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Plant life: DB entrepreneurs talk vegan

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Is everyone going vegan? Kate Farr chats to two DB entrepreneurs who are spearheading the community’s increased interest in a healthier way of eating.

In our increasingly health-conscious and environmentally aware society, one of the biggest challenges that the planet faces is the fair division of global resources and, in particular, food. According to the Vegetarian Society, 70% of all agricultural land is currently used for rearing farmed animals, with a meat-eater’s diet using two-and-a-half times the amount of land compared to a vegetarian diet, and up to five times more than a vegan diet.

As such, the number of us choosing to change the way we eat is increasing. Around 22% of Hong Kongers now choose to follow predominantly plant-based diets, with the number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants in the city more than doubling over the past three years. Even among those who are not ready to give up meat entirely, increased enthusiasm for initiatives like Veganuary (where participants observe a plant-based diet for a month), and Green Mondays, which encourages people to cut meat from their diet for one day per week, marks the rise of a more ‘flexitarian’ approach to eating.

Glance into a few supermarket trolleys in Fusion, DB and, from the amount of vegetables contained therein, it’s clear that many of us residents are striving to change up the way we eat. DB entrepreneurs are very much on board too, with Gary Stokes of Hemingway’s and Sarah Lee of Sweet Secrets leading the ethical-foodie charge.

You are what you eat  

Beloved by many a DB mum for her indulgent and inventive birthday cakes,  Sarah Lee has just expanded her range to satisfy our (and her own) more noble dietary cravings. She is enthusiastic about offering healthy food choices and believes everyone can eat well without feeling deprived of treats.

veganism - sarah lee

“The story started seven years ago when we were asked by a returning customer to make a gluten-free cake for her daughter’s fifth birthday,” Sarah opens. “I had to turn her down at first, as it was the first time I had even heard of the word ‘gluten!’ She told me her daughter would cry every year after cutting her cake, as she was unable to have even a bite of it. Of course, the mum in me had to say yes, despite being clueless, and we made her daughter a specially designed cake made from the boxes of gluten-free pre-mix that she supplied.”

Sweet Secrets’ selection has come a long way since that initial request, with the bakery now offering a full range of goodies that are glutenfree, vegan and refined sugarfree, with nut-free cakes available to order. Sarah explains that, far from being an inferior option, her healthier treats are actually almost impossible to distinguish from their traditional counterparts.

“The feedback we have received from customers is that most can’t tell the difference!” she says with a smile. “We try to offer ‘blind’ tastings unless one has food intolerances. Two of our latest creations are a turmeric, ginger and lime cake, and a beetroot chocolate cake. Most of our tasters said that the turmeric cake is so light and moist, and the beetroot is just so pretty and an interesting combo. No one guessed that they are vegan!”

What about the pickiest customers of all? “Kids are happy to eat vegan or healthy… if, and only if the treats taste good! Kids are our best judges, because their faces tell you the real story instantly. I recently saw a little boy gobbling up our turmeric cake and licking the frosting off his daddy’s hand. It was such a joy to see!”

In creating their cakes, Sarah and her team skilfully substitute natural ingredients – with impressive results. “Common substitutes for eggs include apple sauce, banana, dates, chia and flax seeds,” Sarah says. “There are lots of choices for milk substitutes, without too much difference in how they behave in baking, such as nut milks, seed milks, and even coconut, oat, soy or rice milks.”

So, are there any cakes that simply can’t be adapted to a healthier version? “We can always adapt,” says Sarah. “Our aim is always for our free-from cakes to be healthy and wholesome, but to taste like conventional cakes too. If I had to say that there’s one cake we haven’t quite got to be gluten-free, vegan, healthy and delicious yet, it would be a chiffon, or sponge fruit cream cake.”

What would Sarah say to those of us who relax the rules a little when it comes to occasional treats? “To me, it’s a balance between what we eat and how it serves our health and wellness. Food is fuel. Food is medicine. That’s my belief – even for sweet treats. We all need our treats. We all want to indulge. Do it but do it consciously. When cakes are made to be just as delicious [as conventional treats], but with added nutrients, why would you say no?”

Practice what you preach

Equally willing to create change by changing the way people eat is Gary Stokes, ocean conservationist and co-founder of Hemingway’s. “We live in a world of 7.6 billion people, many of whom eat meat or seafood three times a day. This is unsustainable,” Gary opens. Referencing his work with international NGO Sea Shepherd, he continues, “While most people cannot go to sea for several months to save whales, sharks, turtles or fish, we can all make a huge difference by simply looking at what we decide to put on our dinner plates. The ‘easy’ solution is a plant-based diet – going vegan.”

veganism - gary stokes

Such is Gary’s commitment to ‘walk the talk,’ that under his guidance Hemingway’s recently took the bold – and some might say, risky – step of converting to a full vegan food menu, creating meat-free versions of pub food classics such as nachos, spaghetti bolognese, and even pizza. So far, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with the DB community embracing the opportunity to enjoy what Gary describes as “normal food” in a casual setting.

Not content to leave ethics to the chefs, Hemingway’s drinks list is also now clearly marked as either vegetarian or vegan, (many commercially-produced beers and wines use isinglass, a fish-derived additive, and animal gelatine in their production).

Such is the success of Hemingway’s new approach that it was recently awarded Asia’s first ever Compassionate Business Award by PETA, the world’s largest animal rights organisation, further underscoring that meat-free eating is no longer thought of  as an alternative lifestyle choice.

Sarah Lee’s best-ever ice cream

Gluten-free, vegan, egg-free, nut-free, dairy-free, soy-free, refined sugar-free, paleo, raw. Makes 8 scoops.

veganism - sweet secrets

• 4 large ripe bananas, sliced and frozen
• ½ cup coconut cream, liquid, cool
• 2 tbsp coconut oil, liquid, cool
• 1 tbsp coconut nectar
• 2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Purée all the ingredients together, with a pinch of sea salt, until the mixture is super creamy. Pour into a chilled container, then either freeze for 3 to 4 hours, or serve right away as a soft ice cream. For berry-flavoured ice cream, add a few chopped frozen berries before blending. For chocolate ice cream, add 4 to 5 tablespoons of raw cacao powder. Decorate with berries, nuts, raw cacao nibs or shaved chocolate.

• Hemingway’s, 2987 8855
• Sweet Secrets, 2545 8886, www.sweetsecrets.com.hk

Photos by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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