A wok on the wild side
Vegetarian Chinese? Yes, Heaven and Earth's novelty extends to the menu as well
Heaven on Earth: Chennai's first vegetarian Chinese restaurant Pic. by S. R. Raghunathan
PERHAPS THEY had been on some strange cucumber juice and asparagus diet all week. That might just explain the way they dived into the buffet, kicking up their heels in glee and shovelling large quantities of fried rice and noodles into their ever-hungry mouths.
Or maybe it was just the food.
For, when Heaven and Earth, Chennai's first completely vegetarian Chinese restaurant opened with a buffet, their serving bowls were empty before you could say tofu. So, by the time we walked in, there were hungry crowds milling around the buffet table.
Eyeing them, Vivek Hira, the restaurant's flamboyant owner, dressed in a cheerful canary yellow suit that matched his walls, looked both thrilled and bewildered. "I never expected a response like this," he gasped, before rushing away to greet more customers, "They must really like this kind of food."
So much for the theory that Indians don't take to authentic Chinese cooking. And the theory that good Chinese food has to involve chilli chicken and batter-fried prawns. Hira's food does not bow to any desi traditions, and it's completely vegetarian.
"This is the food I grew up eating," says Hira, who is a vegetarian Buddhist now based in Malaysia. "I find lots of vegetarians here, from all communities," he adds, explaining why he decided to set up Heaven and Earth in Chennai. "But most Chinese restaurants here have maybe five items for vegetarians, we have 60."
Kenny Teng, the restaurant's Chinese chef, says the Buddhist vegetarians of China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand have developed a unique way of eating. And over the years, he says, they have come to share some sections of their cuisine, making this kind of food more pan-Asian than strictly Chinese. "We use more than 253 herbs," he beams, walking around in his office, which overlooks the restaurant's busy kitchen. "And, of course, grade A soya."
Soya, as most of Asia's chefs have discovered, is a vegetarian's best friend. Highly versatile, the bean can be flavoured, fried, boiled, sautéed, baked... the possibilities, apparently, are endlessThe wonder bean makes a guest appearance, at least, in almost every dish.
To begin with, it floats languidly in the sweet and sour soup, spicy, hot and a tad glutinous, thanks to the buffet pack, which has to be slowly and firmly elbowed to get anywhere next to the food.
After a pause, Hira emerges triumphantly holding a plate of fried rice he's managed to save from the mobs aloft. Made with chopped soya that's been fried crisp, it's a riot of textures and goes great with the Yu ball, a springy hand-rolled tofu ball, lolling in a spicy red sambal sauce. He also manages to salvage some delicious Peking buns, which are rolls of cottony bread stuffed with crunchy cucumber, slices of almost-meaty tofu and a sticky sauce.
The food's unfamiliar, but interesting their menu is even divided into Chi, Yu and Moon, based on three completely different kind of tastes, to make selection easier. If you like flavours that hit you like a speeding truck, take a while to appreciate the nuances of this food. But, take a wok on the wild side anyway, you'll find a whole new continent of flavours out there.
A meal at Heaven and Earth, on Mount Road, will cost approximately Rs. 400 per couple. Call 55161028 for more details.
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