TO MOST carnivores, the term vegetarianism means the avoidance of meat. But the term requires elaboration. 'It makes a difference whether vegetarianism is a diet or a philosophy,' says American vegan Stanley Sapon, the founder of the Rochester Area Vegetarian Society. 'A diet is a list of the foods you choose; a philosophy is a set of coherent reasons for making those choices.' Many vegetarian cuisines owe their origins to ancient beliefs, and most in Hong Kong are Chinese. There are two types of cuisines: su and zhai, says Joe Yuen, manager of the Bo Kong Vegetarian Restaurant that specialises in Buddhist dishes, in Causeway Bay. Su is an ordinary vegetarian diet, whereas zhai is vegetarianism founded on Buddhist beliefs. Although there are no set dietary laws in Buddhism, some Chinese believers in the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism don't eat onions, garlic and leeks. 'These ingredients are among the Five Pungent Spices that some Buddhists believe can increase one's sexual desire and anger,' says Yuen. 'This is how zhai differs from su, although many people are unaware of the subtle difference.' Similarly, Indian vegetarianism consists of two main kinds: the ordinary and Jain diet. According to Shihabdeen Mohamad Khaleel, director of the Woodlands Indian vegetarian restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui, the two types are rooted in ahimsa, a religious concept that violence, including killing animals for food, is wrong. Although many Hindus pursue spiritual purity through a vegetarian diet, the pacifist Jains sect goes one step further by avoiding root vegetables because they consider this a form of violence. 'The Jains don't eat things like garlic, onion, potatoes and carrots because they are considered to have feelings,' says Shihabdeen. Western vegetarianism has several levels, guided mainly by nutritional, ethical and environmental concerns rather than western religious beliefs. The most common vegetarians are the ovo-lacto type, who avoid meat but consume eggs and dairy products such as butter, cheese and milk. There are also ovo-vegetarians who don't eat dairy products. Vegans, a term coined by Britain's 62-year-old Vegan Society eliminate animal products in all areas of their lives, including the use of leather. According to a survey this year by the Hong Kong Vegetarian Society of 510 local Chinese, 2.9 per cent were vegetarians, compared with 1.4 per cent in a 2004 poll. Green activist and society co-founder Simon Chau says the rise points to improved health consciousness and greater recognition of vegetarians in the city. 'Vegetarians in Hong Kong are like gay people,' he says. 'Finally, they're recognised and can look up without being seen as aliens, as they were 10 years ago.' Restaurateurs have spotted the growing popularity of vegetarian food in Hong Kong. Carlos Cuellar, a director of Life, a SoHo restaurant that specialises in international vegetarian cuisine, says: 'We did a market research recently, and we were surprised to find that there were about 150 vegetarian restaurants in the city. The trend is growing.' Tracy Chan, spokeswoman of Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine, agrees. 'Vegetarianism has become a fashion for Hongkongers, especially women aged between 25 and 35,' she says. 'Many of them give up meat for health reasons rather than religious beliefs.' However, a recent outbreak of e-coli illness in the US traced to spinach shows that eating vegetables is no guarantee of health. Although it's uncertain if any of the contaminated vegetable was imported here, local retailers have pulled all US spinach from their shelves. Despite the trend towards giving up meat, many Chinese restaurants dilute the vegetarian nature of some of their dishes by offering mock meat, naming Chinese vegetarian dishes after meat dishes or trying to mimic the taste and look of meats. Chan says that although mock meat seems pointless, it's still valued in Chinese culture. 'During Chinese festivals, some elderly vegetarians like to have some meat dishes that are traditionally considered auspicious,' Chan says. As an example, she cites a mock fish dish, nian nian you yu, that represents surplus and bountiful harvests. Chan says the origin of mock meat may also have to do with an ancient Chinese practice. 'In the past, some Chinese Buddhist or Guanyin [Goddess of Mercy] worshippers would cut all meat dishes on the first and 15th day of the lunar calendar as a way to cleanse their souls,' Chan says. 'But some of them weren't vegetarian. They found vegetarian dishes too bland and so they went for mock meat. Today, mock meat is still a way to attract non-vegetarians.' Non-Chinese vegetarian eateries, on the other hand, use other tactics to lure customers. Life, for example, capitalises on the growing attraction of organic food and serves dishes that are free from chemicals. Its menu, which features more than 40 dishes from Japan, the Middle East and Mexico, carries remarks that indicate whether dishes are suitable for vegans and which are free of yeast, gluten, wheat, onion and garlic. 'We want to cater to all tastes and all walks of life,' Cuellar says. 'The good thing is that vegetarian dishes aren't just for vegetarians. They can be enjoyed by people who [occasionally] want to have a vegetarian diet, or have religious beliefs.'