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Plant power: the rise of flexitarianism

Thinking of becoming vegetarian or cutting down on meat and fish? Here’s how Hong Kong has been stepping up its game in the global meat-reduction movement. And what you can do, too!

It’s not just about health

Choosing whether to eat meat has increasingly become more than just a matter of one’s personal health concerns or even an individual’s ethical stance. It’s a matter of actually saving our planet. With meat production accounting for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally (more than all transportation combined worldwide!), and reports that the global temperature rises are unlikely to keep below two degrees Celsius without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption, scientists are encouraging people to embrace more plant-based diets to mitigate environmental disasters and natural resource depletion. But this doesn’t necessarily mean giving up meat completely. Adopting a “flexitarian” diet, they say, is at least a step in the right direction toward promoting sustainability.

Veggie food

What is flexitarianism?

Eating meat doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. Instead of quitting cold turkey, there’s an alternative: flexitarianism – following a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally consuming seafood or meat. Also known as semi-vegetarianism, this type of diet (much like pescetarian and pollotarian diets) allows you some flexibility while still being mindful of food choices, and the ethical and environmental impacts of those choices. Unlike veganism, which promotes the complete abstinence of animal products, including eggs and dairy, a flexitarian diet might mean abstaining from meat six days a week to one person, but going meatless only once a week to another.

No matter how you decide to interpret it, the goal is to minimise your animal-based protein intake. Thus reducing your carbon footprint, even just a little. And the appeal of this type of diet, for many, is not having to label themselves one way or the other, or feel the pressure of committing to a permanent lifestyle choice.

The concept may draw eye-rolls from some who see it as “cheating” or “vegetarianism with benefits”, but the fact is that cutting back on meat rather than refraining completely could be the practical compromise that’s needed in order to help the environment. It can have a positive impact on one’s health, too.


Several studies have shown that frequent red meat consumption and the mode of its preparation are associated with an increased risk of development of colon cancer, says gastroenterologist Dr Andrea Rajnakova. Which is why, she says, removing meat from the diet even at least once a week can be beneficial. “Thanks to their high intake of plant-based foods, vegetarians have less risk for development of certain types of cancer and other diseases.” At the same time, she adds, strict vegetarian diets without any animal proteins may cause various nutritional deficiencies – of iron, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, for example, along with protein deficiencies.

Vegetarian food salad

As for amino acids, Dr Andrea says because animal protein contains all the essential amino acids in the correct proportions, it’s considered to be of a high biological value, while vegetables can have an incomplete amino acid profile. “For this reason, the combination of grains and legumes in the same dish (rice and lentils, for example) represents a better substitute of a slice of meat than legumes on their own, as grains contain an amino acid missing in the legumes,” she says.

In all, Dr Andrea feels that a flexitarian diet is a great compromise, as combining animal proteins with vegetable proteins a few times a week can provide a better variety of vitamins and minerals that might otherwise be lacking in a purely vegetarian diet.

Dr Andrea’s tips for a flexitarian diet

  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (more vegetables than fruit).
  • Include whole grain in at least one main meal per day.
  • Include different sources of iron that may be lacking due to a low intake of red meat. Good sources include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, kale and broccoli.
  • Use foods rich in vitamin C to increase the absorption of iron from vegetable sources. For example, a small glass (150ml) of freshly squeezed orange juice, lemon sauce as a dressing, bell peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and kiwifruit.
  • Include animal protein a few times a week, such as salmon, eggs, low-fat dairy and chicken.
  • Improve your ability to digest the legumes (and reduce flatulence) by soaking them for a long time, then changing the water before cooking. And, when possible, remove the skin.

The mock meat market

With campaigns like Green Monday and Meatless Monday having gained popularity worldwide, the decision to go meatless, even just on certain days, has become more mainstream than ever. As a result, more plant-based protein options are hitting the market than ever before, particularly mock meat, which tastes and looks just like the real thing with the goal of giving meat-lovers the same “experience” they crave from a conventional burger or mince dish, but without the health, sustainability and other problems connected to it.

Impossible Foods launched its Impossible Burger in Hong Kong in April 2018 and it was quickly embraced by our thriving food scene. This mock-meat product is now renowned for its meaty texture and taste. Less than 12 months after launch, you can order an Impossible Burger in around 150 venues across the city. Heidi Nam, Impossible Foods’ Hong Kong General Manager, helped us put some context around the success and the city’s rising interest in meat-free options. “We have definitely seen a significant rise in Hong Kong. I think Hongkongers are more educated and conscious about how their dietary choices have a big impact on the environment now.”

Impossible foods

New developments

In March this year, Impossible Foods launched a revised version, the Impossible Burger 2.0. It was first revealed in January at CES in Las Vegas, a tech trade show usually reserved for glamorous launches of iPhones or next-gen cars. The burger’s launch at such an event is a testament to its A-List status.

The Californian company has replicated the taste, smell and texture of animal meat by using heme – an iron-containing molecule found in both animals and plants that’s responsible for the unique flavours and smells of meat. The new iteration is kosher and halal-certified, plus it contains no animal hormones, no antibiotics and no gluten. It also offers as much bioavailable iron and protein as a serving of ground beef from cows. These mock-meat producers seem to have all the answers.

What is interesting about the new version is that it’s now transcending the simple burger. Heidi says, “Impossible 2.0 will be used in a variety of cuisines – thanks to all the amazingly creative chefs in Hong Kong.” She shares examples of Impossible tacos, quesadillas and burritos from Cali Mex, Impossible chilli fries from Beef & Liberty, Impossible mapo dofu and dan dan noodles from Qi House of Sichuan, Impossible dumplings from Chilli Fagara, an Impossible taco rice salad from Urban Café, and more. “Asia is a leader in culinary creativity,” adds Heidi. “We’ve been so impressed with the inventiveness of the chefs we have worked with.”

Is Impossible the plant-based meat that will eliminate the need for animals in the food chain and make the global food system sustainable? It’s a big call, but if you ask Impossible founder Dr Patrick O Brown, this is the answer.

How green is Hong Kong?

We’re definitely kicking some green-eating goals and adding fuel to the revolution here. This is according to Green Monday, a social venture group that aims to tackle climate change, global food insecurity and public health issues. The once-a-week plantbased meal philosophy of Green Monday is practiced by over 1.75 million people in Hong Kong (where it started), and has spread to over 30 countries.

In February 2019, Green Monday’s biennial Hong Kong Vegetarian Habit Survey revealed that a quarter of the population practises flexitarianism. And women are leading the charge. David Yeung, founder of Green Monday, says, “This survey revealed that one in every four Hong Kong women practise flexitarian and almost five percent are vegetarian. While women have a bigger say in the family’s purchasing habits, this provides a big insight for the market.”

Interestingly, the ratio of those who identify as “hard-core meat-lovers” has almost halved compared to four years ago. These Green Monday research results reveal a paradigm shift in dietary habits of Hong Kong – Hongkongers are moving to a plant-based diet. Hurrah!

Where to get involved?

For those wanting to join the movement, a good place to start is one of Green Monday’s stores, Green Common. This has been such a popular venture there are now quite a few locations sprinkled about the city. Green Common offers a single destination that houses a vegetarian restaurant, grocery store, even a florist and kitchen studio. You can eat a vegetarian meal in the restaurant, learn to cook veg in the studio, and shop for ingredients in the store.

One testament to the rise of green eating in Hong Kong was the conversion of Hemingway’s, a muchloved bar and restaurant in Discovery Bay, into a strictly vegan offering. The announcement came as a bit of shock to many residents. Although in the context of ownership makes a lot sense. Hemingway’s hasn’t skipped a beat though. And the new menu has been embraced by DB residents who are separated by a long ferry ride from the beards and hipsters over on Hong Kong Island. Does this mean vegan just went mainstream?

All jokes aside, many of the city’s established restaurants are acknowledging the rise in flexitarianism. Even go-to venues for meat-lovers, like Bizou American Brasserie at Pacific Place, have the Impossible Burger on the menu.

At Cobo House near HKU MTR station, your Impossible Burger comes with a side salad picked from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. This roof-to-plate strategy negates the struggles some restaurants face sourcing local produce, or questions about the integrity of vegetables sourced from outside of Hong Kong. It’s also very cool.

Growing your own

It’s not all about eating out though. There’s also a growing interest in growing our own food. Urban farming is on the rise in our urban jungle. And even the smallest of apartments and balconies can become product food bowls. Rooftop Republic has been working to raise the profile of urban farming and help Hongkongers set up their own food sources at home. It also hosts some fun workshops where you can get your hands in the dirt and simply have a go.

Don’t have a balcony? That’s not a problem, according to the urban farming enthusiasts at Grow Something. They say you can use any surface in your flat to create an edible garden that looks pretty and tastes delicious. Grow Something is helping flexitarians in tight spaces create edible landscapes and gardens that provide garnishes and herbs you can use in salads and other meals. They’re super cute (and delicious)!

If this all sounds like a lot of effort, don’t be deterred. You can still aspire to a flexitarian life if you’re busy. As the prevalence of the movement means there are now “easier” options. M&S has launched its own vegan-friendly range, Plant Kitchen, with a load of plant-based meals to choose from. Meal-plan service provider Nosh has gone and developed a veggie meal plan called Nosh Veggie, allowing you to have three vegetarian meals a day delivered to your door. And corporate caterers like Le Pain Quotidien offer a huge range of veg options for office delivery across the city. (See more on them in the following pages.)

Over a thousand restaurants and many more businesses in the city are participating in Green Monday. If you want to get on the Monday train, there are all types of cuisines on offer across Hong Kong.

What’s next?

The movement to reduce meat consumption is only expected to grow stronger. With an increase in F&B players creating more appealing meat-free options, and many of them encouraging customers to go meatless at least once weekly, it seems Hong Kong is in the hot seat and making an impact; it’s just a matter of deciding how you’ll play a part.

Grassroot Pantry

Our plant-based recommendations

Try one of these famed veggie-fuelled outlets.

Genie Juicery

These guys are about more than just juice. Yes, they offer juices that are 100 percent raw, natural and living. But Genie also offers a juice cleanse programme, plus a range of delicious salads and vegetarian meals.

IFC Mall and Pacific Place | geniejuicery.com


MANA! Fast Slow Food

Pioneering eco-healthy organic and raw fast food in HK, MANA! encourages Hongkongers to take a break from their frenzied lifestyles and get back to basics. The restaurant is bedecked with reclaimed furniture, fair-trade supplies and biodegradable food containers.

92 Wellington Street, Central | 2851 1611 |  mana.hk

Long Men Lou (Chi Lin Vegetarian)

For a truly zen experience, wander through the Nan Lian Buddhist garden at Diamond Hill to experience an elegant vegetarian meal among peaceful chanting and elegant environs behind a waterfall. Be sure to book in advance.

60 Fung Tak Road, Diamond Hill | 3658 9388

Locofama & Sohofama

Larry Tang is the man behind Locofama, Sohofama and Supafoods. He brings his special brand of understated cool to the scene and is committed to creating a community. Come for the food and you’ll stay to chat or pat a puppy. Sohofama is a collaboration with lifestyle brand GOD and a great place to bring out-of-towners. The menu is flexitarian-friendly with lots of options for meat- and non-meat-eaters alike.

9-13 Fuk Sau Lane | 2547 7668 | locofama.com
Ground floor, PMQ | 2858 8238 | sohofama.com


Old Bailey

Over in Tai Kwan, Old Bailey offers vegetarians (and vegans) their fill of delicious dumplings and other delights. This is another beautiful venue worthy of taking visitors to.

2/F, JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun | 2877 8711 | oldbailey.hk

See more in our
Wine & Dine section:

Restaurants with great veggie options
Asia’s best restaurants: Hong Kong winners
Best Sunday brunches in Hong Kong

This article first appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.