Mondays have never been so healthy ever since celebrity siblings Paul, Mary, and Stella McCartney launched their non-profit campaign Meat Free Mondays eight years ago. It’s a noble effort not only to decrease the slaughter of animals but also to raise awareness about the unfavorable impact of non-stop meat consumption on our environment, including deforestation for pastures and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Above all and known by many, a meat-free diet promotes health improvement. Many studies have reported that saturated fat-rich food increases the chances of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and well, obesity.

Actually, this information is not new. We all know that the less meat we eat, the better it is for the planet and our health. It has been the same from then until now; the only thing different is that more and more people are doing something about it. If before, veganism was associated mostly with the religious, the body-conscious, and the animal rights activists, these days, a growing population has joined the bandwagon by pledging to go vegan, even if briefly.

Alternating appetites

To many carnivores—which includes millions of Filipinos—totally eliminating fish, dairy, eggs, meat, and byproducts of slaughter in their daily meals spells headache, and being one to others. But a lot of them are discovering that they aren’t required to go that extra mile to live a healthier lifestyle. A single and gradual step can already make a big difference.

Grassroots Pantry's meat-free and healthy snacks include yogurt and chia seed pudding pots
Grassroots Pantry’s yogurt and chia seed pudding pots for healthy snacks

According to the Vegan Society, a registered educational charity founded in the UK, in 2013, 40 percent more people signed up for a temporary vegan menu compared to the previous year. And this practice has gained so much ground recently that Whole Foods sees it as one of the biggest food trends this year. The American supermarket chain refers to this fashionable movement as flexitarianism, a.k.a. eating mostly, but not strictly, vegetarian. It’s no mystery a lot of people abide by it, as it’s more convenient, loads easier, and more attainable than completely foregoing the beloved steak and roast pig. Besides, popular and well-loved personalities like Jamie Oliver and sir Richard Branson champion the McCartneys’ campaign.

“Preaching, judgment, and putting up diet restrictions are never going to inspire people around you to make long-term changes in their habits,” says Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry of the meat-free movement.

The shift is evident. In recent years, our culinary vocabulary and pantry have been introduced to a variety of grains like quinoa and teff, coconut sugar and flour, acai and goji berries, and a range of pulses and beans. In the summer of 2011, Europe saw the opening of its very first vegan grocery chain called Veganz located in Berlin, Germany. And in terms of attitude, macho traditionalists are slowly going the green route after seeing powerful men like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton trade their love of roasts for veggies.

Good meat-free food

The welcome change in food consumerism can also be credited to the likes of Peggy Chan, whose creations in her restaurant Grassroots Pantry have been attracting a hefty chunk of the Hong Kong dining market.

Chan wasn’t raised a vegan. In fact, she has traveled around China and has sampled many of the country’s most bizarre offerings—fried maggots, pig’s brain, and a still-beating snake’s heart. In 2010, like many converts, her concern for animal welfare and conviction for non-violence drove her to stop eating red meat. She then researched and studied the matter further and discovered the countless issues linked to meat consumption, which eventually pushed her to do something about her own diet. “I made a conscious decision at the age of 16 to quit consuming red meat for religious and animal welfare reasons, which stemmed from a stream of cathartic experiences and eventually directed me to actively practice non-violence.”

Peggy Chan's switch to a vegan, meat-free lifestyle is admittedly still a work in progress
Chef Peggy Chan at work

“As information became more and more easily accessible on the internet, guerrilla films and documentaries also became more widespread towards the mid-2000s, I learned about all the surrounding issues which livestock production contributes to—beginning from an ethical and social grounding. With this information, I vowed to build a career that would allow me to bring about the issues that our industry faces; the underlying issues we face in the food production, manufacturing, and consumption cycle; and the inhumane practices that are common throughout the animal livestock and genetic modified foods industries. As for I myself turning vegan, it is still a work in progress, although it helps that I eat our own Grassroots Pantry dishes 90 percent of the time!” Though this is the lifestyle she has become loyal to, Chan explains that her respect and support for farmers who tend to their produce and animals are not lost.

In 2011, the Le Cordon Bleu graduate opened Grassroots Pantry with the hope of introducing—not preaching—her kind of cuisine to those who are open-minded and adventurous. She has been successful thus far, with dishes like BBQ Popcorn “Chicken” made of hedgehog mushrooms and coconut amino sauce and gnocchi composed of teff, maitake mushroom cashew béchamel, and lemon-thyme pesto inspiring meat-loving customers to enjoy a more balanced diet.

One of Grassroots Pantry's meat-free offerings: salad and vegan gyoza
Salad and vegan gyoza

Her thought process is pretty smart and sensible. “I almost always begin with the vegetable list, whatever is seasonal, and then build the dishes from there. The reason is because our bodies are tuned to the natural seasons. In the summer when our bodies are heated, we crave cooling foods such as cucumbers, squash, citrus, and salad leaves, whereas in the winter, we need warmth and fiber, therefore our bodies will naturally look for more root vegetables, whole grains, and sweet spices in our foods.”

The roster then goes through a memory process, which includes her own dining experiences, churned by her creativity to create textures, flavors, and her signature “grassroots” twist. Vietnamese yellow curry with chicken wings and baguette becomes Vietnamese yellow curry with grilled hedgehog mushroom (for texture replication), and organic short-grain brown rice (for the starch/fiber/whole foods component).

Surprisingly, Chan admits that most of her clients are not really vegetarians or vegans, but people who want to learn about this healthier lifestyle. Precisely, the new generation of diners—flexitarians. “Preaching, judgement, and putting up diet restrictions are never going to inspire people around you to make long-term changes in their habits. Instead, we spend more energy on staying creative, three steps ahead, and by showing how it can be done through tangible results.”

You are what you eat

What exactly is included or exempted from people’s confusing diets?

Vegan: No dairy or any other products derived from animals
Vegetarian: No meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, or byproducts of slaughter
Pescatarian: Eats fish and shellfish but not meat
Meat reducer: Eats less meat due to ethical/environmental reasons
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Eats dairy and eggs
Lacto-vegetarian: Eats dairy but not eggs

Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 14 No. 5