Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Happy Veggie Restaurant, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “During this dark time of the pandemic, it is vegetarianism that gives me hope.”
Before Kelly Tam opened her very own vegetarian restaurant, she once used to work at a nail salon in New York. However, she’s always loved good food. In a cooking class held by Tzu Chi, she met a cooking teacher named Christina Chew who is also a Tzu Chi volunteer. The vegan sushi Christina created impressed Kelly greatly, and served as an inspiration. “It’s really delicious!” Kelly had expressed. “I was surprised that you can eat such delicious sushi even if you are a vegetarian.” Years later, when Kelly was struggling with her business due to the pandemic, she had another chance encounter with Christina. Delighted to see that Kelly had put her culinary talents to good use, Christina brought her whole family to support the business. And thus, the seed of friendship planted years ago had begun to bloom.
Witnessing the Changes
Kelly Tam grew up in Malaysia, where her whole family practiced Buddhism and many of the adults upheld a vegetarian diet. Although she was not vegetarian at the time, she’s always had a favorable opinion of the lifestyle choice. “About ten years ago, two things made me become a vegetarian,” Kelly recalled. “The first thing is that I have a friend whose whole family eats vegetarian. I went to their home to have meals. They cook delicious vegetarian food, which made me believe that vegetarian food can be tasty.” The second thing Kelly remembered was a documentary she’d once come across about the way animals are slaughtered for food. She was shocked, and couldn’t bear the thought of adding to the cruelty. “I couldn’t accept that I killed by eating meat; I decided to become a vegetarian.”
Kelly had been determined to stop eating meat, and so she did: “In the first year, let me be honest, I still thought of the taste of meat because I was so used to eating meat. But I didn’t get caught up in it too much, and I soon felt the benefits of being a vegetarian,” said Kelly. Because of the stress of managing a brand new restaurant, Kelly used to have frequent stomach aches. After giving birth, she also experienced high blood pressure. “Although I didn’t have to take medicine, I felt uncomfortable from time to time and my skin often had a rash.”
Kelly told us that after becoming a vegetarian, her stomach problems eased, her blood lipid levels dropped back into a normal range, and her skin rash faded. “You may say it’s unbelievable, but this is truly my experience,” said Kelly. Although it is very stressful to run a restaurant — and especially so during a global pandemic in the wintertime — Kelly says that her long-time vegetarian diet has helped her develop a more optimistic mindset. “I often tell myself that it will pass and everything will get better.”
Delicious Veggie-Focused Food
“In Malaysia, many people eat vegetarian, and a lot of vegetarian restaurants have emerged in recent years.” Happy Veggie Restaurant, the new restaurant Kelly opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown, maintains the memory of strong Southeast Asian flavors, and has steadily attracted customers with its many vegetarian Malay dishes. “Malaysia is characterized by multi-ethnic communities. We have ethnic Chinese, local Malays, and Indians. These are ethnic groups all with a long history of vegetarian traditions. They also make good use of spices. That’s why Malay veggie food is unique. It has a good taste with a mixture of multi-ethnic cuisines.”
Kelly recommends the Yong Tau Fu curry noodles. In traditional Malaysian cuisine, curry noodle soup is made with onions, garlic, and dried shrimp. In the vegetarian version at Happy Veggie Restaurant, Kelly adds a variety of healthy spices instead, such as turmeric powder, lemongrass, curry powder, chili, and more. The soup base is made by boiling fresh vegetables, and the side dishes include sprouts, tofu, bean curd, and what’s come to be known as “fried and stuffed three treasures,” which are stuffed eggplant, stuffed tofu, and stuffed green peppers. Finally, adding the homemade noodles and topping it off with coconut milk, the curry noodle is complete — and full of enticing Southeast Asian flavors.
According to Kelly, many of the ingredients used in the dishes are made by the restaurant, such as the noodles in their delicious homemade pumpkin Ban Mee Soup. In order to ensure that the noodles contain no eggs but still carry flavor, Kelly mixes mashed pumpkin with flour. The pumpkin noodles retain a fresh vegetable element, and paired with a light soup, it is deeply gratifying. Upon adding choy sum, shiitake mushrooms, and fried Pleurotus and eryngii, the noodles are even tastier.
In addition to the noodle soup, there are many other popular dishes at the restaurant, such as Nasi Lemak cooked in coconut milk, vegetarian futomaki with avocado, roti chanai with hot and spicy curry dipping sauce, and more. After enjoying the main course, one is inclined to try the mouthwatering Malaysian desserts as well. Kelly explained that the desserts are cooked by herself, and use less sugar to keep them both tasty and healthy. It takes a great deal of work to prepare the ingredients, such as in their signature Mo Mo Cha Cha. For this dish, Kelly uses three different kinds of sweet potatoes: yellow sweet potatoes that are rich in carotene, purple sweet potatoes with their antioxidant qualities, and small but sweet Japanese sweet potatoes. With taro, coconut milk, and sago, a comforting bowl of Mo Mo Cha Cha sparks delight no matter the season.
Hand-in-Hand With Tzu Chi During Difficult Times
After five months of preparations, Kelly opened her vegetarian restaurant in February of 2020. It was not long after, however, that restaurants across the nation shut their doors in an effort to protect communities from the rapid spread of COVID-19. Even after the reopening in May, it’s been tough at Kelly’s restaurant. “Business in Manhattan’s Chinatown depends on tourists and office workers in the Financial District. Now, there are no tourists and more people work from home. It is really difficult to do business here.” When speaking of running the restaurant during the pandemic, Kelly said she is faced with one obstacle after another: “Many old restaurants rely on takeaway orders, but for newly opened restaurants, it’s very hard. Because no one knows that we are open, nor that we are a vegetarian restaurant, so there is hardly anyone ordering takeaways.”
Kelly said since her restaurant is semi-underground, it’s hard to be seen from the street. Fortunately, the ability to place tables outside means people who walk around the area might notice the restaurant and give it a try. “But now the weather is getting cold and COVID-19 is rebounding again. I am very worried that the restaurant will be closed again,” said Kelly. “New York is so cold in the winter, even if we can open and prepare the heating machine for street tables, it is going to be hard to eat outdoors. Maybe it’s okay for the young people, but for elderly people who like to eat vegetarian, they can’t stand to be eating outdoors in such cold weather.”
The pressure of running a newly opened vegetarian restaurant during an ongoing pandemic can be overwhelming, but Kelly said that being vegetarian has brought her good things in life. One day, Christina Chew — the cooking instructor and Tzu Chi volunteer Kelly had met in a cooking class — passed by Happy Veggie Restaurant, having happened upon it accidentally. She’d simply walked in and wanted to try the vegetarian dishes. She didn’t expect to enter a restaurant run by her student, but it was an extremely cheerful surprise, nonetheless. Christina Chew brought her family to enjoy Kelly’s vegetarian food many times, and recommended the restaurant to her friends as well. Tzu Chi volunteers also visited Kelly and invited her to join the Very Veggie Movement, encouraging her to provide discounts to those who sign up as a way of reaching more people who are interested in trying vegetarian foods.
“It’s difficult now, really difficult. But it’s also a blessing to make vegetarian foods every day. I am happy about that.” Kelly hopes that this small vegetarian restaurant can persevere through the pandemic, and that more people will be encouraged to try the delicious Malay vegetarian food she lovingly creates for her customers.
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