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Week 1 – Because-I-Hate-Plants Diary

Day minus-3 (Saturday, March 29):
A trip to my favourite organic grocer – Passionfoods – to stock up on vegan cheese, nutritional yeast (“nooch”), coconut yogurt, cashew butter, raw chocolate and other cruelty-free goodies!

Day minus-2 (Sunday, March 30):
Attended Animal Liberation Victoria‘s vegan market day in St Kilda, devoured an indulgent salted caramel coconut ice cream (by Zebra Dream), ate some delicious vegan homebaked cookies, and came home with yummy toasted coconut vegan marshmallows.

For dinner, I fed friends Palak Tofu (an Indian-style spinach based curry with medium-firm tofu I fried in aromatic spices). Confession: I ate a bit of Sichuan fish left over from dinner the night before, but hey, a 75% vegan day before my challenge even officially began was pretty good, right?

Day minus-1 (Monday, March 31):
Bought some assorted Jelly Bellies and ate all the red ones before bed, because though their “bellies” (tehehe) are vegan, I don’t know if their food colouring contains bugs. KP went to the supermarket because he had run out of milk for his coffee, and I told him without batting an eyelid to stop murdering baby cows. He looked sad and told me not to say that, because it’s horrible, and I retorted that it’s even more horrible to not acknowledge it. Heh, apparently, I’m already preachy even though I haven’t even started this challenge! The last non-vegan thing I ate before my first week was a white chocolate Magnum right before bed.

Day 1 (Tuesday, April 1):
Lunch: Palak Tofu (leftovers from Sunday)
Dinner: Soba noodles with broccoli and shiitake mushrooms, curry miso broth, toasted sesame, garlic and nori.

I went down to the cafe on the ground floor of my office building to grab my usual soy cappuccino, and for the first time, wondered if the chocolate powder they always sprinkled on top was actually vegan. I guess I should ask for it without chocolate next time. It felt very strange to be looking at all this food I knew I couldn’t eat – a new experience for someone with no food intolerances and previously no dietary restrictions of any sort. My eyes lingered on the muffins and baked goods that I rarely glance at usually. It’s not difficult yet, only strange, but it’s only day 1!

Tonight, Angela asked if I wanted to have some funny Chinese mock-meat jerky stuff while waiting for dinner to cook and we had a look through the ingredients. The following conversation happened:

Angela: Would you like some soy jerky?
Me: Are you sure I can eat that?
Angela: Hmmm, it has food colouring, but I’m not sure if it’s the one made from bugs or whatever
Me: I probably shouldn’t eat it…
Angela: You could look up the additive number? I’ll look it up for you.
*5 minutes later*
Angela: *reading from Wikipedia* Errrr, it says it used to be made from coal tar but now it is mostly made from petroleum”. There you go, you can eat it. No animals, just petrol.
Me: Great :/

Day 2 (Wednssday, April 2):
Today, I found out through some internet research that Jelly Bellies are not, in fact, vegan! I’m not only talking about those pesky reddish ones that may be made from cochineal or whatever, but in fact, each and every Jelly Belly has been “polished” with beeswax to give them their shiny coat! Ugh! Needless to say, my vegan friends were not happy about this revelation!

I’m realising that randomly craving baked goods and pastries in the afternoons or early mornings is going to become annoying. It’s not like it’s something that happens everyday, but maybe once or twice a week, I feel like I just need that donut as an afternoon post work pick-me-up. Other times, like this morning, I just feel a whim to grab some fresh macarons on the way in to work! Resisting these things isn’t difficult just yet, but it might start to be a week or two in!

Lunch: Mixed mushrooms vermicelli from Miss Chu
Dinner: Caught up with a friend over zucchini dumplings and vegan Mapo Tofu from Shandong Mama
Dessert: Dairy-free pandan-coconut gelati from Gelateria Primavera Gelateria Primavera on Urbanspoon (by Spring Street Grocer – the most delicious and authentic gelati I’ve found in this city so far. O SO STRETCHEEE!)

Day 3 (Thursday, April 3):
As I was a bit under the weather, my yearning for baked goods reached its peak – I needed to go to the post office, and went to one further away because I knew there would be a place that sold vegan cupcakes across from it.

Lunch: Chives gyoza from Gyoza Douraku Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon (my top 3 favourite dumplings in Melbourne!) and Chocolate-on-Chocolate vegan cupcake from Joy Cupcakes
Dinner: Vegan cannelloni with mushrooms, crumbled tofu mince, quinoa, tomato, thyme and oregano, topped with mozzarella-style Cheezly
Dessert: Citizen Cacao raw vegan chocolate truffles (bought from Spring Street Grocer last night) in flavours “strawberry and coconut” and “Proud Mary cold drip coffee”

Day 4 (Friday, April 4):
After four days of not being able to choose to eat 85% of what I came across in the city (though it’s not as if I would have normally eaten those things just because I came across them!) I was excited to go to a vego restaurant where I’d be able to choose from most things on the menu. Shakahari is one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne, but the service on this occasion left much to be desired :( Shakahari Vegetarian on Urbanspoon

Lunch: Left over vegan cannelloni
Dinner: A variety of vegan deliciousness from Shakahari Vegetarian restaurant in Carlton. A highlight was the tofu caramel dessert.
Drink: Passionfruit juice with jelly from ChaTime

Day 5 (Saturday, April 5):
The long-awaited day arrived! I ate with several friends at Smith & Daughters, a Latin-cuisine vegan restaurant we’ve been waiting on to open its doors for a year, and then another couple of weeks for us all to be free and able to get a group booking. It did not disappoint. The blogosphere has been strewn with rave reviews for this eatery since its opening “First Taste Feast”, to which many “real” bloggers were invited. I suppose I could add my own two cents at some point! Smith and Daughters on Urbanspoon

We also stumbled upon Merry Cupcakes nearby on Brunswick street which is a healthier kind of (vegan) cupcakery using less saturated fat and less sugar in their goodies – I grabbed some of the said goodies for tomorrow.

Dinner and Dessert: A veritable Latin feast at Smith & Daughters
Non-vegan things I ate: Some milk chocolate sent to me from a friend in Germany and half a Spanish hot chocolate from San Churro.

Day 6 (Sunday, April 6):
Late morning snack: A Merry Cupcakes “Blondie” cupcake
Lunch: Mushroom, egg and goat cheese galette from Breizoz (not vegan, obviously)
Dinner: Tom Yum rice noodle soup and fried vege dumplings from Loving Hut. It was not amazing, to be honest (and was not my first choice, as I wanted the vegan Bun Bo Hue but they had run out) Loving Hut on Urbanspoon
Dessert: Mister Nice Guy “Golden Gaytime” mini cupcake

Cooked some shell pasta and combined it with diced tomatoes and the left over “mince” filling from the cannelloni I made earlier in the week to create a healthy “bolognese”, and froze it in serving portions.

My cupcake from Merry was delicious, though it definitely “tasted healthier”, if that makes sense, even compared to regular vegan cupcakes – KP had a taste and didn’t like the icing in particular but perhaps he could taste the soy in it whereas I could not? Merry Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

I have realised how much more I’m spending on groceries as a “vegan”, despite not buying any meat. Firstly, vegan substitutes to things such as yogurt, cheese and mayo tend to be quite expensive. Quinoa isn’t exactly cheap, and tofu and tempeh don’t cost a lot less than meat if you’re buying a good amount of it. Plus, now that it’s not possible to run out during lunch and get a delicious rice paper roll for $3, I have to take packed meal every single day for work and, at least until I learn to eat “boring” cheap lunches and sandwiches, it’s ending up more costly. However, I’m having heaps of fun creating delicious vegan meals.

Being the weekend, I was going to allow myself a non-vegan snack or two from the market – but disaster struck! I asked for a spinach and cheese borek, but was given a spinach and lamb borek, and only realised the meat was there after taking a bite! Despite being an omnivore only a week ago (and almost certainly intending to return to being one in three weeks) I was so disappointed and angry! I felt weirdly tainted and… and impure… which I’m sure is a rather melodramatic thing to say, though it’s not because I’ve turned into a crazy hippie, but probably more because I felt a powerless loss of control that is hard for a control freak like myself to cope with!

What I’ve discovered is that, on top of the happy knowledge that I’m eating an almost entirely cruelty free diet right now, the self discipline has had amazing validating qualities for my obsessive compulsive tendencies! It’s one thing to do what I was doing before – to not eat meat as much as most meat-eaters, to not drink dairy milk and consume less than the average amount of dairy – and of course an entirely different thing to know that you can’t, and to actively stop yourself from doing so. I used to not infrequently go a whole day without consuming any animal products, but more often than not that was something that just happened rather than a conscious decision. Even just one day consciously deciding you cannot do something makes a world of difference.

Week one summary?
I have only eaten three things containing any animal product (milk chocolate, a hot chocolate and a galette) in my first, shortest week of the challenge, not including being unwittingly served lamb and having previously thought that Jelly Bellies were vegan.

All things considered, this challenge is proving simultaneously easier and harder than I thought it would be.

ShanDong Mama

I want to tell you about an unassuming, homey dumpling eatery located in an arcade off Chinatown. Among the abundance of dumpling houses in this area, ShanDong Mama has several points of difference which elevate it above its competition.

ShanDong Mama

I’ve been on the hunt for a really good dumpling since I moved to Melbourne 18 months ago. It’s not that places that serve them are hard to come by (they’re everywhere!) See, the main problem with Melbourne’s “dumpling scene” is that it’s still dominated by a few big old powerhouses. These places – many of which are all named, for some inexplicable reason “Shanghaisomethingorrather – serve dumplings that mostly fall into the Northern Chinese variety.

Shanghai Village Dumplings - one of Melbourne's most popular dumpling houses

Shanghai Village Dumplings – one of Melbourne’s most popular dumpling houses

The upside of these dominating establishments – which are crazy popular with all demographics and packed full to bursting every night – is that they have ensured the average young Melbournian has at least a basic experience of Asian dumpling consumption. Yes, this adopted city of mine has its own unique dumpling “culture” – and I’m grateful, even if it’s a bit unbalanced and one-dimensional.

Still, from time to time I get the alarming question “what is a dumpling?” and the rather impossible one “will I like them?”

Well. Originally, “dumpling” referred to lumps of dough the British liked to eat with suet – think gnocchi, without the deliciousness of egg and potato in the mix, but with animal fat. Appetising?
Thankfully, international cuisine has hijacked the word in the last century! Today, the Asian “dumpling” is basically any food encased in a wrapper of any shape or form.
So, will you like them? Unless you have an innate issue with the concept of food wrapped in other food, with the right knowledge, you shouldn’t have to look too far to find a type suited to your tastes.

But I digress. A lot. Can one digress before one has even begun? This isn’t a discourse on Dumpling Education of the masses – that’s what the Dumpling Dictionary I’m building is for.

I couldn’t ignore the light hype that started around ShanDong Mama in the Melbourne food blogosphere earlier this year. The reviews told the story of “Mama” from the ShanDong province of China, an area known for cuisine based around its abundance of fresh seafood. It was all a bit charming, and I decided I had to check it out for myself.

ShanDong Mama

The decor is basic, but the restaurant is neat and modern and it certainly doesn’t exude the same greasy scunginess of many of its rivals.

They’ve also managed to produce the clearest (read: most English-user-friendly) menu of any Chinese dumpling restaurant I’ve seen anywhere which isn’t an overpriced fusion establishment. Each dish isn’t merely listed cryptically as a badly translated Chinese dish name but described in detail with each ingredient mentioned. Vegetarian dishes are clearly marked, the majority of the vego dishes also being vegan. They also have a kind of dorky sense of humour… (evidence below)

ShanDong Mama

In fact, as far as marketing, presentation and image are concerned, this little family business ticks most of those boxes you wouldn’t expect its peers to tick. A bit of sleuthing around Google tells me that Mama’s daughter and godson handle these PR and marketing matters, even cleverly inviting bloggers to sample their food when they first opened.

But what about the dumplings, you ask? Well, the first thing that any dumpling amateur will notice is that their panfried dumplings look somewhat different from other Chinese fried dumplings. They’re long and open-ended and have sort of angular/rectangular-ish bottoms where they join up to the dumpling-next-door. Now, I’ve tried doing a bit of research but I can’t claim to know whether this is a traditional feature of a dumpling from the ShanDong province. It is, however, eye-catching and if not authentic then certainly a neat presentation feature.

ShanDong Mama

ShanDong Mama

Visual quirks aside, the dumplings here are among the tastiest I’ve had so far in Melbourne. The filling is beautifully fresh, and gives the impression of being lovingly hand mixed rather than carelessly mushed up and mass produced. (This YouTube video will prove that impression correct!) You feel like you’re eating “real food” here – homemade and fresh – a rare thing in a inexpensive dumpling house.

Break open a dumpling and you’ll see – each ingredient distinctly identifiable to the naked eye rather than disappearing into processed-ball-of-meat-land; each ingredient easily savour-able by the palate.

Boiled fish dumpling with fresh mackerel, mixed and whipped by hand, coriander, chives, with home made dumpling skin.

Boiled fish dumpling with fresh mackerel, mixed and whipped by hand, coriander, chives, with home made dumpling skin.

Filling combos here are rather refreshing and creative compared to your typical pork-and-cabbage varieties (although they did also have that option on my first visit). The vegan option is based around finely grated fresh zucchini, which is certainly a nice change.

On multiple visits I have tried the “Melbourne Dumpling”, the pork and dill, the beef, the vegan, and of course, Mama’s signature dish – the mackerel dumpling in both its fried and boiled forms.

The zucchini lends a bit of sweetness as well as satisfying bite and subtle crunch to the veg dumpling, which is fast becoming one of my favourite simple vege-based dishes.

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Vegan zucchini dumplings with crushed tofu, spring onion, coriander and ginger

Lacking that dodgy “fishy taste” that often comes with seafood in budget restaurants, the mackerel dumplings are quite worthy of the positive reviews and are undeniably fresh and nicely textured. The menu describes how the fish is whipped into a mousse by hand and seasoned with coriander, ginger and chives.

While delicious and a little different, there’s nothing too remarkable about the meat dumplings I sampled. Every dumpling traditionalist would ask how the boiled pork jiazoi went, and I can tell you – above average. This certainly isn’t the iffy, suspiciously pink “pork” filling you’ll find at Camy’s, and definitely superior to the lumpy ball syndrome in Shanghai Village’s pork dumplings, but I’ve had better. I have yet to try the chicken dumplings and the prawn option.

The “Melbourne Dumplings”, a contemporary house recipe, were a little bit of a let down. Boasting such an impressive number of ingredients (four types of seafood, chicken, lemon rind, olive oil, parsley and garlic) that it leaves you wondering if they could possibly all go together, it was a bit anticlimactic in its lack of flavour explosion. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the flavour – it was still a more-than-decent dumpling – but it just lacked the wow-factor I was hoping for. This offering was supposedly inspired by Melbourne’s multicultural food scene, which explains the odd European additions of olive oil, parsley and lemon rind? I feel like this dumpling somehow fell prey to something similar to the Pizza Topping Complexity Syndrome, where eventually, once exceeding an ingredients threshold for optimum tastiness, it all starts to go downhill a little.

Pork potstickers

Pork potstickers

ShanDong Mama

Mama’s handmade jiao dough has a good, springy consistency rather than a gooey one. The wrappers used for the panfried dumplings differ from those wrapping the boiled dumplings – which is really as it should be! Too many budget restaurants serve their potstickers (panfried dumplings) with the same gloopy, doughy wrappers as their shui jiao (boiled dumplings), which immediately makes them complete failures as potstickers as they just don’t crisp up to the appropriate texture for being considered a potsticker.

The “right” wrappers allow the panfried dumplings at ShanDong Mama to maintain their unique tunnel-like shape, which, when I now think about it, actually optimises crispy surface area! The browning also releases a very subtle sweetness in the dough – caramelised dumpling, anyone? Additionally, the wrappers used for the different dumpling varieties also differ – for example, the boiled mackerel dumplings are encased by a very thin, delicate skin, its fried version uses a slightly thicker skin, while the boiled pork dumpling uses a medium-thick homemade skin but its panfried counterpart uses a medium skin of what is almost certainly a different type of dough. Dough Science: an exercise in texture balance, flavour pairing and structural integrity.

Sweet and sour shredded cabbage salad with a dash of sesame oil

Sweet and sour shredded cabbage salad with a dash of sesame oil

I’ve been so busy trying Mama’s dumplings that I’ve only had an opportunity to try two of the eatery’s other dishes; however, both were fantastic! The simple shredded cabbage salad packed a massive flavour punch I definitely wasn’t expecting with its sweet and tangy dressing, and some fragrant sesame oil thrown in. The black fungus salad was similarly tasty in a surprising way, and to boot, both dishes were vegan-friendly and only two out of a fair many herbivorous offerings!

In reading other reviews, I’d stay away from the noodles-based mains and stick to dumplings if you’re after a carby fix!

Black fungus tossed in aged vinegar, sesame oil and garlic

Black fungus tossed in aged vinegar, sesame oil and garlic

The dumpling hunt isn’t over yet, but I’ve certainly found a favourite among the inner city’s numerous cheap dumpling houses – and I will be returning again… and again.

Address: Shop 7, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne 3000

Shandong Mama on Urbanspoon

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