Hong Kong's vegetarian and healthy eating restaurants are slowly winning fans

As more Hongkongers embrace healthy eating, green shoots are emerging for restaurants that put fitness and well-being first, writes Catherine Nicol

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 10:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 7:07pm

Hong Kong Vegetarian Society founder Dr Simon Chau is the impossibly youthful, 66-year-old poster child for the city's raw food movement. Among the claimed benefits of his diet are looking even younger every year, a brain that works at turbo speed and an overall feeling of total contentment.

The move to a raw food diet is recent, after two decades of vegetarianism. He is very open about the considerable sacrifice it involves. He estimates that there are only nine other raw food fans in Hong Kong, putting them at the extreme end of healthy eating. In an attempt to convince others of the benefits he has just opened the GreenWoods Raw Café in Tsim Sha Tsui. Typical dishes might be a pumpkin soup (raw food can be heated to 46 degrees Celsius), a green salad with melon and mango, a main of sprouts with seaweed, then a light and fluffy cheesecake with rosella tea.

"Hong Kong is very much behind other countries," says Chau. "Two per cent of the population is vegetarian, compared with 6 per cent in Taiwan and about 8 per cent in the UK or Holland." He has undertaken annual surveys in Hong Kong and sees the numbers moving up slowly, but he points out that these figures don't include those who follow a partially vegetarian regime. He adopted a vegetarian diet in 1985, setting up the Hong Kong Vegetarian Society a decade later. "In those days very few people had heard about a vegetarian life and thought all vegetarians were Buddhist."

Food scandals and the greater availability of information about the perceived health and environmental advantages of reducing our meat intake and following organic, vegetarian or vegan diets have paved the way for farmers' markets, events such as the Hong Kong VegFest and movements like Meat Free Mondays. Even Beyoncé and Jay-Z recently completed a 21-day vegan challenge.

The first Hong Kong VegFest was organised by the Hong Kong Vegan Association and attracted 4,000 people to its 50 stalls. The Hong Kong VegFest 2014 is scheduled to be held at Adventist College in October. The short film Meet the Vegans premiered at last year's event. It was written and produced by Angie Palmer, who also produced Love Stalk, probably the first Hong Kong movie with a vegan film set. The association also spearheads the Meat Free Hong Kong Meetups, 237 of which have been held for its 1,756 current members.

"I think things changed drastically about two to three years ago," says Chau. "Hong Kong is quite peculiar in a sense. In Australia or England, for example, they say, 'We love animals so we don't eat them.' In Taiwan or India people are largely vegetarian for religious reasons. In the past in Hong Kong, most people didn't give up meat for altruistic reasons; either their health was poor, they wanted to keep trim and young or wanted their skin to improve. It is only recently that people have started accepting the fact that there are environmental concerns."

At Dandy's Organic Café in Sheung Wan, health food and TV chef Vivi Cheung says that although she mostly serves expats, more locals are joining them. "I want to let people know my food is not just for certain people with allergies or problems with gluten issues or diabetes. I want to educate people that they should eat healthily every day."

The growing number of food scares prompted Cheung to become vegetarian. Her first health cafe was Hot Dish in Kwun Tong, which opened in 2005. She followed up with O Green in 2009 and then Dandy's Organic Café last year, both in Sheung Wan. "Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, local vegetarian restaurants are often unhealthy, adding artificial colouring and starchy flour to create fake meat or fish, and serving fried food and dishes packed with MSG."

While a new generation is helping the movement to gain momentum today, in the past it was mostly Hong Kong's female expats who were at the vanguard. "Women have always spearheaded movements of compassion and caring, health and yoga," says Bobsy Gaia, another vegetarian restaurateur.

He opened Lamma Island's Bookworm in 1997. "We were desperate, we had nowhere to eat," he remembers. "So even back then the demand for health food was there. When opening Life Café seven years later, people said it was easy on Lamma because everyone is a hippy, but how on earth will you sustain a business paying SoHo rents with a restaurant that is purely vegetarian? The point is we're serving good quality, healthy, organic food; it just happens to be vegetarian."

Seven years later again, Bobsy opened Mana!, with a "fast slow food" philosophy. So, does he think there is a demand? "It shouldn't even be debated any more," he says. "Yes, there is a huge demand, much more than people realise."

DJ Andrew Hendley is a vegan and a regular customer at Mana! "This is definitely my number one spot for healthy food, quickly, that tastes good. You meet people with the same view of the world," he says.

On any given lunchtime you'll see queues forming for Mana!'s flat breads and salads, with juices a close third, and desserts such as chocolate truffle and pie of the day - all raw, vegan and gluten-free - popular too.

Martin Lorentsson, director of Eat Right restaurant, caters to those looking for a healthy diet but not necessarily prepared to forego all meat. The former personal trainer started preparing healthy meals to support his clients' fitness and weight loss goals. Portion size and sugar control are key, he says. "Hong Kong people have the knowledge but they are still looking for a quick fix," he laments. "Here people have million-dollar cars and boats, but the best machine they'll ever have is their own body, and they don't spend any money or time on it."

Lorentsson's halloumi burger and the salmon, quinoa and beetroot salad are the most popular eat-in items, while his food programmes involve a consultation with each client and a fully customised diet. Meals are either served up in the restaurant or delivered to the office or home, taking away the weekday stress of shopping, preparation and temptation. Lorentsson believes in being an omnivore, but he takes his clients health very seriously.

There are varying degrees in which you can eat healthily in Hong Kong, from raw to vegan to vegetarian. Bobsy is optimistic about the future for health-focused businesses in the city. "Today it's not a small minority of hippies on Lamma, it's everyone, it's a mass movement… This lifestyle is highly contagious."