Turn over a new leaf
Irene Jay Liu
While Hong Kong is best known for its roast meats, fresh seafood and dim sum, the city's vegetarians need not settle for bland salads and steamed vegetables.
In between the cha chaan teng windows displaying hanging roast duck and pork, one can find shopfronts featuring all manner of tofu, imitation meats and vegetarian buns all over the city, a reflection of Hong Kong's prominent Buddhist community.
'I grew up in India and spent six years in the States, and I can say that Hong Kong is one of the easiest places to be vegetarian, because of the Buddhist tradition,' says Sidarth Jaggi, a 'vegetarian trying to be vegan' who is a professor at Chinese University. 'It may not always be delicious, it may not be on the menu, but there are options.'
And while Hong Kong's older vegetarian establishments are largely rooted in Buddhist vegetarian traditions (no meat, no garlic or onion), in recent years meat-free restaurants have proliferated and broadened, offering more options in terms of cuisine, ambience and price. From dim sum and hotpot to burgers and sushi, these vegetarian restaurants are serving up food that both vegetarians and carnivores can rally around.
One chronicler of the latest in vegetarian food trends is Adaline Lau, a journalist who started the 'Doufu Mafia' vegetarian food blog in 2008 as a hobby. 'When I initially started a few years ago, I noticed mainstream food bloggers tended to be biased in their reviews about vegetarian food as they typically compared it to meat, which does not do justice to vegetarian cuisines and vegetarians,' she says.
'I started the blog initially to chronicle the food I eat, since despite being a vegetarian, I still love food a lot and find it an adventure to hunt down a good vegetarian meal,' Lau says. 'Then as I began writing, some visitors to Hong Kong started e-mailing to thank me for featuring a variety of places to get vegetarian cuisines in the city as their partners were vegetarian.'
As the reasons for vegetarianism have expanded beyond religion or morality to environmentalism and health, there is a growing cadre of people taking incremental steps. Around the world, there are growing efforts to promote 'Meatless Mondays', whereby people abstain from meat on Mondays. The concept originated during the first world war, when the US government urged families to reduce consumption of key staples to aid the war effort.
'Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays' became the cornerstone of the campaign. In 2009, the Hong Kong Vegan Meetup group began hosting weekly Meatfree Monday gatherings. About 30 to 40 people join the dinners, which change locations weekly to allow people to sample different cuisines. The group is diverse, including both locals and expats, vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters, according to Shara Ng, who organises the weekly gatherings.
'In our group, I emphasise that we don't put our religion on the table, or politics. We all come from different places. We want to focus on enjoying the food, the lifestyle.'