By Janice Leung Hayes
Apr 29, 2019
NOT LONG AGO, dining out as a vegetarian in Hong Kong usually meant sticking to Indian food or choosing restaurants designed specifically for strict Buddhists. In the latter, you’d have a choice of “Chinese mock-meats made of soy and sodium, and doused in oil and dressings,” says local chef Peggy Chan, who has been vegetarian for almost two decades. “The stigma that surrounds vegetarian and vegan foods has always been that it’s bland, and limited in variety.” Chan has been pioneering a change in this attitude, serving up creative plant-based menus at her vegetarian restaurant Grassroots Pantry (tasting menu from HK$850) since 2012.
And now the rest of the city seems to be following in step. In addition to the growing number of vegetable-led eateries, there’s been a noticeable change in Hong Kong’s most luxurious fine-diners, which have begun to offer vegetarian and even vegan menus in addition to their usual omnivorous plates.
One of the first to do so was Arcane (tasting menu from HK$888), led by Shane Osborn. The former executive chef of London’s Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and finalist on Netflix cooking show The Final Table, this Australian chef will be familiar to globetrotting gourmands. “We’ve always had vegetarian options on the menu. Over the past year we’ve had more vegan guests so it made sense to offer them a bespoke menu [as well],” Osborn says. “People are becoming more health conscious and also realizing that we need to be more ecologically aware. We cannot continue to consume as much meat as we do.”
Social start-up Green Monday, founded by Hong Kong entrepreneur David Yeung, encourages vegetarianism on Mondays—or one day a week. Yeung’s team posits that cutting meat and animal products from one’s diet can significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore help combat climate change. Combine this with constant food-safety concerns in the headlines regarding factory-farmed meats across the globe, and the fact that Hong Kong imports more than 90 percent of its food, and it’s easy to see why Hong Kongers are attracted to eating more plants.
“People are more interested in sustainability in general, simply due to the fact that we are prompted with this knowledge daily through televised news, published articles, online magazines and social media on rotation,” Chan says. Grassroots Pantry is known for its commitment to both people and planet, serving up nutrient-dense foods mostly sourced from certified organic operations, including farms within Hong Kong, which not only minimizes food miles, but also ensures freshness.
Grassroots Pantry has been a casual all-day eatery since its inception, but as Chan’s cuisine has become increasingly sophisticated, a tasting menu has also been launched in the evenings. “We hope that plant-based fine-dining cuisine will extend to demographics that otherwise would prefer air-flown Japanese fruit tomatoes, caviar and Wagyu beef, and eventually shift people’s mindsets on the true ‘value’ of food,” she says.
With a clientele firmly in this demographic is the Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room & Bar (tasting menu from HK$1,480). Their new vegetarian tasting menu has been well-received. “I wouldn’t call [vegetarianism] a trend; it is now part of daily life,” chef-owner Vicky Lau says. “We get quite a number of non-vegetarians ordering the menu. They are often curious about what combination and cooking methods we put into it.” Creating meat-free dishes isn’t simply about swapping steak for squash. As Lau puts it, “I believe that the menu must flow well and there are a lot of things to reconsider, therefore the vegetarian version is a completely new set of dishes.”
Suprisingly, the ingredients are no less luxurious than an omnivorous menu. When you think of Japanese fine dining, tuna and Wagyu come to mind, but to Agustin Balbi, executive chef of Haku (six-course tasting menu from HK$600), a modern Japanese restaurant, vegetables are just as worthy of the spotlight. The vegetarian menu at Haku is an expression of his love and appreciation for his ingredients. “We work with high-quality producers, and I thought that instead of using that amazing produce in a supporting role, why not do a menu that showcases [the vegetables] as the main attraction?” For instance, Balbi collaborates with a farmer in Japan whose sole focus for the past 50 years has been to grow the perfect tomato. Osborn uses highly seasonal, specialty Japanese produce, such as tsubomina, a distinctive mustard related to the Brussels sprout, and mukago—tiny wild mountain yams. “To know their history and their passion to achieve a certain level [of quality] is magical,” Balbi says. “If that is not luxury, what is?”
Haku is also known for their house-made ferments, such as miso, which takes months to produce. The vegetarian menu at Tate also requires a lot of work from Lau’s team. “Although vegetables are normally not as expensive as meat, the man-hours in prepping all these dishes is what makes it costly,” she says. Chan agrees, adding that by using high-quality, environmentally and ethically sound ingredients, and thereby educating customers, “We dispel the myth of plant-based being of lower value.”
Putting vegetables at the forefront is, at the moment, still a nascent concept in Hong Kong, where the meat consumption per capita is among the highest in the world. But these chefs are up to the challenge. “Even if we serve only one vegetarian menu a night I think it’s worth it, because it’s a statement that we as chefs care about the environment,” Lau says, “and, of course, pleasing a few vegetarian friends along the way.”
More Plant-Based Bites
These fine-dining restaurants across the region are also becoming known for their vegetarian offerings.
Though French fine-dining is often epitomized by its animal proteins—foie gras, beef, duck—at Odette, a Michelin- two-starred French eatery within Singapore’s National Gallery, acclaimed chef Julien Royer lists a completely plant-based dish as one of his signatures: an elegant landscape of candy-colored morsels all featuring beetroot prepared in multiple ways. there are also vegetarian tasting menus on offer for both lunch and dinner. odetterestaurant.com
As the chef of a contemporary Malaysian fine-dining restaurant driven by indigenous flora and fauna, Darren Teoh is no stranger to his country’s vegetation; in fact, it forms the basis of his cooking. Athough not permanently advertised, a vegetarian menu is available here with advance notice. Teoh says that Malaysia’s natural landscape provides the best of its bounty during the wetter months, so for the dry season, his team preserves the vegetable produce for year-round abundance. dewakan.my
Indian cuisine lends itself to plant-based cooking, and at Gaa, the boundary-pushing Indian-meets-Thai fine-diner, a vegetarian tasting menu has been available from the outset. Chef Garima Arora works with a vast array of Thai produce— try the unripe jackfruit served with roti and pickles, or the coconut shoots with long pepper and macadamia milk— and has a room dedicated to fermenting ingredients in-house, no doubt influenced by her training at contemporary gastronomic trailblazers such as noma and Gaggan. gaabkk.com