Savoury Cantonese-style dishes at Zen Xin Vegetarian Restaurant
Zen Xin Vegetarian Restaurant is a vegetarian restaurant located along Nagore Road in the heart of George Town. One thing that strikes me when dining at a Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Penang is the creativity involved in preparing innovative vegetarian alternatives that closely resemble traditional faux meats or seafood dishes. It is almost like you are eating the real thing, from texture to taste! Using various plant-based ingredients such as tofu, seitan, mushrooms and soy-based products, the chefs are able to create wonderful dishes.
Deploying Cantonese-style cooking techniques and recipes, Zen Xin offers an array of soups and dishes that can be savoured with rice, as well as stir-fried noodles.
To begin our meal, we ordered a bowl of faux shark's fin soup with "crab meat", topped with some coriander leaves. Served on the side was black vinegar to enhance the soup's flavours. This thick umami broth was packed with a generous amount of mee sua (wheat vermicelli) and tender faux "crab meat". It was comforting to note that no sharks were harmed in its making, allowing us to enjoy guilt-free a dish that closely resembles the real thing.
The next dish was the faux crispy chicken drizzled with a sweet sauce topped with julienne cucumber and sprinkled with some black sesame seeds. The delicious warm and crispy golden bite-size pieces were made from seitan. Seitan, derived from wheat gluten, exhibits a remarkably pliable texture that lends itself to being crafted into an array of forms. When cooked, it develops a hearty and chewy resemblance to meat.
This vegan favourite has a venerable history that traces its origins to ancient China, particularly to the sixth century, where it was serendipitously discovered by Buddhist monks who immersed wheat dough in water. Traditionally prepared, seitan is minimally processed and retains many of the natural health benefits of wheat. However, many commercially produced varieties are highly processed and less nutritious.
We also ordered the tofu smothered with a vibrant green spinach sauce, topped with fermented black soybeans and coriander leaves. A sprinkle of red goji berries added colour to the dish. The distinctive, robust flavours of the fermented black soybeans were very much needed to elevate the overall taste of this tofu dish.
Here is an interesting anecdote about fermented soybeans. In 1972, they were discovered inside a tomb in South Central China that had been sealed since 165 BCE. They were also mention in the annals of history within "Shiji", a monumental account of ancient China's past, written by the Western Han Dynasty official Sima Qian in the first century BCE. These beans, unaltered in their preparation over thousands of years, offer us the unique opportunity to taste history itself.
The claypot monkey head mushrooms, infused with dried chillies and Thai basil leaves, present a savoury and appetising delight. These bulbous and furry monkey head mushrooms, also known as lion's mane mushrooms, taste almost like tender, juicy chicken. Recent research has revealed their numerous health benefits – I would make them a valuable addition to my pantry without a doubt.
I have often ordered stir-fried potato leaves but this is my first time tasting a version where it is cooked down into such a soft and tender texture that it melts in your mouth. Sans any garlic and seasoned only with some salt, this preparation allowed the subtle natural flavours of the potato leaves to shine through.
It is worth noting that some Buddhists who follow a strict vegetarian diet abstain from the five pungent vegetables – onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks. This is followed in the belief that these ingredients stimulate the senses in ways that may disrupt meditation and concentration.
The final dish to arrive was the faux mutton and potato curry cooked in a creamy coconut-base curry infused with aromatic curry leaves. I cannot imagine cooking a curry without onions and garlic. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised that the mutton curry was not only delicious but it possessed well-balanced flavours, delivering just the right amount of heat to awaken the senses. It went very well with a bowl of steamed white rice.
I will certainly return to savour more vegetarian dishes. Zen Xin also offers 8-course set meals for groups of 10 people. However, it is advisable to pre-order these set meals as they require substantial preparation.
If you are dining at Zen Xin, do take some time to admire the facade of the Straits eclectic-style double-storey townhouse. The beautifully restored architecture preserves the eclectic blend of the Chinese-style front door with gilded panels as well as European-style jalousie windows, Majolica nouveau wall tiles and decorative floor tiles. These townhouses are not only architectural gems but also a beautiful example of how different influences can come together to create something truly unique.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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19 October 2023
Zen Xin Vegetarian Restaurant
42, Jalan Nagor, 10050 George Town, Penang.
Tel: +604 – 228 6828 / +6016 – 563 4383
Open: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm except Mondays