Here’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In the US, we don’t eat a ton of meat. Probably two to three times a week, and that includes tuna. In fact, unless we are making a special dinner or having our customary fish on Friday, we almost never cook meat for ourselves.
We eat meat at restaurants. We almost never get vegetarian meals at restaurants. Here’s why. Have you ever noticed that there are very limited vegetarian options at restaurants? Normally there’s some sort of pasta with eggplant or mushrooms in it, a grilled vegetable platter, or the "vegetarian version of a meat dish" option. While pasta with eggplant or mushrooms is fine, that’s what we eat at home. Grilled vegetables are fine, but usually not particularly exciting. It’s the "vegetarian version of a meat dish" option that really bugs us. Who wants vegetarian chicken cacciatore? Who wants vegetarian chicken stirfry? The whole strategy of taking a tried-and-true meat dish and simply replacing the meat with tofu or black beans or tempe is wrong from the get go. Tried-and-true recipes are tried and true because they were based around meaty flavors, not neutral soy or beans.
There are interminable examples of this in college towns. There’s a restaurant in New Haven in particular that frustrates us. They serve ready made pastas and rice dishes that are just oily and bland, not excitingly vegetarian. We’ll never forget the Vegetarian Moroccan Tangine or the Tempe Pasta Carbonara. Blech. Oftentimes restaurants like this will try to fool you with salt, olives, garlic/ginger, herbs, or extra olive oil. It doesn’t work.
How does this relate to Indonesia and Malaysia? Well, this is a part of the world where people developed dishes from scratch around tempe and tofu, accentuating their particular tastes and textures, rather than trying to back into vegetarianism by ruining meat dishes. To be totally honest, we had never had really good tofu or tempe until we got to Jakarta. But when you try mendoan tempe or sambal goreng kering tempe or tahu isi, or even just a perfectly fried piece of super-fresh tofu at a Sundanese restaurant, you realize that this is how vegetarian food is supposed to be. In other words, not designed to be vegetarian, but designed to be tasty.
We know what many of you meat eaters are thinking. "Yeah, I guess tempe and tofu is OK, but it just doesn’t taste that good. Why not just eat meat?" We are sure that we can’t convince you for real, but trust us. We have been hooked.
As a final note: There is an exception to our rule that we never get vegetarian meals in the US. The first is Indian food. We’ve never felt undernourished with a meal of saag paneer, channa masala, and vegetarian korma. At the same time, we don’t avoid meat at Indian restaurants either. We should also note that conceivably, American vegetarian restaurants could do what many Chinese restaurants do here, which is figure out how to take gluten and yeast and other fungi, and create vegetarian bits that actually taste like meat. Of course, there’s little sense in recreating authentic meat flavors with fake meat unless you actually are averse to eating meat on principle. But the point stands.