Fresh heirs

Forget nut loaves and tofu curries. Vegetarian eateries are jazzing up their menus, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 10:19pm

WHEN TINA BARRAT moved to Hong Kong from France 17 years ago she struggled to find anything to eat. Barrat, who was raised on a diet of healthy, natural, organic meals, remembers she couldn't even find the most basic organic ingredients.

Instead, she depended on care packages sent by her mother, and whenever she visited her family in France she would return with a "suitcase full of organic products".

Today, she says, everything has changed. Not only can she feed herself but she has even been able to open a restaurant showcasing her diet of healthy, completely vegetarian fare.

The new restaurant, Maya Cafe, which she opened with her partner, Mina Mahtahni, in February, is just the latest example of a trend that has been making its mark on the Hong Kong food scene in the past couple of years: vegetarians are no longer settling for stodgy nut loaves and nut burgers, but are demanding better quality, meat-free dishes.

Talk about old-school vegetarian food and everyone has a dish that comes to mind. And none are very appetising. For Moosa Al-issa, general manager of one of Hong Kong's oldest Western vegetarian restaurants, Life Cafe, that dish is "hippie brown rice with some overcooked vegetables and tofu in a Japanese-style curry sauce". For the chef and founder of Grassroots Pantry, Peggy Chan, it's heavy vegetarian lasagne.

Today, chefs such as Chan, Barrat, and Al-issa are forging a new kind of vegetarian cuisine and showing that the days of vegetarian burgers and chilli are in the past.

Al-issa feels the time has come for "a paradigm shift around vegetarian food".

Chan shares his passion. "I think a lot of people still don't understand what vegetarian means and they put a lot of emphasis on things like: 'Oh, vegetarian food must be bland so let's make it super heavy to fill them up'."

Bland and heavy are two words that no one would use to describe Chan's cuisine. From the kitchen in her cosy Sai Wan restaurant, which just celebrated its first anniversary, Chan puts together flavourful dishes, such as Vietnamese bun chay - rice vermicelli with honey grilled hedgehog mushroom, homemade nuoc cham and almond sesame dressing.

At Life , where chefs take inspiration from cuisines from all over the world, a dinner of African sweet potato stew with organic quinoa, smoked tofu, coconut, tomato, organic beer, fresh herbs, roasted peanuts and pili pili sauce is more typical.

At Maya Cafe, Barrat serves light Mediterranean favourites inspired by her childhood in the south of France, with a nod to her Moroccan heritage. You can get a bright and refreshing Mediterranean salad to start, a raw vegetarian lasagne or Moroccan tagine for your main course, and, if you are lucky enough to get it before they sell out, a piece of their popular baklava.

As vegetarian food becomes more sophisticated, vegetarianism itself is changing. Modern vegetarianism now covers countless diets, lifestyles and food philosophies: veganism, macrobiotic diets, raw food diets, and gluten-free diets are some of the most popular, alongside Buddhist - no onions, garlic and, sometimes, mushrooms - and Hindu vegetarian diets that have historically had many adherents in Hong Kong.

Opening a vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong is not an easy task. Sourcing organic vegetables is a constant challenge. Most next generation vegetarian restaurants depend on produce from small farms in the New Territories but find they still have to source some products from overseas, and struggle to stay as organic as possible.

Another problem is economic. Hong Kong's soaring rents are a burden, and because making vegetarian food is often more work than traditional restaurant fare, labour costs tend to be high.

On top of that, thanks to a health-conscious clientele, most vegetarian restaurants only make a fraction of what other restaurants make on alcohol sales. Al-issa offers organic wines and beers and even an organic martini. Still, he says: "You don't go to a vegetarian restaurant to get blasted."

Perhaps the biggest challenge in running a vegetarian restaurant is the cooking itself. It is an irony that a kind of cuisine that prides itself on being as natural as possible, has its closest culinary analogue in modernist techniques. Today's vegetarian chefs often use exotic ingredients from around the world such as heirloom grains and beans, rare greens and natural sugar substitutes.

Not only are the ingredients themselves uncommon, but vegetarian chefs are using them in new ways. This is especially true in raw and vegan cooking: nuts are soaked and blended and used in everything from cheeses to cream sauces, raw zucchini is dehydrated in salt and used as pasta substitutes, chia seeds, tiny seeds from Central America, are used to thicken milkshakes, while avocados are whipped into mousses and frozen banana purée is transformed into rich ice cream.

These techniques are usually not covered in a typical culinary school curriculum and most of the modern vegetarian chefs admit to learning much of their craft from the internet, or from tips and secrets shared by other chefs.

The steep learning curve and paucity of information makes running a vegetarian kitchen a risky and time-consuming business.

Still, there is no shortage of up-and-coming chefs willing to try, and diners seem eager to give them a chance. Chefs agree that in Hong Kong the future is bright for vegetarian eateries. "Good people are putting up their money and their know-how to turn their lives around and sustain this business," says Christian Mongendre, co-founder of Mana! Fast Slow Food, one of Hong Kong's most popular vegetarian eateries.

Al-issa sees a big change coming. "I think it's going to continue to grow and I think it's going to become more mainstream." He points to the new chain of vegetarian fast food restaurants opening in California. "That's the future."

The rapidly growing popularity of vegetarian dining makes some in the industry apprehensive. Chan says one of her biggest concerns is making organic, healthy eating affordable for everyone. She hopes all this competition doesn't encourage people to push the prices up. "This is actually a chance for us to push prices down."

Everyone in the industry agrees the biggest change will be mental. "If you're thinking about it as, 'This is good for vegetarian' that's the wrong mentality," says Al-issa. Chan agrees: "I think a lot of people still don't understand what vegetarian means. We just want to make food that tastes delicious and is good for you. I don't think a lot of people get that yet."


The green team

Mana! Fast Slow Food
92 Wellington Street, Central
tel: 28511611
Open: Monday-Saturday 8am-10pm (Saturday from 10.30am), Sunday 10.30am-9pm

Maya Cafe
5 Moon Street, Wan Chai
tel: 2529 3319
Open: 8am-10pm

Grassroots Pantry
12 Fuk Sau Lane, Sai Wan
tel: 2873 3353
Open: Tuesday-Saturday noon-3pm, 6pm-10pm, Sunday 10am-4pm

Life Cafe
10 Shelley Street, Central
tel: 2810 9777
Open: noon-10pm (from 9am Saturday, Sunday and public holidays)