Food & Drink, Reviews

All I have is a twenty: Affinity Vegetarian Garden

To start with, let me note that I’m not a vegetarian, and I didn’t write this week’s column for vegetarians. Don’t get me wrong: I welcome any non-face-eating readers to read and enjoy what I have to say about anything and everything, including all kinds of food. But I have to assume that almost any vegetarian in Winnipeg will be well aware of Affinity Vegetarian Garden already, so they might learn more reading some other fine piece in the Spectator Tribune’s pages. Of course, that strongly implies that I’m reviewing a vegetarian restaurant for the benefit of meat-eaters, and that may sound a little whacky, but go with me here.

After graduating from university, I spent a year(ish) living and travelling through Asia, though the majority of my time was on the island of Xiamen, a small island city off the East Coast of China. In advance of my trip, I had a thumbnail sketch of the ancient country’s politics and millennia-long history, and a love of what I believed to be “Chinese food”. It was only after I’d spent some time there that I came to realize how far off the Westernized Chinese I was eating was from most of what’s actually consumed in China. And I fell in love with the cuisine for the first time.

Quick: what’s your favourite dish? Thick-battered chicken balls, sweet and sour pork, or perhaps meat-filled won-tons? Of course Westerners love that kind of thing, but it’s really not an accurate representation of Chinese eating habits. Meat consumption per capita is so much lower in that country than in North America, such a high meat ratio is actually very atypical. Meals are usually dominated by vegetables, rice, or noodles. Meat is used, but a little goes a long way, and often enough, none at all is needed.

Let me tell you about my favourite Chinese dish: it’s a spicy stewed eggplant in a red sauce, served with steamed rice. The eggplant is buttery soft, never rubbery. The flavour includes some natural sweetness but nothing overpowering. My year in China I managed to learn perhaps ten words in Mandarin, and qiézi (eggplant) was one of them. I ordered it at least once a week and saved the leftovers for lunch. I’ve been searching for this dish for over five years and never found anything close. But Affinity Vegetarian Garden’s chili eggplant dish is nearly perfect. Despite the name, it’s not spicy, but the sauce is balanced beautifully.

Dumplings, a savoury dough pastry with a filling, usually either steamed or fried, are another staple of both Chinese (jiăozi) and Japanese cooking (gyoza). They’re soft and a little chewy, never flakey, and often include pork in the filling. I’ve tried Affinity’s dumplings twice: steamed both times. The ingredients are listed as cabbage, carrot, mushroom, and soya protein. Mushrooms aren’t my favourite, but the ingredients are so finely shrededed in this dish it’s not a problem for me. The flavour and texture are perfect; there is no sense that an ingredient is missing or that an awkward vegetarian substitution has been made, and if you’d told me they were pork dumplings, I wouldn’t have questioned it.

The dipping sauce deserves special note. Typical dumpling sauces are usually soya sauce with vinegar added and perhaps not much else. Affinity’s dumpling sauce is far more complex and better balanced, and the perfect compliment for these addictive delights.

So we’ve discussed two dishes which, perhaps, never wanted for meat in the first place. Now we’ll have to consider a class of vegetarian cooking I’ve never much cared for: the fake meat dish. On two occasions, I’ve ordered the vegetarian “meat balls” in brown sauce, as well as the veggie fish in black bean sauce, and in both cases I was pleasantly surprised. The meat balls don’t quite match with the texture of meat, but that’s sort of beside the point as I’ve never heard of a Chinese meat ball dish anyway. Taken as it was, the sauce was good, the balls were good, and I have nothing negative to say about it.

But I was really impressed with the veggie fish. Again, would you be fooled into thinking it was actual pieces of fish? I’m not sure. But they’re beautifully cooked and the sauce is delicious.

As much as I enjoy the many varieties of Chinese cooking, it’s exceedingly rare for me to order out from the same kind of regional cuisine two weeks in a row, let alone the same restaurant, as I’ve recently done with Affinity. Perhaps the best thing I can say about Affinity is that, with it, I’ve found a new favourite — not  a new favourite vegetarian restaurant, but simply a new favourite restaurant, period.

What’s good for one omnivore might do just as well for another. Go veg for a night and see if it doesn’t just tickle your tastebuds in all the right places.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer. Links to his writing can be found at his homepage.