Henry Vegetarian has sparked some rumblings of discontent in Singapore’s vegesphere lately, mainly because it has opened within spitting distance (excuse the crude metaphor, but in this case it really is quite apt) of Onn Vegetarian in Block 5 Upper Boon Keng Road. Compounding this is the fact that Hungry Ang Mo – grandmaster of Singapore’s digital vegesphere – has recently announced on his Facebook page that he will “no longer blog, promote or mention about Henry Wang [proprietor of Henry Vegetarian, and formerly Vegetarian Era] on my website or Facebook”, a decision which stems from the belief that “one should never specifically aim to hurt or sabotage other vegetarian eateries”. Add to the mix the fact that HAM used to promote Henry Wang’s other outlets (“without sounding arrogant, I would suspect most people would not even know of Henry Wang if not for Hungry Ang Mo”), but has recently taken the side of Onn Vegetarian (which he awarded “Best Vegetarian Eatery”, “Best Vegetarian Dish” and “Best Vegetarian Hawker” in the HAM 2014 Food Awards) and you’ve got a recipe for Singapore’s very own vegetarian soap opera! Or maybe just an opera. The word “vegetarian” does have “aria” in it, after all.
Wow, drama. Personally i’m a big fan of both the free market (may the best business win) and the economic benefits of agglomeration, and so feel that two (apparently) high quality vegetarian eateries pitching up next to each other is a wonderful thing. (Although it should be noted that they aren’t even that close to each other – Onn’s is in a small food court facing Upper Boon Keng Road, Henry’s is in an equally small food court facing Lorong 1 Geylang). Let the market decide, Caesar. Of course I am privy to all but the slightest glimpse of the big picture and the various machinations behind Henry Vegetarian’s choice of location, but I still can’t help but feel that HAM being so divisive about such a trifling issue is a tad unnecessary.
But enough babbling, let’s get down to brass tacks: the grub. Aggressive locational manoeuvring aside, Henry Wang is famous for one thing above all else: his vegan sauces. So famous in fact, he actually had the inclination to write a book on the topic (called “DIY Vegan Sauce” for those that are interested). Makes sense, as Singaporeans do love their sauces. As could be expected, sauce-laden dishes feature prominently on the menu and, of course, in the dishes themselves. So far so saucy.
Although served a little cold, the Hainanese Curry Rice (SGD 5.00) was actually my favourite dish that we tried. Why did I like it so much? Mainly because it felt like I was eating three different meals, not one. Meal #1 was the rice, topped with chopped long beans and two different sauces; a sweet and coconutty curry sauce (yellow in the picture), and a richer and more tangy tomato/tamarind-based sauce (reddy-brown in the picture). The sauces stunned me; they had an enveloping sort of richness, and were full of layers of luxurious flavour. Five-star stuff, served in the sweaty confines of a hawker centre. I couldn’t get enough.
Meal #2 was the aubergine, which was tangy and salty and really quite delicious. Cooked properly, and aubergine can be wonderfully rich and creamy. This was meltingly soft and tender, but would have been even nicer if served warm. But still, the tanginess of the sauce really helped to waken it up and gave it a much-needed spark.
Meal #3 was the most nondescript of the pack: boiled cabbage and black fungus, and some chewy and scratchy (and really quite ugly) breaded gluten that was sliced into strips. Nothing to get excited about, and completely eclipsed by the marvel of Meals #1 and #2.
The second dish we tried was the Long Bean Cai Po Mee Pok with Monkey Head Mushrooms (SGD4.00). To be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect this to look at all how it did – I was thinking battered and fried monkey heads, drowning in something thick and peppery and sitting on top of a bed of noodles. Not so. This was a stripped down version of what I was expecting, stripped down in terms of both flavours and presentation. The primary flavours were of sesame oil, whilst the sprinkle of deep-fried spring onions provided some crunch. It was a clean and fragrant dish that could have been a lot more disappointing than it really was. But still, after the sheer joy of Henry’s Hainanese Curry Rice, I was searching for more sauce. Sauce from the source, you could say.
Finally, the Pan Fried Dumplings (SGD 4.00 for 8 dump’s) were large and soft and utterly unremarkable. They tasted artificial – too much mock meat and mushroom, and not enough fresh vegetables. They needed a signature flavour, rather than just browny-grey mush. They also needed to be properly pan-fried and crispy, not just heated up and made to be very, very sticky. On the upside, the vinegar and ginger dip was dynamite, and put a nice sting in the tail of these rather bland behemoths.
All in all, Henry Vegetarian is a class act. The dishes that disappointed were those that didn’t contain his specialist subject: his sauces. Even for someone who usually abhors the overt saucification of food (I don’t even put ketchup on my chips!), I think I may have to make an exception here. The Hainanese Curry Rice was absolutely brilliant, and i’m keen to try and sauce out the others gems on the menu. Watch this sauce. Space, I mean space.
Block 5 Upper Boon Keng Road, #01-22
Open 10:00-21:00 daily