By Noodlies, Sydney food blog guest reviewer, Walter Mason: author, dreamer, food blogger.

monks vegetarianVegetarianism has a significant place in Vietnamese culture. The observance of vegetarianism on the Buddhist Sabbath (ram) and on other key religious festivals is one of the most common forms of popular religious expression in Vietnam, and on such days the vegetarian restaurants can become quite packed. Even non-Buddhists in Vietnam can become enthusiastic observers of occasional vegetarianism. It is also an essential part of the indigenous Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai. In my book Destination Saigon I write about my friend, an enthusiastic body-builder, who I discover is from an old Cao Dai family. When I ask him if he still observes his ancestral religion he says:

“No – it’s so hard, and so boring. And so many days to be vegetarian! You know I go to the gym every day – I could never afford to eat vegetarian food so often. I would lose condition.”

Vegetarianism is frequently observed as a part of religious vows and pledges, special periods of prayer and devotion undertaken for specific personal reasons, or during times of sadness and difficulty such as the illness or death of a close relative.

This vibrant vegetarian culture is very much alive in Cabramatta, where many Vietnamese-Australians live. Vietnamese vegetarian food may take some getting used to for those more used to western vegetarian offerings. Strictly no dairy, naturally, and a great reliance on soy, gluten and other products prepared to look and taste like various meats. So in restaurants one can buy whole vegetarian ducks and fish, sliced vegetarian beef and pork, vegetarian fish balls and any number of other variations. These products are normally the flavour highlights of dishes that are largely made up of noodles, rice and fresh vegetables and salads. To my palate, Vietnamese vegetarian food is vastly superior to Chinese vegetarian, mainly because of its emphasis on fresh herbs and tasty soups. But the gluten prawns and beancurd-skin pork crackling can come as a surprise to western vegetarians.

For those of you who are vegetarian, or who, like me, have simply acquired a taste for the absolutely delicious Vietnamese vegetarian cuisine, here is my own list of vegetarian eating in Cabramatta. Keep in mind that, like most of Cabramatta, these places are open during the day only. All of the places listed are strictly vegan:

An Lac Vegetarian

1. An Lac Vegan – 94B John St, Cabramatta: Right in the thick of things, An Lac is probably the busiest vegetarian restaurant in Cabramatta. It’s been around for at least 15 years, first opened as a project of Phuoc Hue Buddhist temple. It has changed hands in recent years, and the new owners have given it a more glamorous makeover. What to eat? Hu Tieu Kho – warm glass noodles tossed in a yummy hoisin-based sauce and served with cooked vegetables and various meat-imitating soy products on top. Comes with a simple but tasty clear soup – a filling meal. Like all vegetarian restaurants in Cabra, An Lac also does a thriving trade in pre-made takeaway dishes, normally intended to be eaten that night. One of their curiosities is vegetarian nem – normally a sour preserved raw-pork sausage! An Lac is normally open till around 7pm, making it the only evening option on this list.

 duy linh vegetarian restaurant

2. Duy Linh – 10/117 cnr John St & Hill St, Cabramatta: Without a doubt this is my favourite of the vegetarian restaurants in Cabramatta. I use it often for catering parties and events, and the food is always delicious, fresh and beautifully prepared and displayed. Unless it’s the Buddhist Sabbath it’s normally quite quiet here, so it’s a good place to retreat on weekend visits to Cabramatta, when the crowds can become insane. What to eat? Everything, really – I am always lost because there are so many items on the menu that I love. All of their fresh rolls are good, and they have a nice range. I normally eat either Bun Cha Gio – fried spring rolls served over cold noodles with fresh Vietnamese herbs and salad; or Bun Canh Chua – thin rice noodles served in a traditional southern sour soup. Also delicious and worth trying (bring friends!): Goi Ga (vegetarian Vietnamese chicken salad).

happy vegan vegetarian restaurant

3. Happy Vegan – 11/68 John St, Cabramatta (down the laneway past the cafe with all the hunky Vietnamese guys sitting outside): This little restaurant has also been around for years, under various names. It can fill up, and the food is reliable and excellent value. Sometimes there’s even a Buddhist nun cooking in the kitchen, which adds greatly to the experience, IMHO.

What to eat? Bun Thit Nuong – barbecued soy-meats served over cold noodles with Vietnamese salad. Spoon lashings of the provided dipping sauce over it all and mix it up. Delicious, healthy and filling, this is a perfect lunch.

loving hut vegetarian restaurant

4. Loving Hut – 227 Cabramatta Rd, Cabramatta: The newest of the restaurants, it is kind of behind the main drag, on the stretch of Cabramatta Rd that runs parallel to the busiest part of John St. Apart from its simply wonderful name, Loving Hut also has a great atmosphere – noisy and crowded, with cheeky, smiling waitresses. The food is great, it’s a great spot to pick up free Buddhist books and CDs, and Supreme Master TV is always being played live on the big screen TV! What to eat? Banh Cuon – this is one of those dishes that is really common in Vietnam but almost impossible to find in Sydney. And it’s especially delicious in its vegetarian incarnation. Hard to describe – fat rice noodles wrapped around a filling of minced mushroom and beancurd, steamed and served warm over Vietnamese salad with vegetarian cold-cuts. You really need to try this dish.

5. Thien Truc – 1/4 Hughes St Cabramatta: Locals seem to really love the humble lunchtime buffet, though it’s all a bit too deep-fried for me. They still have a full menu, and this is the place I tend to come if I want a quick vegetarian pho.

What to eat? Banh Beo Bi – more of a delicious snack than a full meal, banh beo are small rice cakes topped with a sesame paste and served with a side of fried and chopped tofu (in imitation, incidentally, of pig skin).

The cakes are slightly sweet, but you cover them with an accompanying salty dipping sauce, with some chilli added. A wonderful combination of flavours!

6. Zen Gardens – Shop 2/48 Hill St, Cabramatta (just past Duy Linh restaurant): Not a restaurant, Zen Gardens is a wonderful little shop selling vegetarian dry goods and frozen dishes, along with green tea and other assorted things appealing to the Buddhist palate. Most people come for the frozen goods, and a whole range of dumplings, won tons and other delicacies are available in the freezer. What to buy? Korean starch noodles, expensive and authentic Chinese teas, tea paraphernalia and vegan 2-minute noodles from Taiwan.

By Noodlies, Sydney food blog guest reviewer, Walter Mason: author, dreamer, food blogger.

An Lac Vegan on Urbanspoon

Duy Linh Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

Happy Vegan on Urbanspoon