Header image courtesy of @dorsettmongkokhk (via Instagram)
Vegetarianism, veganism, pescetarianism, you name it—whether or not you are a fan, the benefits of meat-free diets are more widely perpetuated than ever, with an increasing number of eateries and shops focusing on meat alternatives, dairy-free, and plant-based food and beverages.
It’s important to note, though, that vegetarianism far transcends modern trends and that people have been choosing vegetarian lifestyles for a long time. In Asia, much of this eating habit has to do with Buddhism and the restrictions placed on food that its followers subscribe to. This precursor to modern-day vegetarian cuisine has marked differences, so check out these places in Hong Kong which do still serve vegetarian temple food the traditional way!
While modern vegetarian food can loosely be used to define any dishes that contain no meat, its Chinese term “素食” (sou3 sik6)—or “食齋” (sik6 zaai1) in colloquial Cantonese—is actually a bit of a misnomer, because the same umbrella term is also used to refer to temple food, which is vegetarian or vegan in nature.
However, the concept of temple food is actually a more tightly constrained beast. Influenced by the Buddhist idea of Dharma and the importance placed on non-violence, vegetarianism or veganism is a religiously informed lifestyle choice followed by monks and believers. Monasteries have kitchens to cater to the daily dietary needs of resident monks, and they would sometimes also be open to the public as a way of getting some extra money and donations.
Key differences between temple food and the kind of vegetarian food served in commercial establishments with no religious affiliations are that Buddhist monks are also banned from consuming garlic, shallots, and chives. Such pungent plant ingredients are avoided because their aroma is said to excite the senses, which works counterintuitively to monks having to maintain a calm and placid demeanour.
In general, commercial vegetarian restaurants pride themselves on creating mock meat dishes that do their absolute best to look, smell, and taste like the real thing. Vegetarian “char siu,” “duck,” and “sweet and sour pork”—usually made from gluten—are mock meat dishes that are commonly found on such menus.
However, Buddhist monks are not supposed to crave meat at all, and therefore would have no need for dishes that resemble it in the first place. Thus, mock meat is also not usually found as part of traditional temple food, though you may find some temple eateries have now given in to catering to the tastes and expectations of the lay public.
Located within the stunning grounds of the Nan Lian Garden and tucked behind the Silver Strand Waterfall, Long Men Lou (龍門樓) is run by Chi Lin Vegetarian, a charity organisation that made its mark 50 years ago when they provided vegetarian meals to the post-war needy. The restaurant boasts fresh ingredients, no MSG, and cooking that is low in oil, sodium, and sugar, while all profits are funnelled back into the maintenance of Nan Lian Garden.
Must-orders here include the braised beancurd patty filled with enoki mushrooms (starting from $88), baked wheat gluten with aromatic ginger and celery ($125), and the Five Fortune appetiser platter (starting from $135) which consists of beetroot salad, marinated mushrooms, mung bean sheets in pomelo vinegar, silver ear mushrooms and cucumbers, and spicy marinated wheat gluten.
Long Men Lou Chi Lin Vegetarian, Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Road, Diamond Hill | (+852) 3658 9388
Our pick for a classier foray into the world of temple food would absolutely be Kung Tak Lam (功德林), a Shanghai vegetarian restaurant that has been in Hong Kong for over 30 years and recognised with the Michelin Bib Gourmand. We always gorge ourselves on the seaweed-flecked peanuts served with tea at the beginning of the meal—possibly the best pre-meal snack ever—but don’t make the same mistake because there’s so much to look forward to.
Enjoy Kung Tak Lam’s wide range of offerings by giving over the reins and ordering a dinner set menu (starting from $2,188 for six diners), which comprises 12 sharing dishes, such as their famed Qilin tofu dumplings, seaweed & ham wrap with honey sauce, crab soup with crispy rice, sweet & sour fish with pine nuts, and much more.
Thighs aching and stomach grumbling after a visit to the Big Buddha, it’s usually the range of restaurants within Ngong Ping Village that visitors instinctively turn to for food. However, since you’re already in the area, we would suggest seeking out the vegetarian kitchen at the Po Lin Monastery (寶蓮禪寺齋堂) instead.
Dishes and prices here vary according to season and the availability of ingredients, and portion sizes are calculated per head to avoid food wastage. Whatever the menu that greets you may be, one can generally expect to find a soup course, a deep-fried dish, and a vegetable dish served along with rice. Pop by the snack stall for a bowl of silken tofu pudding made daily by the monastery kitchen, or some glutinous rice dumplings with mango.
Po Lin Monastery (寶蓮禪寺齋堂), Ngong Ping Road, Ngong Ping, Lantau Island | (+852) 2985 4736
Cloistered away in the remote countryside of northern New Territories, this Taoist monastery in Fanling may be a bit out of the way, but it does boast dramatic halls of red and gold, as well as a carved rendition of “The Scroll of 87 Immortals” (八十七神仙卷), the famous classical illustration by Wu Daozi (吳道子). Its grounds also contain a vegetarian canteen, where diners can find dishes such as XO sauce vegetarian prawns ($71), braised gourd & tofu with black bean sauce ($58), fat choy with vegetarian abalone ($87), and much more to choose from.
Fung Ying Seen Koon Vegetarian Kitchen (蓬瀛仙館齋廚), 66 Pak Wo Road, Fanling | (+852) 2669 3033