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A case for meat-free dining in Manila

The rise of flexible diets and a growing demand for healthier and more compassionate lifestyles have created a market for alternative dining

Photos by Danica Condez (Green Bar) and courtesy of Hummus Elijah

There’s a song by The Smiths called “Meat Is Murder.” It’s the title track of the band’s sophomore LP, and it opens with a minute-long cacophony of simulated slaughterhouse noise and buzz-saw guitars that eventually make way for lyrics like:

The flesh you so fancifully fry / The meat in your mouth as you savor the flavor of murder 

Here is a protest song that manages to reinforce reductive ideas about both its author and its subject, settling as it did to antagonizing meat-eaters by way of a sappy polemic. Granted, it was released in 1985—a time when vegetarianism and veganism were still considered as under the radar movements, so the song can probably be forgiven for its crude extremism. But it’s exactly this quality that makes a decades-old song about meat as murder worth talking about. 

Progress is a relative thing: You can tell if it’s been made by comparing two points in time. And so if 2018 is, in any way, an appropriate gauge for whether or not the general public perception on meat-free lifestyles has progressed since 1985, then it’s worth focusing on the fact that plant-based dining has emerged as one of the year’s most prevalent trends in the industry.

The global market intelligence agency Mintel’s recent Global Food and Drink Trends reports an upward surge in consumer demand for alternatives to meat while international restaurant consulting company Baum + Whiteman found plant-based dining to be the top food trend of 2018.

Restaurateurs and chefs are producing less meat-heavy dishes not necessarily to make a statement, but simply as a response to a growing demand for delicious food that’s relatively healthier. And along with sustainability, meat-free dining has also been deemed as this idea that makes business sense.

As with most trends, these findings are complex in that they are not just products of a desire for culinary innovation nor are they manifestations of evolving tastes or refined palates. That more and more people are looking for alternatives to meat is also a response to industrial farming and its effects on animal welfare and the environment. 

But while there definitely has been a shift from the extremism of the meat-is-murder mentality to the more nuanced rhetoric of ethical animal husbandry and sustainable living, it also wouldn’t be completely accurate to read this phenomenon strictly as socially-conscious, progressive behavior. 

This couldn’t be truer than in the restaurant industry where the shift in perception is a lot less political than some people would think: Restaurateurs and chefs are producing less meat-heavy dishes not necessarily to make a statement, but simply as a response to a growing demand for delicious food that’s relatively healthier. And along with sustainability, meat-free dining has also been deemed as this idea that makes business sense. 

But how exactly do these trends manifest themselves in Manila—a place where vegan food is generally believed to be expensive and going meat-free is seen as a quick path to protein deficiency? I talked to the owners of Green Bar and Hummus Elijah about what it means to run a meat-free business in a meat-loving country that’s also becoming increasingly health conscious.

NO STRATEGIES IN PLACE
Green Bar is currently ranked by TripAdvisor as the number 1 restaurant in Makati

When lifelong vegetarians (and now vegans) Jade and Sarada Santos opened Green Bar a few years back, it was done with the vision of promoting a more “holistic lifestyle” in the local dining scene by debunking popular notions about vegan food. 

“The challenge of opening a vegan restaurant in a meat-centric society is part of what made this endeavor so exciting and interesting for us. I like looking at popular dishes and thinking ‘How can I make that vegan?’ and then doing it. We think creating accessible and familiar dishes will help people view plant-based food in a new and exciting light,” says Jade. 

Unturkey sub: vegan baguette filled with unturkey deli slices, vegetables, cheese, and topped with vegan mayo

This was back in 2014 when plant-based cuisine hadn’t yet achieved the kind of mainstream status it enjoys now; this was when veganism was mainly the stuff of celebrity activism—inherently good but mostly deemed as inaccessible; a time when, as Jade says, online communities like Manila Vegans existed but only had a couple thousand members. So for the Santos sisters, there was a conscious decision at the time to “break this mold, this common misconception that plant-based food leaves you feeling unsatisfied.” 

And so besides the obligatory salads, Green Bar is better known for creating vegan versions of classic American meat-and-cheese-heavy comfort food like  seitan-based Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, mac n’ cheese and soy skin crackling-stuffed burritos, and pulled-tofu barbecue sandwiches. 

Come 2017 and Makati is named by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as the fourth vegan-friendly city in Asia. That veganism is still just an emerging trend in the Philippines (according to the same Mintel report) makes this ranking all the more significant. There is in fact a market for plant-based dining in a “meat-loving society” like Manila. But perhaps more striking is this possibility that it might no longer be such a radical idea to open meat-free restaurants in the metro. For one, Green Bar (currently ranked number 1 out of 1,321 restaurants in Makati) never had to employ strategies in order to garner sales and keep up with concepts that serve meat. 

Green Bar’s cheesy mac cracklin burrito is stuffed with smoky mac n’ cheese, sweet potato fries, and crispy soy skin

“Of course we review sales, customer feedback, and food trends, but the most important thing for us is getting to make good food that happens to be plant-based. We’re a restaurant not exclusively for vegans and vegetarians but also for anyone who just enjoys good food—regardless of whether or not they adhere to a meat-free lifestyle,” says Jade. 

This flexibility is probably the best reason why it makes business sense for restaurants to consider going meat-free as an option. The country has seen a growth in the number of occasional vegetarians (flexitarians, as they’re sometimes called) and even avid meat-eaters seeking out a meat-free meal at least once a week. In fact in Asia, most sales of plant-based products are actually catered not to vegetarians, but to consumers looking for plant-based food on an occasional basis. 

A NATURAL RESPONSE

“Even meat eaters want a break at least once a week and have a good, healthy meal without animals. They see that they can actually have a decent meal and be full without any meat. So we have vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores who love this place,” says Elijah Lapid about his restaurant Hummus Elijah. 

As with Green Bar, this wasn’t the case when Lapid first thought of opening a restaurant. “Because I’m vegetarian, I decided to do my business here as a vegetarian business. I don’t want any creature to die in order to be food in my restaurant. Lots of people told me that I was crazy to open a vegetarian restaurant in Manila—the land of chicken and rice. They told me I was going to go bankrupt.”

As of writing, Hummus Elijah currently ranks as the second best restaurant in Makati. And it might have less to do with Lapid’s brand of Middle Eastern food having stirred something politically or socially resonant in diners—it’s possible that people have also just become more conscious of the hazards of meat consumption.

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Hamshuka Sundays

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Nutrition authorities like the American Dietetic Association have been publishing reports on the health-damaging effects of meat since the early ‘90s, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that the dangers of meat-heavy diets evolved into a kind of global health scare when the World Health Organization classified meat as a class 1 carcinogen.

“Information is a lot more accessible so more people actually understand now that if they do plant-based diets, they have lower chances of getting heart disease or diabetes. And people don’t want to die, obviously, so they’re looking for healthier food,” says Lapid.

It’s a fair diagnosis to make, but it’s clear at this point that meat-free dining is not a mere product of a global health scare, increasing environmental concerns, or our collective consciousness reaching a new high—nor does it represent an absolute departure from meat consumption. 

The Santos sisters and Lapid are committed to a quality-first, reverence-free approach to serving meat-free food—thereby normalizing lifestyles that have long been misunderstood. 

This demand is multi-faceted and is just much more pronounced now. Discussions about meat-free lifestyles have ceased to be an either-or point of contention, and, while it’s naïve to expect every restaurant to consider going meat-free for at least one day a week, I would be remiss not to point out a missed business opportunity there, which is making a profit out of conscious consumption. 

“I don’t actually promote the restaurant as a healthy place. I don’t put only the emphasis on health because ultimately you want people to come and have a good time. It’s a complicated answer but basically my strategy for business is serving quality food with good service,” says Lapid.

What I’ve found to be one of the definitive selling points of Green Bar and Hummus Elijah is that if they’re making a stand at all, it has nothing to do with vegan melodrama. Far from it, in fact: The Santos sisters and Lapid are committed to a quality-first, reverence-free approach to serving meat-free food—thereby normalizing lifestyles that have long been misunderstood.

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