Raised in a Buddhist family, Tommy Cao has been vegan his whole life. When he opened Dharma Kitchen (3667 West Broadway) in 2005, however, most of his customers were unfamiliar with the vegan diet, which excludes all animal products.
“There were some vegetarian options, and we had a lot of vegetarian customers at first, but people saw veganism as extreme,” Cao told the Georgia Straight during an interview at his Kitsilano restaurant.
Cao was born in Vietnam and grew up in Ontario. He said that veganism wasn’t common in his small town, and on several occasions when he went to a friend’s home for dinner, he ended up eating dairy or honey, which aren’t allowed in the vegan diet. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a business degree, he worked in finance for a few years but found that the corporate world didn’t align with his beliefs, so he decided to move to Vancouver and open a vegan restaurant based on Buddhist principles.
“When we first opened, the menu was very basic. I just stayed true to Buddhist philosophy, dharma philosophy, and focused on making the food simple and clean,” he said, noting that salads and rice bowls were the only items offered at the restaurant nine years ago.
Over time, the menu grew to include tofu curries, potato bowls topped with miso gravy, and burgers made from tempeh—a fermented soybean patty originating in Indonesia. Cao eats tempeh regularly since it’s a good source of protein and described its flavour as nutty and meaty.
“It has a lot of flavour, and the texture is similar to a veggie burger,” he said. “You can buy it at grocery stores like Whole Foods or Choices. We make our own tempeh here at the restaurant.”
One way Cao enjoys eating tempeh is on top of a salad. He said the Mega-Protein Salad at Dharma Kitchen is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes because of the variety of vegetables and the amount of protein included.
“This is not like a regular salad, where you’ll feel hungry afterwards,” Cao said. “The protein will keep you full for a long time.”
He explained that the large salad works well for bringing on picnics since it can be prepared ahead of time, with the sweet onion dressing and avocados added just before serving. Cao suggested that people bring the salad to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, which takes place at Jericho Beach Park this Friday to Sunday (July 18 to 20), along with a bottle of lemon-cucumber water to stay hydrated.
Tommy Cao’s mega-protein salad
1 8 oz (227 g) package of tempeh
1 head romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
4 cups (1 L) fresh baby spinach
1 cup (250 mL) alfalfa sprouts
1 cup (250 mL) bean sprouts
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 beet, peeled and grated
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
½ red onion, peeled and diced
1 green bell pepper, cored and diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
1 yellow bell pepper, cored and diced
Sweet onion dressing (see recipe below)
- Preheat oven to 450 ° F (230 ° C).
- On an oven-safe tray, bake tempeh block for 15 minutes.
- Place lettuce and spinach leaves on the bottom of a large salad bowl or divide between 4 separate plates. Add alfalfa and bean sprouts in a ring shape, and arrange carrot and beet in two small piles on top. Place cucumber slices between the carrot and beet piles, and scatter onion and peppers over top.
- Remove tempeh from oven, cut into sticks, and place at the centre of the salad.
- Just before serving, peel and slice avocado and arrange around the perimeter of the dish. Pour dressing over salad.
Sweet onion dressing
1 thumb-sized knob of ginger, peeled and chopped
½ red onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup (250 mL) water
2 Tbsp (30 mL) balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp (30 mL) soy sauce or tamari
2 Tbsp (30 mL) brown sugar
2 Tbsp (30 mL) all-purpose flour or tapioca flour
- Place all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth.
- Transfer contents to a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking continuously. Refrigerate to serve cold or serve warm immediately.
Yield: 4 main-dish servings.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.