Healthy vegan and vegetarian fare: how Hong Kong restaurants are going back to basics

A growing number of vegetarian and vegan establishments are springing up around the city, offering delicious fare, writes Tracey Furniss

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 3:23pm

There has been a vegetarian revolution simmering in Hong Kong’s dining scene over the past few years. Vegetarian and vegan options are not just about mock meat and tofu of old, but smart, well-researched textures and flavours to produce delicious dishes that would make meat eaters not think twice about missing their steak or pork chops.

Peggy Chan, founder and chef at Grassroots Pantry, says that the new wave of vegetarian cuisine is a lot healthier. “The old-style vegetarian restaurants in Hong Kong used so many additives in the food. The point of going back to roots and making food simple is that we cut out all those additives and preservatives so we focus on the whole ingredients. We were the first to do that in a restaurant setting.”

Chan took vegetarian cuisine from a casual concept to restaurant level when she opened Grassroots Pantry in 2012.

She recreates dishes she remembers before she was vegetarian. “I count on my memories,” Chan says. “A dish begins with remembering the taste and texture, something like Hainanese chicken rice. How do we recreate a [vegetarian] dish and have people recognise it so easily?

The second way is that I travel and get inspired by different cultures. It always starts with a culture first, then we try something new or something traditional and then we recreate it into a healthier version.”

Central, SoHo and Sheung Wan have seen modern vegetarian/vegan eateries open in recent years with Mana, by Bobsy Gaia whose slogan “Slow food fast”, makes healthier options more accessible to busy people, bakery/cafe Fresca and the latest, Home Eat to Live by CGM which offers burgers made with beetroot, mushrooms and oats that recreate the textures and flavours that meat eaters enjoy.

Lebanese chef Tarek Alali opened his modern Mediterranean vegetarian restaurant Wild Thyme two years ago in Tsim Sha Tsui, when there were few authentic dining options for vegetarians. It has only been since March that he put meat on the menu.

He offers plenty of vegetarian traditional Middle Eastern favourites such as hummus, baba ghanooj and falafel, but he also loves to experiment creating fusion-style dishes.

“The wild-thyme dip has nothing to do with the Middle East,” Alali says. “This is one I created myself. It has roasted nuts with smoked chilli. The jalapeno dip is another I created.

I use fresh green jalapeno, and charcoal grill it with nuts such as almond, cashews walnut, sesame seeds, pine nuts but there are no peanuts.

“Then we have a truffle hummus which is more Mediterranean, it is just hummus with good quality black truffle.”

Another dish he created that is popular with diners is his fried rice. It is not like local fried rice as he does not use eggs and it is not Middle Eastern because he does not use saffron.

“It is like a rice that they stuff inside lamb [in the Middle East].

That rice is long grain with pine nuts and almonds. You either stuff it into a whole lamb or have it on the side. This dish I made without meat but I created home-made mince from flour and spices, and we add pine nuts, almonds and raisins.

The dish is sweet, salty, spicy, crispy and the rice is crunchy.”

Over at Ming Court, chef Mango Tsang Chiu-lit creates modern vegetarian dishes as part of the restaurant’s vegetarian options. The steamed Spanish whole tomato with morel mushrooms, Matsutake mushrooms, lotus seed, pumpkin and Chinese wild yam he created for a competition, and it was a winner, so he put it on the menu. “It’s very healthy,” says the veteran chef who started out at the Shamrock Hotel, 45 years ago. “We chose seasonal ingredients and it’s summer so people usually want to eat light. We created something that is appetising and light with different textures like fungus and fresh mushrooms and carrots. It’s a bit sweet because of the pumpkin, so we add a bit of salt to the dish and it’s colourful.”

Another award-winner - a gold distinction for the Hong Kong Tourism Board Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2015 - is the grapefruit pomelo peel with Shanxi aged vinegar, fried wild mushrooms with butternut pumpkin, bell pepper, Thai basil and pine nuts stir fried. “Some of the food writers cannot guess what is in the dish, so I tell them it’s pomelo peel and vinegar in a crispy batter, and I add some Chinese black vinegar,” says Tsang, who was inspired to be a chef from eating at dai pai dongs when he was a child. “I loved the fires from the woks, they cooked by the table and [we] took the food immediately. It was delicious.”

Chan creates vegan desserts at Grassroots Pantry such as the matcha cannelle cake with raspberries, Raiz-the-Bar light almond cacao pastry cream, matcha whip and raw cocao nibs. “It’s that texture of the cannelles that is just guilty pleasure,” Chan says. “That crispy outer layer with the dense texture of chewy pudding inside.” The dish was inspired by a recent trip to Taiwan while café hopping. She recreated a chocolate tart and made it vegan - without dairy or eggs - by using an almond-based cream.

“We start off with whole almonds and we soak them and let them sprout to activate them and then we blend it with dates and pink salt and vanilla, and then we add in Raiz-thebar - made of cocoa and coconut nectar, which is low glycemic.”

The lemon posette has no egg yolk. It is light and fresh served with vegan ice cream which is coconut kefir yoghurt with berries,” Chan says. “We start off with kefir grains and coconut milk, ferment it and we mix with chia seeds and dehydrate them - the dish is tart and fresh.”