HONG KONG — Walk down just about any street in Hong Kong and you will see, and smell, meat. Aromas of freshly steamed barbecue pork buns, siu mai and beef balls waft from traditional Cantonese restaurants. Rows of tanks containing live grouper and shrimp entice peckish passersby. Dried-fish stores near Victoria Harbor display shark fins, illegal in much of the world.
Animal protein is so central to Chinese food culture that Hong Kong’s per capita consumption of meat — including beef, pork and poultry — is the world’s highest, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. While plant-based alternatives such as vegan seafood have emerged, those determined to wean Hong Kongers off a carnivorous diet face an uphill task in a city where hot pot isn’t hot pot without thinly sliced fatty beef, and where diners crave bowls of snake soup in winter.
But some are trying, by tailoring substitute ingredients to suit local palates and emphasizing the environmental benefits. Animal agriculture contributes 15 to 18 percent of greenhouse gases, and advocates say going vegan is as much about the planet as it is about diet.
“Meat consumption reduction is an effective and reasonable way to reduce carbon footprint,” said Olivier Delalande, Hong Kong-based facilitator at the environmental organization Climate Fresk.
In this city of high finance, meat is also considered a symbol of affluence, said David Yeung, founder of Hong Kong-based food tech enterprise Green Monday.
“People are already used to getting ham from Spain, lobster from Maine, beef from Japan or Australia or the U.S.,” he said.
Shark fin soup, for instance, is a luxurious item that often completes a grand wedding banquet, though some restaurants have banished it from menus because of concerns about cruelty and unsustainability.
Private companies that have begun to tailor plant-based alternatives for regional diners acknowledge the challenge but say consumers have responded positively in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Andre Menezes, co-founder of Singapore-based Next Gen Foods, said residents of global cultural hubs have shown the greatest interest in plant-based options. It’s a natural progression for “people to look into more sustainable options,” Menezes said.
In Hong Kong, Green Monday has collaborated with fast-food chains such as McDonald’s to localize plant-based alternatives with offerings like vegan spam to replace the meat form that is a staple of the local diet. OmniPork spam is now served at some McDonald’s outlets alongside scrambled eggs and hot cakes, or in breakfast burgers.
“The launch was one of the major catalysts that brought more people into the door,” said Yeung, whose company opened its first mainland China restaurant in Shanghai early this year. The company’s new vegan seafood was launched as an alternative to the fish-heavy Asian diet, with a vegan fish fillet that can be made into a classic Chinese-style dish with sweet-and-sour sauce.
Then there’s the snake soup. Cantonese restaurant Ser Wong Fun has been serving up bowl after bowl of the piping hot delicacy for a century but worked with Green Monday to make a vegan alternative.
Infused with principles from Chinese medicine, the dish typically uses three to five snake meats, as well as shredded chicken, as its base. To replicate the taste and texture, restaurant owner Gigi Ng experimented with vegan ingredients and came up with an alternative that uses plant-based pork strips, beef and chicken made from soy, peas and grains. Vegan meat is best served fried or with sauce, she added.
“We have to make sure the flavor is good, and the appearance is nice and as convincing as possible so [the customers] feel that it’s worth it,” said Ng, whose great-grandfather founded the restaurant.
But Ng also pointed to the clash between the new and the traditional. While she supports causes for a healthier and more sustainable world, she acknowledges the value in preserving gastronomic traditions.
“There is a reason why some dishes remain classic,” Ng said. “Striving for new gimmicks is no bad thing, but there isn’t a benchmark to prove why that is great. It’s only because it’s new.”
Still, cutting meat is a priority for protecting the environment, Yeung said.
“Reducing meat consumption is the elephant in the room which is somehow still invisible to a lot of people,” he said. “We need to start somewhere.”
Hong Kong’s official statistics calculate emissions produced only within the city, which is reliant on imports, according to a 2018 report by the University of Hong Kong’s earth science department. Taking into account the emissions resulting from actual consumption by Hong Kongers, import emissions mainly stemming from meat and dairy consumption contributed 62 percent of Hong Kong’s total carbon emissions. Another study that used the same calculation methods found that Hong Kong’s appetite for meat has caused the city to be the seventh-highest emitter per capita among 113 regions.
The city has pledged to cut its emissions, including phasing out coal. But Delalande said he observed that many Hong Kongers have no idea how much carbon dioxide is emitted because of their meat consumption.
“Diet change is one of the most effective and sensible things one can do as an individual to reduce carbon footprints,” he said.