Plants the Seed of Peace
On the heels of a painful divorce in New York City, Elizabeth Gilbert set out to discover her true self on a Eat, Pray, Love journey in Italy, India and Bali. It was an indulgent, spiritual and life-changing experience, letting go of the familiar and comfortable and enjoying whatever life brought her. While Gilbert left New York to find peace years ago, I stepped off the plane from Hong Kong into this seemingly dazzling and mysterious city to discover mine.
I had just quit the corporate marketing position that brought me back to Hong Kong three years ago. In the eyes of many, I seemed to have it all – a stable executive job, a comfortable home and an exciting filmmaking life on the side. Like most city dwellers though, I was lost in the commercial, materialistic concrete jungle that suppresses artistic freedom. It is about time I find myself again.
The Gypsy Way
My two US destinations, New York and Columbus, Ohio, were not new to me, but spending three weeks in these two places without a plan was a first. Dining with strangers I met along the way, eating a vegan doughnut sundae for lunch or buying an off-Broadway show ticket en route from the airport to the hotel might seem outlandish to some, but I found they fitted right into the New York City vibe.
On paper the two places appear unconnected, the sexy, arty cosmopolitan giant on the east coast and the capital of Ohio, stigmatised by its ‘backward’ Midwest location. In my two-cent opinion, though, both cities are progressive, artistic and most importantly vegan friendly. Being a vegan in Hong Kong is a blessing and a curse. There are more than 100 vegetarian restaurants, mostly Chinese and Asian, serving a population of seven million, but only a couple can be considered truly vegan (vegetarian restaurants serve mock meats that may contain dairy.) There are also over 100 veggie restaurants in NYC for eight million people, but at least 40 are vegan. Columbus is a much smaller city of 800,000, but they too have some amazing options, especially a Chef-style vegan food truck (more on that later).
It’s difficult to imagine but I looked like a country bumpkin in the US, taking photos of such amazing sights as three freezers full of non-dairy desserts, stacks of plant-based milk, tons of cheese and meat substitutes, rows of vegan items in salad bars and a cashier register monitor at a grocery store. Spying a bunch of fresh organic green kale bought for a mere 89 US cents (less than $7) I just had to document it. I was so excited to find so many inexpensive vegan choices here – such a feast after the vegan famine of three years in Hong Kong.
New York City
At home my breakfast is usually a fruit smoothie with banana, strawberries, avocado, cashew nuts, flax seeds, hemp powder and organic home-made soy milk, but being in New York I had to go to Champs Family Bakery (176 Ainslie Street, Brooklyn, www.champsdiner.com) to try their All Vegan Slam, the vegan version of a huge American breakfast, served all day. The slam is made with tofu scramble, tempeh bacon, soysage, garlic rosemary potatoes, toast and salad. If you need extra energy to jump-start your day, order a Juice Champ, selecting up to six of 25 ingredients to make your own blend, including kale, beet, garlic and spinach.
Champs is a 100-per cent vegan diner and bakery open seven days a week. Go early and have cash (no credit cards accepted, though there is an ATM in the restaurant). It frowns on bare-feet gypsies or workaholics with computers though, so I walked in with my shoes and hid my laptop in my bag.
Deciding on an unconventional lunch, I went to another vegan business in Brooklyn, Dun-Well Doughnuts (222 Montrose Avenue, www.dunwelldoughnuts.com), NYC’s first all-vegan doughnut shop. I’m a health nut, but I indulge myself when I’m travelling; it’s a good excuse. Otherwise how can you justify eating a Doughnut Sundae made with chocolate peanut butter pretzel, chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup for lunch? Everything here is locally made in Brooklyn, including the vegan ice-cream from Klimes. Doughnuts include traditional glazed, salted caramel with pecans, coffee dipper, peanut butter and jelly and blueberry – heaven for vegans with a sweet tooth.
There are many upscale vegan restaurants in New York. One of my vegan filmmaker and writer friends brought me to Candle 79 (154 East 79th Street, New York, www.candle79.com), which is a posh and candle-lit, unlike any vegetarian restaurant in Hong Kong. Bringing delicious vegan food from farm to table, it believes a plant-based diet and local organic food is the simplest and most direct way to create a peaceful and sustainable world.
We started off with some organic and biodynamic beverages. I recommend the Chocolate Covered Banana, a yummy dessert drink with banana, almond milk, cacao nibs and chocolate fudge. The dinner menu is not extensive, but there was enough to pique my interest. The wild mushroom crepe with autumn vegetables, sauteed wild mushrooms, poblano peppers, garlic truffle aioli and beet arugula-fennel salad is tantalizing, looking and tasting exactly like a delicately made crepe but without the ingredients (eggs and milk) that vegans and animal activists consider unkind. Tempeh is a rather labour-intensive food item but is very high in protein and can taste like a steak if it is made right. Candle 79’s chipotle-grilled tempeh, served with roasted shallots, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, pumping seeds and smoked fennel drizzled with leek puree, does just that. Their sweet potato pie with house-made caramel pecan ice cream and coconut whipped cream is equally delightful, especially when enjoyed amid the backdrop of a tranquil, romantic restaurant.
Eating natural, uncooked plant-based foods is a foreign idea to most of today’s city-dwellers. Pure Food and Wine (54 Irving Place, New York, www.oneluckyduck.com), an organic raw vegan restaurant in Manhattan, goes beyond just being healthy; it truly embraces a vegan lifestyle with an online shop selling vegan cosmetics and pet food. If you think that the only raw food you can get is salads, the chefs at Pure will prove you wrong. Dishes are made with ingredients that haven’t been heated over 47.8 degrees Celsius, so they retain their full nutritional value and living enzymes.
I chose the five-course tasting menu in order to try as many of the kitchen’s creations as possible. First up was peach gazpacho followed by house-made date bread with truffle cream and fava bean and kale caesar rolls with avocado and pickled onions. After the main of zucchini and heirloom tomato lasagna, with basil pistachio pesto, sun-dried tomato marinara and macadamia pumpkin ricotta, I just had room for the chocolate and peanut butter cheesecake, the final flourish to an outstanding meal.
A couple of vegan pubs and restaurants have closed since I last returned to Columbus (I used to live in the city), but a new vegan food truck, Vegan Baba, has sprouted on Lane Avenue near the Ohio State University campus. Meeting Chizuko Reese, the Okinawa owner of the food truck, reminded me of the Jon Favreau film Chef; she has the same kind of energy and positivism, an entrepreneur with an interesting backstory. The wife of a local minister, she became a vegan last year spurred by an animal cruelty video and designed her truck based on dreams she had 10 years ago of black bears, deer and other animals coming to her angry and wanting to be saved.
Her food is mainly Japanese, began sushi and ramen with no MSG. I was lucky to go on a rainy day so they had time to tailor make a kampyo, avocado and vegan sausage roll for me. The monkey mushroom and sweet potato rolls on their menu are equally delicious and filling for either lunch or snacks.
Portia’s Cafe (4428 Indianola Avenue, Columbus), is a vegan restaurant serving soup, salad, wraps and some Mexican fare including quesadillas and burritos. We tried the seven-layer Sombrero Dip with guacamole salsa, Daiya cheese, black beans, house-made vegan sour cream, black olives, onion and organic tortilla chips, as well as the vegetable curry soup made with black beans and a hint of coconut, and were impressed with both. The chocolate and Blondie macaroons (shredded coconut, Ohioan maple syrup, coconut oil and vanilla) are interesting, though far from the typical French sweet treats we expected. But given the significant price drop from vegan food in New York, we left satisfied,
There are branches of vegan fast food chain Loving Hut in Wanchai and Kowloon Bay, but the US version has a wider range of organic vegan items. My favourites in the Columbus branch (6569 E Livingston Avenue, Reynoldsburg) are the Thai iced tea, lady fingers (crispy thin rolls with red bean paste, served with carrots, broccoli and hot sauce) and colourful Love Letter from the Earth salad with lettuce, sweet potato, apple, walnuts, avocado, beet, olives and alfalfa, drizzled with tofu or cucumber dressing. A vegan quick meal at Loving Hut is much healthier than popping into one of the regular fried chicken or hamburger joints.
After recommending a couple of vegan bakeries in New York, it is only fair that I introduce one in Columbus. Pattycake Bakery (3009 N High Street, Columbus) is a ‘secretly-vegan’ bakery near Ohio State University – there is no wording to indicate the baked goods are completely dairy- and egg-free, however, the staff and the website (after some scrolling) will tell you so. They used to carry the word ‘vegan’ in their brand name but dropped it so as not to ‘scare’ potential customers away. I think they are in danger of losing the vegan and lactose-intolerant crowd this way, but regardless their cookies and cupcakes are pretty wicked. They also sell scrumptious flavoured sticky buns on the weekends.
Vegans have gone from being outcasts to an increasingly important base of consumers; the use of vegan as a Google search word has skyrocketed in the US. Life should be pure, healthy and cruelty-free, and I hope vegan and organic businesses can continue to troll the world and soon enjoy more of a presence in Hong Kong.[This article was originally published on Baccarat Magazine Hong Kong.]