Just how hard is it being a veggie in Hong Kong? Jenny lets out a good old rant about the lack of decent options and names and shames those restaurants that really should try harder… Do you agree?
‘Good luck in Hong Kong- shame you’re a vegetarian’ was what one former colleague of mine wrote in my leaving card, when I left my job in the UK back in 2009 to move to Hong Kong. He himself having been born and raised in Hong Kong had already given me some advice on things to do in Hong Kong and this involved a list of dishes to try and where to get them- all meat! When I mentioned that I was vegetarian, he added that the sweet tofu from the shop near the Big Buddha on Lantau was quite good. Actually, I still haven’t tried it but this whole situation sums up the provision of vegetarian cuisine in Hong Kong quite well – a few gems in the rough, but overall rather disappointing and frustrating.
‘You’re a vegetarian? That must be pretty difficult in Hong Kong’ is the usual reaction that I get when the subject comes up in conversation. ‘It’s not that difficult as long as you don’t try to eat Chinese food’ is my usual reply. But really, even at the restaurants that serve other cuisines, I don’t think the selection for us veggies is as good as it could be. Apart from Life Café in Soho and Pure Veg Indian Restaurant Branto in TST where the food is tasty enough that I can convince non-veggie pals to join me for dinner. My main gripe is about the lack of decent vegetarian dishes in ‘normal’ restaurants. I am not a crazy militant vegetarian that won’t dine with friends who are eating meat. All I really want is to be able to join my friends for a meal at a restaurant where everyone can enjoy a delicious meal.
I am based part time in Shatin and part time in Kowloon Tong. My lunch choices are very limited. The restaurants, supermarkets and sandwich shops there offer a limited and unimaginative veggie selection. Dim Sum is generally a nightmare and I dread those long work lunches where the few morsels of veggie-friendly fayre disappear from the lazy susan just before it swings round to my place. I inevitably go back to my desk hungry even after my colleagues kindly but embarrassingly fuss over me pointing out dishes which I can eat.
Buffets and Set Menu Dinners in my experience are can be disastrous, and it’s very unlikely for a vegetarian to feel like they are getting good value for money. Sports club annual dinners and the like always seem to be priced around $600 per person. Last year, my hockey club’s annual dinner was held at Top Deck in Aberdeen. I think they managed to put meat or fish in all the dishes – even the salads, leaving me to eat only bread until my lovely boyfriend persuaded them to make me a veggie pasta dish. This at least meant that I didn’t go hungry but I definitely felt short-changed. This year we went to the Jockey Club and I was more hopeful with there being a set menu. The veggie main course, ‘risotto verdure’, sounded promising, but turned out to be a disappointing pile of bland and dry rice with some small green flecks and two cherry tomatoes on the side. I do wonder how it can be so difficult to provide a simple but tasty veggie dish such as risotto or a few veggie dinner buffet dishes which can be enjoyed by all?
Part of the problem for vegetarians in Hong Kong is the local culture. Even the non-Chinese food is, of course, tailored to local taste. In a similar way, Chinese cuisine in the UK is often tailored to British taste. Some cuisines are just not terribly vegetarian friendly and this is really just a traditional thing so one cannot complain too much. Authentic Chinese cuisine is one of these. With traditional Chinese restaurants, as a vegetarian, you definitely can’t just turn up and know that you will definitely find something to eat. Even if there are tofu or vegetable dishes on the menu, they will often contain pork, and even if there is no meat in the description, it’s really hard to be sure of genuinely vegetarian dishes. The concept of vegetarianism in the true sense is generally not well understood. A good example of this is when at a work lunch a colleague offered me some of her turtle shell jelly, saying ‘don’t worry, it is vegetarian – its made from the shell not the meat’! Chinese vegetarian restaurants do exist, and many of these are Buddhist-run establishments. However, with a few exceptions, I have not had a great experience of these types of places either. They seem to be either of the type that serves bland soggy vegetables; or the type that serves fake meant or fish which is so realistic it’s just weird.
Of course, being a cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong has a vast selection of cuisines on offer. A few genuinely do offer a good selection of vegetarian options. My current favourite dining options include Habibi Café on Wellington Street, Central, which offers a great selection of delicious vegetarian mezze and middle-eastern style main courses; La Creperie on Queen’s Road, Wan Chai for it’s fabulous cheesy Breton crepes; Ooolaa on Bridges Street, Sheung Wan and Jaspas on Staunton Street for their extensive menus which include a wide range of interesting veggie options; Simply Life in IFC Mall for their extraordinary veggie risottos; Dozo on Lyndhurst Terrace which serves a surprising good selection of veggie sushi and other Japanese dishes; and finally Bistro Manchu for their range of tasty vegetarian Manchurian (Northern Chinese/Russian style) dishes.
So that’s the good news – all is not lost for vegetarians in Hong Kong, Now for the bad news – there are far too many restaurants that are a big disappointment and should really try harder. A good example comes from a recent visit with my family to Wooloomooloo Prime at The One in TST. Alas, no vegetarian main course was on offer. I chose the only vegetarian appetiser in place of a main course, and it was delicious. But, as I said to the Restaurant Manager when he came over to ask how my appetiser was whilst everyone else was clearly tucking into their main courses, it would have been better if there were some vegetarian main courses on offer. Now, you make think I was asking for trouble going to a Steak restaurant. However, I had previously been to Wooloomooloo in Wan Chai and was pleasantly surprised when I was presented with a whole separate vegetarian menu (although this itself is perhaps not advertised particularly well).
Other places that seriously lack imagination when it comes to vegetarian fayre include Pure Bar in Soho where the few veggie options all include portabello mushroom, as if a substitute for meat is required, and portabello mushroom is the only choice; The Pawn in Wan Chai, who charged me something outrageous like $30 to add something interesting like a few slices of pumpkin to my otherwise boring salad; and Peak Café and Shelley’s Yard in Soho that have some good veggie appetisers and pizzas, but lack veggie main courses otherwise.
After reading this, you may be of a different option, but personally I do not think us veggies are really all that difficult to please. Delicious vegetarian food just requires a little imagination and minimal effort to create. What people tend to forget is that non-vegetarians can also eat vegetarian food, and sometimes genuinely chose to do so, often unwittingly, when there are some tasty sounding meat and fish-free dishes on the menu. Well thought out and carefully prepared vegetarian dishes also often offer a healthier alternative to non-vegetarian fayre, so there are further benefits to be enjoyed by those outside of the small Hong Kong vegetarian population. Overall, there is good reason why Hong Kong should make more of an effort with vegetarian cuisine and no reason why it ‘cannot’.