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January 3, 2010

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Valiant quest for vegan

FOR the seemingly innocuous choice to forgo meat, it seems vegetarians are one of those groups other foodies view with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Maybe it was the tirade from Gordon Ramsey, or it could be a certain comment from the bleachers -- I once had a vegetarian berate me mid-lobster -- that has fostered the feelings.

If vegetarians have to brave the doubtful blusters of their meat-loving fellow diners, then vegans are usually viewed with incredulous wonderment.

Nothing quite riles a foodie like those deemed to be forgoing pleasure.

On telling a fellow gourmet this week's review was vegan restaurant Anna Maya he was scornful. "I can't take the no meat crowd," he said dismissively.

However, it seems the "if it tastes good run with it" philosophy goes well when delving into the world of vegan delicacies.

One of the many delights of Anna Maya, which means "you are what you eat" in Sanskrit, is that it offers much more than a niche eatery for vegans.

Its food is wholesome, thoughtful and carefully prepared using fresh natural ingredients -- a good foundation for any restaurant.

Unlike other vegetarian eateries, its menu is unapologetically a celebration of the skills and techniques of cooking with vegetables.

It has always perplexed me why vegetarian restaurants serve mock meat.

If one eats at a vegetarian restaurant one doesn't look for something that is a pale imitation of meat.

Anna Maya is the brainchild of Japanese restaurateur Kazu Koikeda, who was inspired toward a vegan lifestyle through an interest in yoga and a subsequent trip to Kerala in southern India.

Set in a homely rustic cottage on Taojiang Road, the restaurant has a warm welcoming style with an eclectic array of antique furnishings, Indian and Buddhist statues and fabrics spread around.

Koikeda is an enthusiastic proponent of macrobiotic food, where whole grains and vegetables are emphasized and the diet is constructed on balancing the yin (stagnating) and yang (stimulating) effects of food.

Subsequently, the dishes she serves have an eye to their health-giving benefits with therapeutic Chinese and Ayurvedic meals and other specials that focus on the macrobiotic theory of using seasonal produce to strengthen the body.

Koikeda also sources organic produce and gets most of her vegetables direct from a small organic farmer in Fengxian District.

Anna Maya's veggie burger (right) might just be the best in town.

Admittedly it isn't a packed field, with few good vegetarian options in the city, but this version can hold its head high in any company.

The chickpea and bean patty is moist and flavored with aromatic fresh herbs, which is encased in rustic, homemade bread made from Indian whole wheat flour, a Mongolian buckwheat flour and oatmeal.

This nourishing, substantive burger came with a side of soft cooked slices of beet-root and was topped with generous portions of fresh ripened avocado, roasted cherry tomatoes, mixed lettuce and a tofu mayonnaise.

Prices are reasonable, with a set meal of a soup, salad and mains around 130 yuan (US$19) with mains around 50 yuan. "Things are too expensive in Shanghai. I wanted my restaurant to be cheaper, otherwise it's unfriendly," Koikeda said. Its attention to detail also makes it charming.

For those seeking little heart and soul in their food, Anna Maya has an endearing neighborly feel and is a calm, little restorative escape from Shanghai's hustle and bustle.


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