I was a vegetarian for three years, spanning my graduation from university and the beginning of law school. I had decided to question the assumption that eating meat is a prerequisite for a satisfying diet. I did not view animal suffering as the moral equivalent to human suffering, but it seemed compelling, nonetheless, to seek to reduce such suffering solely for the purpose of one’s own pleasure.
Vegetarianism, in fact, served to broaden rather than narrow my food horizons. I discovered that two of my favorite cuisines are Indian and Middle Eastern, both of which are well-suited to a vegetarian or even vegan diet. I learned to cook to ensure that home-life was full of fresh and tasty food.
I stopped being a vegetarian not because I was unsatisfied with the food, but mainly as I felt it was isolating, particularly as I interviewed with white-shoe law firms at fancy restaurants in the early 1990s. I thought to myself, “I’m gay, that’s enough” and didn’t want to have an additional discussion about food restrictions while seeking that first plum job. It wasn’t too difficult to slip back into the pleasures of enjoying some fresh sushi or a juicy steak.
Twenty-five years later, as restaurants inquire into food restrictions as a matter of course, perhaps I would not have perceived vegetarianism as so isolating. In Hong Kong, Grassroots Pantry epitomizes a contemporary vegetarian restaurant with a focus on natural, organic, and locally sourced ingredients, with the difference being that chef owner Peggy Chan also seems to draw inspiration from the Buddhist vegetarian tradition of rendering plant matter into food that approximates both the look and taste of various meats.
Grassroots Pantry first opened in Sai Ying Pun in 2012 before relocating to its current home at 108 Hollywood Road. The menu contains a key to indicate which items are vegan, raw, gluten-free, nut-free and even Buddhist-friendly, along with pleasant illustrations that give diners a sense of what they are about to order.
Sichuan Mala Burger. Photo Marc Rubinstein
My first visit coincided with the day that Grassroots Pantry introduced its Sichuan Mala Burger (HKD$138) with salad or lotus fries. The dish is Grassroots Pantry’s first burger and uses the much written about “beyond burger” plant-based product that so resembles the look, texture and taste of beef that it is said to even “bleed” the beet juice that is included in its recipe.
Grassroots Pantry has taken the basic beyond burger patty one step further, fortifying it with cordycep and maitake mushrooms and adding a healthy amount of Sichuan peppercorn powder with its distinctive “mala” numbing spice for a uniquely spicy burger that has the texture of meat without the grease. It’s delicious and filling. The accompanying lotus fries are also good but with a rather intense amount of batter that does deliver on the grease. The salad might have been a better alternative.
I started that meal by sharing an order of the pulled jackfruit nachos (HKD108). The sprouted corn tortillas are smothered with chipotle cashew cheese, pulled jackfruit, chayote salsa and purple cabbage. The pulled jackfruit is hearty and thick-textured with a slightly tangy but not fruity taste that provides a lot of substance to these nachos. That base combined with the delicious cashew cheese and spicy salsa makes for a deliciously evolved take on the traditional Tex-Mex snack. From my experience, almost any dish with cashew cheese or cream is bound to be delicious, as the dense cashew protein offers both a smooth, nutty flavor and a creamy texture to spreads, dips and the like.
In terms of starters, the popcorn “chicken” (HKD78) is also a standout. It is served on a piece of slate with the contents spilling out of a small, brown paper bag. The “chicken”, actually large chunks of fresh hedgehog mushroom, is deep-fried and flavored with galangal powder, accompanied by a dipping sauce of coconut kefir sour cream.
Although the chunks of fried matter are significantly larger than any piece of popcorn I have seen, one must appreciate the artistry in rendering this vegan dish so that even when the pieces are cut open, it still looks like white meat chicken and tastes of deep fried protein. The only give-away is the ever so slightly more fibrous texture of the mushroom as one chews. Arguably, the dish might be even more impressive if directly labelled “deep-fried hedgehog mushroom” and appreciated for what it actually is rather than for what it resembles, but this is where the nod to the almost artistic Buddhist tradition is most evident.
For mains, I also tried the palak paneer (HKD158) and the banh xeo crepe (HKD128). Palak paneer is an Indian vegetarian dish made with spinach, paneer cheese, garam masala and other spices. The version at Grassroots Pantry is vegan with tofu cheese substituting for the paneer and includes a mix of greens served with either chapati bread or rice. The dish was good but I thought the chapati was a bit tough and the texture of the tofu cheese not as good a complement for the greens as the familiar, smooth paneer.
The ban xeo crepe is Grassroots Pantry’s version of this Vietnamese crepe, a dish I am frankly not that familiar with. Without a baseline to compare, I found this to be a tasty and lighter option, with cashew spam pâté, roasted asparagus, artichoke heart and a fresh herb salad with sriracha dressing spilling out of the crispy crepe.
All and all, I like the food and the formula at Grassroots Pantry, with its influences both global and local. It may not convince me to resume my vegetarianism, but with its packed room and five-year track record in fickle Hong Kong, it certainly has found a place.