Alex Heng Song Ling has noted a changing trend in that customers are picking up their pre-packed orders at lunch instead of in the early morning.

“When my parents started the business, there were only about five vegetarian restaurants in Penang so Qing Ming was a busy time,” he relates. “Customers would come early in the morning for the food offerings but these days, pick-ups are usually at lunch.”

Heng says he has also observed that not only are more people these days opting for take-aways, it seems they are also cutting down on the variety of food offerings. “People these days are more conscious about avoiding wastage of food.”

The norm, he says, used to be 12 dishes, and 12 bowls of rice, fruits and kuih. “But most modern families are settling for less now.”

The outlet’s supervisor Neoh Ghee Yea showing the organic seasonings used in the cafe.

At For You Yen, the minimum order is three dishes and a bowl of rice. Conveniently packed in plastic containers, these orders are priced from RM12. But Heng is also quite used to preparing elaborate Qing Ming feasts too, some to the tune of RM600.

A grand offering would include everything from For You Yen handling the table setting to cooking a delicious spread of traditional delights such as lor bak, deep fried vegetarian “chicken”, sweet and sour “fish”, and curry.

Heng says the RM600 package includes 20 dishes, 13 bowls of rice, five fruit platters and six plates of kuih. In Kuala Lumpur, he points out, the same would cost at least RM200 more.

Heng is so popular that he even receives outstation orders. And he is willing to do them as long as they are made at least two days in advance.

“We have over 100 dishes in our a la carte menu for customers to choose. Some even order the special roasted ‘suckling pig’ which can cost anything from RM24 to RM68 depending on the size,” he says.

Apparently, those who order the “fake” meat, which is made with yam, beancurd skin and gluten, are mainly their Buddhist customers whose parents or ancestors were not vegetarians.

Have your pick: For You Yen Vegetarian Centre Chef Alex Heng Song Organic touch: Ling with the Qing Ming offerings.

“Although they themselves are vegetarians, they still want to make offerings that their deceased loved ones would enjoy,” Heng says.

The Hokkien community has seng lay (customary rules) to follow when making food offerings for their ancestors, he explains. “In ancient China, filial piety was a very important virtue to uphold and children would only offer the best to their parents and ancestors.

“Fish, chicken, pork, duck and crab were luxuries for the poor farmers so during Qing Ming, they would try to offer these to their deceased loved ones. Even on a smaller scale, they will at least have chicken, fish and pork.”

Dismissing the perception that vegetarian food is more expensive than meat items, Heng says meat is still more costly. He himself prefers food in their natural state. “I prefer fresh, quality vegetables in their original form over the fake meats,” he says.

“I do have customers who will opt for our a la carte menu of imported vegetables like the sugarcane flower and monkey head mushroom, which can be quite pricey. The sugarcane flowers are prepared in pumpkin sauce or Szechuan style and cost from RM18 onwards per plate.”

Another vegetarian outlet that will be very busy this Qing Ming is Happy Realm Vegetarian Food Centre on Burmah Road. After being in business for more than three decades, it can rightfully claim the distinction of being a pioneer in serving the tastiest vegetarian fare in town.

From as early as 6am, a team of cooks is already on the job deftly preparing trays of more than 20 dishes, enough to feed a hungry army.

Proprietor Lim Hong Joo says that during Qing Ming, the amount of food cooked is double the portion prepared on normal days.

“We cook and pack the food right up till 11am. Most of our customers pre-order the food although there are also walk-ins,” he says.

Lim believes the quantity or variety of food offered is not as important as the sincerity of the family members in honouring the spirits of their loved ones.

“It’s okay to have simple offerings. What’s important is for family members to get together once a year to honour the deceased,” he says. “There’s also no need to overdo things. If you have cash to spare, make donations in the name of the deceased to earn them merits in the afterlife instead of letting the food go to waste.”

As a way to gain a foothold in the business, Leaf Healthy House, a newly-opened vegetarian outlet on Penang Street, has given Qing Ming food offerings a healthier twist. The dishes are prepared with organic seasonings and natural ingredients, according to its supervisor Neoh Ghee Yea.

The café style place which opened on Jan 1 also has several dishes ready for customers to ta pau (take away).

“Some families actually consume the food after the prayer ceremony,” says Neoh. “So, although vegetarian food is healthy, we wanted to make it even healthier by using only organic seasonings in our food. Also, we use brown instead of white sugar and either olive oil or coconut oil in our cooking.”

Even the eggs are hormone and antibiotic-free, she adds. “These organic and natural ingredients are slightly pricier but they are much healthier. And rest assured, there’s no artificial flavouring, MSG, colouring or preservatives.”

The Leaf Healthy House’s menu for Qing Ming includes traditional favourites like curry chicken (soy based, of course), bangkuang char, stir-fried mixed vegetables, bean curd and lady’s finger curry.

“Every day during the Qing Ming festival (except Sundays), we will have three dishes, one soup and rice ready. The set costs RM6.90 each. The types of dishes and rice will change daily. We serve a variety of rice including brown rice, butterfly pea flower rice and mustard seed rice, depending on the day,” Neoh says.

Those who prefer less conventional offerings can opt for the café’s spinach, blue cheese, tomato, mushroom or basil and pine nut pastas and burgers.

“We have tong sui (Chinese desserts) too, and a variety of floral teas,” she says, adding that customers can also order from their a la carte menu and pick up the food later.

Banker Cindy Choong says she will be ordering from The Leaf Healthy House when she goes to the temple to pray this weekend.

“Most temples allow only vegetarian food to be brought in but my late grandparents loved meat so I will be getting some vegetarian chicken and mutton for them. I don’t think they would mind because the fake meat tastes just like the Real McCoy,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Besides, I want them to be eating healthy food in their afterlife as they were not particular about this when they were still alive,” she quips.

The 36-year-old says offering organic vegetarian fare is a good idea as some of the food would be consumed by the family members themselves or the temple volunteers, devotees and the poor.

“Vegetarian is good but organic vegetarian is even better,” she says.

To make orders, call 04-229 3078 (For You Yen), 04-262 7007 (The Leaf Healthy House) and 04-226 1918 (Happy Realm).

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