For vegetarians living in Cambodia, the standard fare of vegetable fried rice, stir fried greens or noodles with vegetables can become a little monotonous after a while. At many Asian-style restaurants, vegetarian options simply use vegetables or tofu as a substitute for the main ingredient to appease those awkward customers who eschew meat or fish.
Fortunately, Phnom Penh has a number of great restaurants that view the absence of meat as an opportunity to experiment with the varied vegetables available in this region, and one that does this exceptionally well is The Vegetarian.
While the restaurant may lack a certain amount of originality in its name, it certainly makes up for this in creativity. In addition to offering sandwiches, noodles and spaghetti, the menu features a mouth-watering list of main meals which prove that eating vegetarian certainly doesn’t have to be boring.
Everything on this list of 24 different dishes is priced at $2-2.50 and despite not a hint of meat or a whiff of fish, every option is something a little out of the ordinary.
Standard vegetables such as broccoli and morning glory are augmented by more exotic-sounding offerings such as flower pepper, bamboo and lotus roots. These are mixed with a variety of sauces, nuts and soy to create a long list of tempting dishes, including Grilled Eggplant with Peanut Tomato, Olive Paste Fry Bamboo, Beancurd and Celery, and Golden Dry Curry Baby Pumpkin.
Drawing inspiration from other countries in the region, there is Indonesian Special Curry Sambal, Sri Lankan Stir Fry Winged Beans and Vietnamese Lemongrass Soy Fish. Vegetarian versions of Cambodian staples such as amok and loc lak offer the opportunity to experience these local favourites, safe in the knowledge that staff haven’t simply picked out the chicken.
After much deliberation, we settled on the Creamy Lotus Root with Cashew Nut and the Crispy Golden Tofu in Mushroom Sauce. We also chose to eat these with brown rice – one of the great things about The Vegetarian is that it serves both the brown and white varieties, which can be a nice change if you eat rice a lot of the time.
The tofu was evenly coated and nicely fried to a crisp, remaining soft and lightly flavoured in the centre. Mixed with mushrooms and finely chopped vegetables, the dish was served with a thin, light sauce. The presentation was excellent; perfect golden medallions topped with a rainbow of vegetables and garnished with a sprig of fresh coriander. Our stomachs were growling in anticipation as soon as it arrived on the table and we weren’t disappointed.
Unable to recall when I had ever eaten lotus root, I eyed the holey beige slivers on the plate with trepidation, unsure whether they would just end up tasting like a bland cucumber. But the vegetable turned out to be surprisingly crunchy and enjoyable. The smooth, creamy sauce had a wonderful nutty flavour and the combination was just fabulous. My only complaint would be that they went rather light on the amount of sauce, as there wasn’t much to go around and it was so tasty I could have eaten an entire bowlful!
The one thing we would order differently is the Crispy Fried Banana Oatmeal Sesame. Listed under ‘light meals’ alongside fried masala veggies and pepper salt tofu, we had assumed that this would be an interesting starter mixing sweet with spice, in the same way that many fruits are added to curries.
However, we found this was served not with chilli sauce but honey – this particular dish is all sugar, more like a breakfast or a dessert. Delicious and satisfyingly crunchy, but not what I would usually choose to eat at the start of my dinner.
All in all, The Vegetarian is a great place to enjoy a well-prepared, tasty meal at a very reasonable price – the total bill for two, including fresh fruit juices at $1.50 each, came to $10.75. The staff were friendly, the service attentive and the simple decor made for a pleasant, relaxing meal.
Verdict: The Vegetarian certainly rises to the challenge of making vegetarian food a delight rather than a hassle. Innovative combinations of flavours and textures have resulted in a menu that is very well worth sampling. Even my meat-eating husband can’t wait to return.
#158, St 19 (just north of Sihanouk Blvd)