Going vegetarian should never be a sacrifice. Vegetarian food should be as nutritious, satisfying and memorable as the best of non-vegetarian food. I am of the opinion that non-violence should not be the only objective and pleasure we can derive out of what is known in some circles as "compassionate eating" -- the meal itself should bring joy, inspire conversation and make us feel proud to introduce meatless meals to non-veg friends.
It is for good reason then that my favourite restaurant for the past 6 months or so is a cheery little establishment called Vegelife Cafe, located in my neighbourhood, SS26 Taman Mayang Jaya, Petaling Jaya.
The bold colour scheme, whimsical lighting and comfortable seating and dining arrangement is a refreshing change from the usual insipid interior of most Chinese vegetarian restaurants, where solitary Guan Yin calendars more often than not pass off as decor.
You can tell that cleanliness and ambience is a priority to those who manage and operate this outfit. You enter the restaurant cool, clean and crisp and exit cool, clean and crisp. Cooking is done in a separate area so that patrons are not subjected to the heat, grease and steam that define Chinese kitchens.
Service is quick and efficient, and the staff are friendly and good at remembering regular patrons' preferences (no garlic or onions for some; no dairy for Vegan Eugene, no plastic straws, paper napkins or anything disposable for certain inveterate treehuggers).
Vegelife's winning point, however, is the consistency in the quality of its food. Each visit convinces me that there is such a thing as affordable, tasty and healthy Chinese vegetarian food that isn't made up of gluten, starch and reconstituted-soy-whotsits.
An impromptu interview with the manager of the restaurant revealed that no monosodium glutamate or artificial flavour enhancers are used in their soup stocks. Instead, the restaurant makes its own soup stock using baby corn, cabbage hearts and other vegetables. The result? Soups and gravies that are naturally bursting with flavour.
My favourite comfort food, the VL Green Tea Lui Cha Rice, is more appetising than it looks. A rich green tea soup infused with mint, basil and pepper is served with brown rice, roast peanuts, salted vegetables, and diced tofu, spinach and long beans. I describe it as "spa for the stomach".
Their iced honey lemon drink is zesty and vitamin-packed.
Newbie vegetarians shouldn't have to miss out on their favourite foods. Eggless nasi lemak served with a soy-based cuttlefish sambal affords spicy satisfaction.
Pasteurised and carton-packed fruit beverages can never come close to tasting like freshly pureed watermelon juice like what is offered at Vegelife.
A sizable portion of fried yee mee with lots of vegetables provides a nutritious alternative to instant noodles and preservative-laden mock meat.
A taste of Southeast Asia -- Have a red bean dessert drink with a scoop of coconut milk and sago to round off your meal.
Thai green curry noodles with grilled eggplant, long beans and seaweed-covered vegetarian soy 'fish' offer a variety of flavours and textures -- all of them good!
Crispy bits of nori seaweed in the peppery and savoury seaweed fried rice makes this entree a definite crowd-pleaser.
My only complaint about this establishment is that the drinks are somewhat overpriced. Chinese tea is available, it's just that they don't put it on the menu because they hope that you will pick the RM4.50 smoothie or ice-blended concoction instead.
Most of the entrees on Vegelife Cafe's ala carte menu range from RM4.50 - RM 8.90 in price, which is rather more expensive than the average roadside vegetarian takeaway or chettinad mess hall, but the quality of the food to a certain extent justifies the higher cost. Perhaps it is just as well that glass bowls of colourful confectionary are placed on the counter and offered to patrons to sweeten the surprise of having to pay over RM10 for an individual vegetarian meal.
Still, if you want a different dining experience that is easier on your conscience and health than it is on your pocket, Vegelife Cafe will please even the most exacting of carnivorous and omnivorous palates.
Address: 2 Jalan SS26/6, Taman Mayang Jaya, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Malaysia