Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Malay Asian Food, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “It’s a precious opportunity to participate in the Very Veggie Movement.”
The toll that COVID-19 has hefted upon the shoulders of nations across the globe is striking, indeed. As scientists and researchers mobilized to study the pandemic, evidence was quickly discovered that SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has a zoonotic source, signifying that it is a disease which was transmitted between animals and humans.
Tzu Chi volunteers uphold the loving guidance of our founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, by striving to always live in harmony with Mother Earth. One way we do so is through the adoption of a mindful, vegetarian diet. In recognition of the challenges that arose from the virus’s spread, Dharma Master Cheng Yen called people near and far to action — and to compassion.
And thus, Dharma Master Cheng Yen delivered her guidance for individuals to unite around their love of the planet, and for each other. The Very Veggie Movement was therefore created as a means of joining passionate hearts around the causes of animal rights, environmental protection, and public health, by raising awareness for vegetarian lifestyle choices.
On July 15th, 2020, despite the searing summer heat, teams of Tzu Chi volunteers from all over the U.S. humbly held door-to-door visits to restaurants and other food vendors, promoting the concepts behind the movement and compassionate cuisine.
Kok Hon Chong — the owner and chef of Malay Asian Food in Houston, Texas — said he’d been thinking about creating a vegetarian menu for the restaurant for some time, and Tzu Chi had brought him the perfect opportunity to do so.
A New Vegetarian Menu
It was a hot summer day. The restaurant slowed down at 3 PM after the noontime’s busy hours had finished. Kok Hon Chong, who has to serve as both boss and chef after the outbreak, seized the opportunity to finally catch a moment’s rest. Vaguely, he heard his wife chatting with someone.
“Vegetarian…free advertising…more vegetarian customers…” The keywords floated into Chong’s ears, and immediately caught his attention.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh, I should go and listen!’“
Recalling that day, Chef Chong said that he was fortunate to have been offered the opportunity: “Jennifer An told me a lot about why we should be vegetarian, and what vegetarian food is. She described it in a very clear and detailed way.”
Tzu Chi volunteer Jennifer An from Houston, Texas, came to the restaurant to promote the Very Veggie Movement, and the conversation that afternoon touched Kok Hon Chong’s heart. He promised to go home and think about how to participate in the movement and become a partner.
Kok Hon Chong came to the U.S. from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2000. First settling in New York, he worked in different kinds of restaurants for six years. Afterward, he moved to Houston, where his younger sister lived, got married, and started a family. He gained some management experience in partnering with others for a Chinese-American food restaurant. And now, he is the owner of Malay Asian Food in the commercial plaza near Highway 6, Sugar Land, Texas.
“There are many vegetarians in Malaysia. I met a Master before; he told me that I should open a Malaysian-style vegetarian restaurant. I have always wanted to try it, but I have been hesitant, thinking that it might be difficult,” said Kok Hon Chong. “Meeting Jennifer and Tzu Chi was really a precious opportunity for me. I kept in mind what Jennifer said, and thought and thought, even during the night when I was sleeping! I was thinking of making a vegetarian menu, and designed some delicious vegetable dishes, bringing more people to love vegetarian dishes.”
“Veggies Can Be Delicious!”
After making his decision, Kok Hon Chong came up with a menu of eleven vegetarian dishes. He then asked the Tzu Chi volunteer team to come back to the restaurant and help take photos. He cooked six dishes from the menu, happily presenting them to the team so they could try the dishes.
The food set before the volunteers was delicious.
The fresh tofu made by Chong, himself, was tender and flavorful. After being coated with potato starch and deep-fried, the tofu cubes were perfectly crispy. Served together with cauliflower, green peas, mushroom, carrots, and other vegetables, the tofu dish was presented on a sizzling hot iron plate, and topped with mushroom oyster sauce. The crisp and juicy vegetables paired extremely well with the crispy but tender tofu, making the whole dish a joy to sample.
Also offered to the volunteers was a dish of Thai sweet and sour ‘chicken.’ Chong had cooked the vegetarian chicken steak with his own secret Thai sauce. Together with fresh bean sprouts, tomatoes, and cucumbers, the dish was perfect for summer in Texas. There were also stir-fried noodles with soy sauce, fried rice noodles, and vegetarian stews.
Kok Hon Chong gained a bit more confidence in his vegetarian cooking after the delighted reception. “I can make wonderful vegetable dishes,” he said. “You just need to keep trying and keep learning. For example, a very simple bok choy stir-fry, with or without garlic; you can make it tasty. The most important thing is the cooking time, if it’s over-cooked, then the bok choy loses its crunchiness. You need to practice to get the right cooking time.” Chong said he personally also prefers vegetables over meat dishes, and thinks vegetarian eating habits are good for one’s health: “I am a vegetarian myself most of the time. With a suitable amount of exercise, I am in good health. For example, when I was burned by oil or cut by a knife, I healed very quickly.”
Determined to create a perfect vegetarian menu, Chong revealed that he had used a new wok for his vegetarian dishes. The seasoning and sauce must also be separated, he explained, so it would not be mixed with meat dishes. Now, he has mushrooms, oyster sauce, and vegetable extract powders for seasoning. In the future, he wants to use a wider array of vegan seasoning methods to ensure that the vegetarian dishes are just as gratifying to his customers as his meat dishes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the catering industry. Upon recalling the past few months, Chong sighed deeply. At the beginning of the year, business was booming every night, and guests had to line up to get in. At the end of February, the restaurant had suddenly lost all its customers.
“I think it was miserable in March! There was no business! I didn’t expect April to be worse, and then May to be even worse.” Because of the ongoing pandemic, most people were hesitant to go out even after stay-at-home orders were lifted, and Chong didn’t dare to hire more people. He works with his wife to take care of the whole restaurant, getting up early in the morning to buy the ingredients for the day, and then hurrying back to the restaurant to prepare the kitchen. The door opened at 11 AM, and previously, it had almost always been busy until the door closed at 8 or 9 PM.
In June and July, however, the restaurant business improved slightly. Chong’s restaurant is located in a residential area. The number of locals working and studying from home who ordered takeaway increased. Chong said most of the business generated is for delivery on weekdays, from Monday to Friday. Sometimes, people come to the restaurant during the weekends, and everyone is careful to wear masks.
He missed the atmosphere of the restaurant when business was good: “Many people came to eat, people passed by, or locals came in; there were people from outside the state who drove for an hour to come to my restaurant and eat my dishes.”
Business is difficult nowadays, but Chong hasn’t lost hope. He’s now looking forward to a better business — good enough for him to hire extra helpers. Then, he’ll be able to spend more time studying how to make vegetarian dishes. “For example, I always wanted to make a braised vegetarian duck with tofu skin. Frying the tofu skin crispy, then soaking in brine for one night, then steamed. And I want to use taro to make a Malaysian-style fish-shaped dish. The process is very complicated. It involves cutting, steaming, grinding taro and mixing in various seasonings and ingredients, and then using a mold to make a fish shape. It’s delicious and beautiful.”
Chong said that in the location where his restaurant is situated, there are also Taiwanese restaurants, Shanghainese food, Cantonese cuisine, American Chinese food, and buffets, but no vegetarian restaurants. He hopes that if he can make good vegetarian dishes with support from the Very Veggie Movement, he can take the opportunity to invite more vegetarian customers to the venue — and amaze more people with the unique flavors he creates with his Malaysian vegetarian cuisine.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!