Veggie Tables

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 19, 2013

ST 20130419 STREETVIEW 3620594m

EVERY day for the past four years, Mr Png Eng Lee would drive his family of five from their Katong home to Fortune Centre in Middle Road for their vegetarian lunch.

The 53-year-old managing director’s restaurant of choice is the New Green Pasture Cafe, which uses organic ingredients. “My skin is better and I don’t feel so tired anymore,” he said.

On Mondays, when the cafe is closed, his family would try out the other vegetarian outlets in the building.

With at least 10 such restaurants, Fortune Centre, which houses offices as well as retail shops, has become the go-to place for those looking for a vegetarian meal.

There are also clusters of vegetarian food outlets in Little India and at the Circuit Road hawker centre, but, Vegetarian Society (Singapore) president Clarence Tan said: “Fortune Centre is a well-known oasis of vegetarian restaurants and food stalls; one of the few places in Singapore where plant-eaters are spoilt for choice.”

There are restaurants offering Japanese, Indian, Western and fusion cuisine, as well as a vegan bakery on the first four floors of the 20-storey building.

That makes things easy for retiree Ken Chiu, a vegetarian. After collecting a birthday cake from Delcie’s bakery, he went to the fourth floor for lunch at the New Green Pasture Cafe.

“My wife and I come here once every few months. It’s quite convenient for us,” said the 61-year-old.

Restaurant owners say this clustering of vegetarian food outlets is partly because of the building’s location. Fortune Centre is next to the well-known Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple in Waterloo Street, as well as the Sri Krishnan Temple.

On the 1st and 15th day of the Chinese lunar month, when Buddhists observe a vegetarian diet, the restaurants would be packed.

The area is also frequented by tourists and students from nearby schools, such as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

According to New Green Pasture Cafe owner Sophia Teh, her cafe was one of the first vegetarian food outlets to open there in 1996.

Formerly a fashion designer with an outlet along Orchard Road, she started her new business at Fortune Centre after managing to get a shop there.

“I am a vegetarian myself, and I find the food sold outside too oily and fried. So I decided to sell healthier meals prepared with organic ingredients,” said the 61-year-old in Mandarin.

Her cafe sells Asian fusion fare, such as Korean bibimbap, sushi rolls and thunder tea rice – a Hakka dish of rice topped with chopped vegetables.

It was around 2003 when she started seeing more vegetarian outlets sprouting in the centre, with at least a new one each year.

Fortune Centre’s image as the go-to place for vegetarians was what drew Madam Rajeswary Sinan, 51, to open her second Gokul Vegetarian Restaurant and Cafe outlet there two years ago.

Her first outlet in Upper Dickson Road has been in operation for 10 years.

“Many people come here for the vegetarian food. I started coming here about 10 years ago and I told myself that I want to have a restaurant here,” she said.

She felt it was a good time to expand her business as she had noticed that the younger generation, including her children, were becoming more health conscious and opting for a vegetarian diet.

Despite the concentration of vegetarian restaurants in one building, owners there are not worried about competition.

“We have our own customer base and each restaurant offers different tastes,” said Ms Lin Mei, 45, who owns Xing Hua Vegetarian Restaurant, which serves Chinese food.

And there is another plus, said New Green Pasture’s Ms Teh. With other vegetarian restaurants around, customers can always find a meal should her cafe be too crowded.

“On the 1st and 15th of the month, we can be so busy we don’t even have time to eat. Customers will also get angry because of the slower service.”