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If there’s one thing that can send vegetarians into a tizzy when dining out, it’s a simple little condiment called oyster sauce. There’s a bit of confusion, and many people, even in restaurants, actually believe there are no oysters used in its preparation, so they may steer you toward a dish that they sincerely think is vegetarian. But there is oyster extract or essence in oyster sauce (although there is a vegetarian version made with mushrooms out there). So if you choose not to eat fish, that means asking questions, as oyster sauce is such a popular ingredient, adding that earthy umami taste to so many Chinese dishes.
You shouldn’t have to worry whether or not the food meets your dietary needs and tastes when dining out (or stress over the fate of poor little oysters). So if you’re a vegetarian, there is one thing you can do to ensure a satisfactory dining experience: Just say so. If you do, many eateries will want to make you happy. After all, good news travels fast, and if they treat you well, the coconut wireless will make sure your friends and family hear about it.
Royal Garden Chinese Restaurant is a great example. Popular for its delectable dim sum, the kitchen also prepares a variety of traditional Cantonese dishes. And if you don’t eat meat or fish, general manager Ian Tam says that’s really not a problem.
“Sometimes vegetarians come in and ask what we can offer,” he says, noting that if you don’t want oyster sauce, they’ll leave it out and/or substitute soy sauce.
But you have to speak up. And if you do, Tam recommends two meatand fish-free dishes to Dining Out readers that are not on the Royal Garden menu. Vegetarian Lettuce Cup ($13.95) is a fun concept. Lettuce leaves, shaped like a cup, are accompanied by stir-fried diced mushrooms, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. Just fill each lettuce cup with the vegetable mixture, roll it up and chow down. The combination of tender mushrooms and crisp vegetables gives the filling an appetizing texture, and it’s fun to eat.
It’s served with a special sauce on the side (but again, be sure to remind your server that vegetarians don’t eat oyster sauce).
Another request-only dish, which Tam says is quite popular with vegetarians, is Braised Tofu with Mushrooms ($13.95). It combines whole black mushrooms, tofu, choi sum and fungus stir-fried in a light brown sauce.
So there’s no need for stress when dining out, vegetarians — just say so, then relax, leave the oysters in their bed and enjoy the Royal treatment.
Royal Garden Chinese Restaurant
Ala Moana Hotel
410 Atkinson Drive, Honolulu
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Daily, 5:30-10 p.m.