We just can't go on meat eating like this

''SOME of my best friends are vegetables.'' For years, vegetarians have put up with this sort of inanity; it comes along with questions about protein and iron deficiency and the death of carrots worldwide.

But the real problem facing the meatless many is where they can go to eat. In Hongkong, the choice is limited; spicy Indian, noisy Chinese or a tin of beans at home, again.

But after years of subsisting on limp lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber salads or reduced to picking the bits of meat out of the chow fan, Hongkong vegetarians are finally revolting.

And these are not militant card-carrying members of the cause or elderly hippies, this generation are shrewd business people who know an opportunity when it's sitting on a plate in front of them. They're lean, they're mean and they're far from green.

Or so we hope.

For years, it seemed the quickest way to commit financial suicide was to open a Western-style vegetarian restaurant in Hongkong. Indian and Chinese equivalents last but for those risking anything more than a token salad on a meat-orientated menu, it was the abattoir of business acumen.


''I would agree with that,'' said Mr Stephen Peplow. Which is why his new lunch box service, Mr Goody's, is styled as ''healthy'' rather than vegetarian. Mr Peplow spends most of his time running a school and academic placement service, Mr Goody's was born of frustration.

''I'm just fed up with not being able to get a good lunch,'' he said.

Tomorrow Mr Peplow's ''Oliver Twists'' will deliver additive-free soups and salads, quiche, asparagus tips in filo pastry, apple-and-brie-stuffed pittas and herb-roasted chicken with cashew nuts, followed by coffee, tea or banana bread. All for $45. Until the business is established, the service will be limited to designated buildings in Wan Chai.

But what about the rest of Hongkong? ''People laugh at the name, but they remember it,'' said co-owner of Hongkong's latest vegetarian restaurant, The Frog Pond, Leela Panikar.


''I don't want to eat at a restaurant that serves red meat. I won't eat anything that talks to me.'' Admittedly, she sounds a bit cranky, the sort of vegetarian who might be considered at best antagonistic to meat eaters but Ms Panikar regularly eats with friends at non-vegetarian restaurants and is the owner of successful boutiques and The Prince of Wales pub in Wan Chai.

She is also astute enough to include chicken and fish dishes on the menu while the restaurant establishes itself.


''Eventually I hope to phase out the meat but at the moment, it makes more sense to keep some meat on the menu,'' she said.

Ms Panikar and partner Mr Don Ellis are not nutritionists. But they try to use as many natural and fresh foods as possible. There is cream for the coffee, deep-fried camembert and rich pasta dishes to accompany the salads and fresh fruit which should shatter another illusion: vegetarianism does not make you thin.

Mr Richard Feldman, a restaurant consultant and vegetarian, claims he's living proof.


''I don't find it too difficult to be a vegetarian. Sometimes I tell them I'm a Buddhist just so they get the idea.'' Mr Feldman has witnessed a growing interest in vegetarianism in the trade over last five years. Restaurants have been adding more vegetarian options to their menus.

''A menu that does not have variety is a sign of bad management. People want more light food, they want alternatives.

''A menu markets a restaurant. Rather than focusing too much on beef or pork for example, look for alternatives.'' Mr Feldman is no crusader, and avoids the sort of consciousness-raising eaterie where vegetarian politics dominate the food. He also sees little point in visiting places where dishes impersonate meat.


''It's not such a pain to invite a vegetarian home for dinner. I offer to bring my own food but sometimes I worry I'll be wiped off the dinner party circuit.'' Chef Jennifer Migliorelli is a seven-year veteran of the Hongkong restaurant scene and not an apologist. The California concept behind her newly opened LA Cafe determined that there would be an extensive choice of vegetarian food on the menu, as the wideracial mix in the Golden State is reflected in the ''infusion'' of Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese tastes.

New hotels like the Conrad and the Marriott catering for US tourists may be the root of Hongkong's growing interest in vegetarian food, and lighter meals are gaining popularity. But is Hongkong going vegetarian? It seems unlikely that vegetation alone will ever feed this particular nation.

But then, 10 years ago, wearing a fur coat was acceptable. Mind you, I would say that, some of my best friends are animals.