10 places to tap into Hong Kong's veggie dining (r)evolution

Vegetarian chefs are wowing Hongkongers with new tastes and dishes, and new restaurants are opening all the time, attracting not only confirmed veggies but flexitarians

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 5:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:10am

For the past three years the Green Monday campaign has encouraged Hongkongers to eat vegetarian at least once a week.

It's not always easy to get a good vegetarian meal when dining out - many standard restaurants offer just a few uninspired options, with the chefs saving their creativity for meatier dishes. But today, vegetarian and vegan chefs are coming up with food that's so good that those who have gone green for environmental, ethical or health reasons can rejoice in the choice.

Grassroots Pantry opened three years ago in a small space in Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Ying Pun, but the restaurant has been so successful that chef-owner Peggy Chan recently moved to a space 10 times larger on Hollywood Road. The airy, two-storey restaurant has an open kitchen, and seating for about 40 people - almost triple the number of the first location.

"It's a tough balance because I wanted to elevate the brand but at the same time retain the hominess," says Chan, just a week after the opening.

Response has been overwhelming for Chan and her staff, who didn't expect so many customers, two-thirds of whom have been walk-ins.

"Most people who walk in don't even know it's a vegetarian restaurant," Chan says. "They just think it's a great location and then they realise that it's Grassroots Pantry.

"We want to be the best restaurant in Hong Kong - not just vegetarian. We want to show people that vegetarian food doesn't need to be bland and boring - it can be fun and exciting. Part of the experience is educating diners about the ingredients, and I have fun finding new ingredients to use, too," she says.

The restaurant serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, and Chan has expanded the menu with new dishes such as the fragrant and flavourful mushroom tempeh rendang, pan-fried gyoza, raw "tuna pate" spicy hand roll, and kelp satay noodle salad. Desserts are light and refreshing and include raw brownies and passion fruit mousse, one of Chan's favourite combinations.

Further west above Po Hing Fong is Mana! Cafe, which opened more than a month ago, and loyal diners have been making the trip to the quiet pedestrian area for food that's organic and vegan, served in a relaxed atmosphere.

This is the third location for Mana!; the first, Mana! Fast Slow Food, on Wellington Street, offers what owner Bobsy Gaia describes as a "reinvented concept of fast food" using naturally grown, organic and eco-friendly dishes that are made quickly.

Mana! Raw, also on Wellington Street, serves raw vegan in a fast-food setting, offering cold-pressed juices, shakes and food, while the newest spot, Gaia boasts, is the only place in Hong Kong that sells single-origin vegan coffee that diners can personalise by adding shots of coconut oil and cacao butter mixed with almond milk.

Gaia has seen a growing demand for organic food since starting Life Cafe in 2004. When they first opened they had to ship in two containers full of organic wine, beer and quinoa; now they only import a few items directly. "The number of [organic] suppliers has grown exponentially."

He believes that more Hong Kong Chinese will become vegan. "The Asian diet doesn't have much dairy to start with so it's easier for them to become vegan," he says.

"This [trend of becoming vegan] will continue to boom as our living environment becomes more polluted. People want to clean their bodies. There are more food scares so the natural defence is to go vegetarian and organic."

For those trying to avoid coffee, Mana! Cafe makes a teaccino using organic tea with a slight coffee flavour, that serves as a cappuccino substitute. Also on its menu are nine-inch "open flats" - hearty flatbreads made with spelt or buckwheat and topped with various combinations of vegetable and tofu.

Over on Des Voeux Road Central is Maya Cafe, a small takeaway shop run by French chef Tina Barrat and her partner, Mina Mahtani. Their menu includes a frittata with tomato sauce, which incorporates local organic tofu and mashed potatoes, and mushroom à la king served with a creamy cashew sauce on brown rice. The hummus is darker than you see at most places because Barrat uses black chickpeas, which contain more protein than the regular varieties.

The pair relocated to the Sheung Wan site after owners sold the Wan Chai building where they had their sit-down restaurant.

"Since we opened [the original Maya Cafe] more than two years ago we're seeing more people interested in vegetarian food. They already know about raw food and actually our raw pasta is our number one seller," the French chef says. "When people try the food, they like it." Amy Yip discovered Maya Cafe the day we visited, and was sold on the food after trying the chocolate mousse; she even bought the raw banana cake to eat at home. "I'm always looking for healthy and organic places to eat at because I'm concerned about my health," she says. "This place is great and I will take my mother here."

In the same building as Maya Cafe is the second outlet of Green Common, which sells organic foods, ranging from locally sourced vegetables to imported products.

Run by social enterprise Green Monday, the shop is designed as a green version of Eataly, the popular Italian food emporium that also runs a cafe and cooking school.

So it has teamed up with lifestyle group OVO to set up an OVO Cafe in the 6,000 sq ft premises, where space is also carved out for cooking demonstrations and talks on nutrition and food labelling.

Green Monday encourages people to become "flexitarians"- part-time vegetarians - as a way to reduce climate change (the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than all transport combined).

While the organisation is trying to get people to eat vegetarian once a week, Yeung says, "We hope it will eventually become six days vegetarian and one day meat." Moreover, a host of food scandals are also making consumers question their old lifestyle and where their food comes from.

Ten places in Hong Kong to get your fill of vegetarian food

Grassroots Pantry 108 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan Tel: 2873 3353

Mana! Cafe 8 Tai On Terrace, Sheung Wan Tel: 2347 8555

Mana! Fast Slow Food 92 Wellington Street, Central Tel: 2851 1611

Life Cafe Restaurant and Bar 10 Shelley Street, SoHo Tel: 2810 9777

Maya Cafe Shop G7, Nan Fung Tower, 173 Des Voeux Road Central Tel: 2111 4553

Green Common 1/F Nan Fung Tower, 173 Des Voeux Road Central Tel: 2263 3153

InnoVeggie 2-4 Fort Street, North Point Tel: 2856 6238

The Herbivores 35 Staunton Street, SoHo Tel: 2613 2909 9/F Hysan Place, 500 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay Tel: 2613 2920

GreenWoods Raw Cafe 13/F, 2 Carnarvon Road, TST Tel: 3428 2416

Isoya Japanese Vegetarian 9/F, 83 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai Tel: 5500 8812