Dining Out 3 minutes 07 April 2018

Kung Tak Lam: Taking Vegetarian Food To The Next Level

Craving for vegetarian food? Make a delicious pit stop at the Bib Gourmand-lauded Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine chain.

Behind The Bib Bib Gourmand vegetarian

Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine is the only vegetarian Bib Gourmand Restaurant listed in the Michelin Guide Hong Kong & Macau 2017. It was opened in 1990 by a celebrity couple, photographer Liu Heqin and actress Wang Danfeng. In 2003, an expansion by its new owner Four Seas Mercantile took the restaurant to the next level, with new branches covering multiple districts.

Regional Chef Lai Chung Man is a vegetarian himself, having worked in vegetarian restaurants of every kind. And he knows the ins and outs of every greens.

“Seasonality is a major attribute of Shanghainese cuisine. For instance, spinach is at its best in April because it contains the highest amount of iron then. That’s when we highlight spinach on our menu. We also strive for authenticity. Lots of the ingredients we use come from Shanghai,” Lai said.
Shanghai Cold Noodles (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Shanghai Cold Noodles (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Ingredients and Seasonings at the Spotlight
The Shanghai imports at Kung Tak Lam include Indian aster – locally known as ma lan tou – sourced from Shanghainese grocery shop Old San Yang, as well as the smooth and springy noodles used in the restaurant’s signature cold noodles. They are steamed for 15 minutes, scalded in hot water between 120°C to 140°C, and finally rinsed under cold water to accompany a platter of side ingredients like peanuts, swede and green bell pepper. It’s up to the diners to add their favourites on top. The dish is as interactive as it’s delicious.

A rich flavour with the right amount of salt is the highest ideal for Shanghainese vegetarian food. To achieve this, soy sauce is Lai’s trusted ally in kitchen. For instance, he specifically adjusts the flavour of the soy sauce to cook the wheat gluten on the starter platter. No wonder it turns out perfectly seasoned.

The Master Touch
With fresh produce on hand, it all depends on the chefs to work their magic.

“Technique goes a long way in making vegetarian food. It takes exceptional knifework to carve humble-looking vegetables into vivid characters for plating. It’s even more demanding in the sophisticated dishes such as Wensi tofu soup. With a tofu divided into two pieces, one needs to make 60 to 70 cuts on each half without breaking, so that it blooms beautifully like a flower in the soup,” Lai said.
Tofu Dumpling (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Tofu Dumpling (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
But that’s not the only technical challenge that the cooks at Kung Tak Lam face. Tofu dumpling, the joint’s bestseller, is just as much an imposing feat. The dish requires tofu to be sliced thinly to wrap around seasonal greens. For the team, every move of the knife is like a walk on a tightrope, not only because tofu is too soft to cut, it also needs to be sliced in a certain thickness to give the dumplings the appropriate texture.
Starter Platter (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Starter Platter (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Another part on the starter platter, crispy “vegetarian eel” calls for a different skill set. Lai trims the black rim of soaked shiitake mushroom and use it as a substitute for the fish. The mushroom is then dipped into home-blended batter and deep-fried. Given how thin the rim is, there is literally very little margin for error. It’s only thanks to a combination of concentration and experience that Lai gets the desired result.

Breaking the Boundaries
Since the arrival of Lai, the lineup of dishes at Kung Tak Lam has been transformed with a blend of tradition and creativity. He is hopeful that his new items would appeal to the younger crowd and non-vegetarians, and consequently, healthy vegetarian diet will be more appreciated.

“I understand that many people avoid vegetarian dishes because they find meat irresistible. That’s why I like to have mushrooms in my dishes. In a way, their flavour is stronger, closer to that of meat. In the case of double-boiled soup, the traditional version tastes quite light with only herbal ingredients. But with the addition of mushrooms, chestnuts and carrots, it becomes richer like meat-based soups, which makes it easier for non-vegetarians to accept,” Lai explained.
(From front to back) Mushroom Bun, Char Siew Pastry, Swan Pastry  (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
(From front to back) Mushroom Bun, Char Siew Pastry, Swan Pastry (Photo: Kung Tak Lam)
Lai’s revolution not only applies to the food’s flavour profile, but also its appearance.

“Everything needs to be photogenic in this era. Vegetarian cuisine was never judged by its look, but with social expectations changing, I’ve started making mushroom bun and swan pastry,” Lai said.

While the bun filled with mixed mushrooms is no different from its traditional counterpart, its visual resemblance to real shiitake mushroom is striking. Swan pastry incorporates seasonal greens like mushroom, Chinese celery and carrot. Its gilded crust and adorable shape should garner hype on social media.

The attractive dim sum collection earned Kung Tak Lam much attention about half a year ago. Carrot pastry was a major talking point, as the fluffy, deep-fried vessel containing diced carrot, shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms was a vivid lookalike to the root vegetable. The lovable pumpkin bun surprised diners with the filling of mashed azuki beans and pine nuts. With that, Lai has brought Shanghainese vegetarian cuisine to the new age, and led Kung Tak Lam to another level.

This article was written by Chen Shaoying and translated by Vincent Leung. Click here to read the original version of this story.

RELATED: Click here to find out more Bib Gourmand winners from the MICHELIN Hong Kong Macau Guide 2018 

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