MANILA, Philippines – On Buhay Gulay’s menu, you’ll find the usual carinderia fare: adobo flakes, barbecue, sisig, bopis, monggo, all at pocket-friendly prices.
The twist – because restaurants on this side of La Union tend to have a twist – is that all these well-loved dishes are meat-free, sometimes vegetarian but more often vegan.
In La Union’s exciting, constantly evolving food scene, Buhay Gulay is the safe anchor, serving up familiar flavors in the form of simple, satisfying meals – exactly as carinderia fare should be.
Buhay Gulay started in 2017. At the time, the carinderia’s resident ate Julienne Posadas had just met her partner Alger, who is vegetarian.
“He wanted me to try and experience his way of living, slowly introducing me to the idea of vegetarianism which is more than just a diet. His vegetarianism is philosophy-based, that teaches ‘every living entity have souls,’” she told Rappler.
Accessible vegetarian food
Alger, who moved to La Union in 2014, shared his vegetarian struggles with Julienne.
“He was often mocked for being a ‘budgetarian’ because he used to pick seaweeds along the shore or harvest greens at his friends’ gardens or their backyard; this was because there were no restaurants or eateries that offer food with his preference,” she shared.
Buhay Gulay began as a way to fill this void.
“As a non-vegetarian, I’m part of that percentage who thinks that vegetarian food is expensive, bland, and not sustainable. When Alger introduced me to his way of life, he totally changed my impression on vegetarianism,” Julienne shared. “I told him that I want more people to experience this too. I want more people to realize that plant-based food can be inexpensive, accessible, affordable, and more importantly, tasty.”
They started out by making a few dishes and posting them online, or sharing to surftown friends. By December 2018, they were able to join a food bazaar hosted by the La Union government.
“The warm reception of our provincemates pushed us to make our food more accessible to everyone,” she said.
In 2019, they thought of opening up a dining area, but since they couldn’t afford rent, Julienne, who grew up in La Union, asked her parents if she could use their garage instead.
“We set up tables, chairs, plates, cutlery, and we were able to put up a dining area, Buhay Gulay HQ,” she shared.
Today, Buhay Gulay HQ is a homey, self-service space that makes their comfort food even more comforting. The store has art on the walls, plants in the corner, and cats roaming around freely.
Because of the pandemic, it’s pretty quiet, too. Diners are welcome at a limited capacity, but more often than not customers or delivery services shuffle in and out quickly to pick up orders sent via their Instagram page.
By default, their process is an exercise in sustainability: their daily menu is dictated by their current vegetable supply. There is no pricey imported plant-based meat here. They make their own mock meat from scratch. Their veggies are sourced from local farmers, their tofu from a home-based maker, and their wheat flour from a store in Manila.
“Most of the dishes we make every day include locally sourced vegetables. Our province is very rich in agricultural land and we have relatives who are farmers here so we get our lowland vegetables directly from them. In some cases when we have bulk orders and we didn’t get enough supply from our farmers, we go to nearby markets where most of the vegetables they sell are their own harvests,” Julienne explained.
“With highland vegetables, there are areas in La Union now that harvests the same quality as Benguet – this is where we also get our red rice which is as fluffy as normal white rice.”
In a meat-loving country where most people still turn their noses at plant-based food, Buhay Gulay is speaking a language meat-eaters understand. Their menu consists of vegetarian or vegan versions of dishes that people already love.
Their menu staple is vegan barbeque: mock meat made of wheat flour, with a sweet, smoky flavor, not far from streetside inihaw. Other favorites include adobo flakes made from jackfruit, cauliflower pops, and bopis made from minced mushrooms. They even have meat-free versions of Ilokano classics like igado, dinakdakan, and pinakbet, and a selection of pastries, including homemade cookies and occasionally, moist and perfectly tart calamansi muffins.
You wouldn’t mistake their vegetarian dishes for real meat. Their meat-free igado, for instance, tastes worlds away from a classic igado made with pork innards. Their mushroom bopis is high on umami, but doesn’t have the smoky bitterness of bopis made from pig’s lungs and heart.
That is to say, meat-lovers will know the difference, but it doesn’t matter. Their dishes are as hearty and as filling as the usual Filipino carinderia dishes or lutong-bahay. In touristy Surftown, their menu is a slice of home.
The price points are encouraging too, with meals from P80 to P100, vegan barbecue at P40 per stick, and pastries from P40 to P50.
Labor of love
Julienne said that vegetarian food takes more time to prepare, especially because they make everything from scratch. It’s truly a labor of love for Julienne, who starts her day at 4 or 5 am to set up the store and food prep. The mock meat they use for most of their dishes takes about two hours to prime for cooking, and that’s even before they begin using it in the dishes they’ve planned for the day.
Other staff members – “the girls” as Julienne fondly calls them – arrive at around 7:30 am, and they begin putting dishes together. By 11 am, they open for customers and take and serve orders until 2 pm. After a two-hour break, they resume operations until 7 pm, or earlier if their food is sold out.
Pre-pandemic, they had quite the stream of customers – mostly tourists in droves of 50 a day. These days, Julienne shared that they cater to less than 20 customers daily, because there are fewer tourists, and they have yet to penetrate the local market, whose idea of vegetarian food is limited to expensive and not-so-filling smoothie bowls.
With the trickle of customers, Julienne can’t say for sure what’s next for Buhay Gulay – only that they’ll keep doing what they’re doing.
“What we want is to continue getting better in doing what we love to do – preparing freshly cooked vegetarian food every day, helping farmers and other local suppliers by being fair buyers to them, and providing jobs for our girls that they enjoy,” Julienne said.
Despite the downturn in business, Buhay Gulay soldiers on. They’ve even had days with zero customers, but as Julienne said, “Quitting is not an option.” For a meat-free carinderia, they’ve come this far, after all. – Rappler.com