Zacki Hamid, an IT consultant from Australia, came to Hong Kong three years ago and is now a proud restaurateur. Last year, Hamid and his business partner Chris Growney opened Big Dill, a vegan eatery that was the first of its kind in Hong Kong. His mission? To make veganism mainstream.
In recent years, the movement toward plant-based diets has accelerated. To satisfy this demand, a growing number of restaurants have opened in Hong Kong to appeal to this dietary population. An addition to Hong Kong’s remarkably rich plant-based food scene is Big Dill, tucked away on 123 Third Street in the hip neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun.
What initially started off with “events, vegan block parties and then evolved into pop-up sites so [they] would go into existing bars and run the kitchen … [eventually] evolved … to a permanent offering,” says Hamid.
“Fundamentally, the higher arching purpose was to change the way the world eats and to offer a plant-based food product that vegans and nonvegans could eat, and enjoy,” Hamid says about his inspiration.
The impact the meat industry has on the environment is highly significant, so deteriorating the sustainability of the planet is one of the larger “overarching reasons behind the concept of Big Dill.” It was “to change the way the world eats and make vegan food more mainstream,” continues Hamid.
Of course, Hamid asserts that serving comfort food is the perfect way to get a large number of people to try it and make a huge difference. He believes “doing it in a way that’s fun [and] accessible to everyone,” is the best way to appeal and relate to the masses.
This sincerity and honesty extends to being an all exclusive eatery. It is “pet friendly, gender friendly and … is not a place for judgment.”
Typically vegan and vegetarian restaurants are just targeted to vegans and vegetarians alone. However, Hamid explains how Big Dill is “actually predominantly for meat eaters, who want to maybe cut down their impact in a plant-based cuisine a few times a week.”
“The vision is a place where all people can come – vegans, non vegans – and enjoy their comfort food favorites, plant-based version of it without compromising on taste and flavor whilst also doing good for their own health, animal welfare and the environment,” he says. It’s all part of Hamid’s quest to change the perception of plant-based foods by making them the norm, rather than an anomaly.
It’s hard to tell the dishes aren’t made with meat just from looking at them. The Signature Big Dill features a juicy vegan beef patty made from textured vegetable protein, plant-based cheddar, onions and pickles sandwiched on a fluffy brioche. The famous Zeus Gyro is a vegan twist on the traditional lamb kebab wrap (using a base of vital wheat protein). There isn’t anything on the menu that resembles what most people think about when they hear the word “vegan.”
Hamid, an Afghani Australian who has been vegan for five years, loves diner food and decided to replicate some of his favorite dishes from his hometown of Sydney. “My main inspiration for the recipes and developing new recipes was to make plant-based takes on all of the comfort foods I missed,” he explains. “It became more of an experiment on how I could best replicate those sensations from when I wasn’t vegan.”
Hong Kong residents would be able to point out that restaurants all over the city have been serving plant-based burgers, including their own versions of the now-famous Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods patties. Hamid, on the other hand, is stubborn about making his own.
Big Dill’s comfort food recipes don’t use any premade patties. All is made in-house with real plant-based ingredients like textured soy protein, wheat-based seitan, jackfruit and tofu, and the outcomes are quite remarkable, particularly considering that corporations like Impossible Foods have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in their research and development.
“It’s not scientific,” says Hamid. “We make real products, we make them in-house, we can talk to our customers about their real ingredients.”
This is a point of difference between Hamid’s Big Dill and any other plant-based eatery. “That is really what keeps us going and how I think we keep up, so to speak,” he says.
Maintaining a competitive edge is not their only concern. Sustaining the concept of making plant-based cuisine more relatable at a time of adversity would inevitably be difficult. Hong Kong has had two years of upheaval, from months of civil unrest two years ago to the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the region since last January.
There’s been a “huge impact, there’s been closures, reduced hours … [and it’s] just a pain to survive,” he expresses. But following and keeping in check with the government’s requirements is “what’s required [now].”
Big Dill has even more up their sleeve in the coming months, so be sure to keep an eye out for more than just food – they are planning to launch a line of Thickshakes with custom-made vegan ice cream very soon.
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