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Health-minded entrepreneurs fill gap in market for vegan, raw food snacks

A handful of entrepreneurs committed to healthier eating are filling a gap in the market for vegan and raw food snacks, writes Jeanette Wang

Calista Goh of Anything But Salads, a Hong Kong-based maker of raw health food snacks. Photo credit: Jonathan Wong/SCMP

Calista Goh of Anything But Salads, a Hong Kong-based maker of raw health food snacks. Photo credit: Jonathan Wong/SCMP

After Calista Goh had surgery to remove a 6.5cm-long benign tumour on her intestinal wall in 2008, she found that she could hardly stomach any food.

A law school freshman at the University of Bristol at the time, she stumbled onto London’s first raw vegan restaurant, Saf. Her meal there was the first after surgery that didn’t bring pain, bloating or diarrhoea.

“The food was so good, I didn’t think about meat,” says Goh, 29, a Singapore native who admits to eating everything and anything in the past.

So inspired was she by her new plant-based diet that she went on to take raw vegan food preparation courses and worked at vegan cafes.

Armed with a law degree, at the end of 2011 she moved to Hong Kong to join her then-boyfriend. But she found it difficult to stick to her diet due to the lack of healthy options here. In forums online, she read of similar challenges others were facing.

Goh decided to ditch her law career and start her own raw vegan health food company, Anything But Salads. “Working as a lawyer would pay well, but after having my health issues, I realised that money wasn’t everything,” she says.

Initially offering food catering and delivery meals, the company last August moved into snack manufacturing. All the products are made by Goh in a small industrial kitchen at Shek Mun. Demand has been “incredibly good”, she says, with bestsellers being the Cheesy Kale Crisps and Sicilian Pizza Flax Crackers.

In February, she had a booth at the Lohas Expo health foods trade show, which attracted many inquiries. “We’re in talks with Japan Home, Watsons Group and Dairy Farm to sell our snacks,” she says.

Goh’s popular online store, anythingbutsalads.com has customers from Singapore, Beijing and even Canada.

Interest in raw vegan food has been picking up in Hong Kong in recent years. But while health food cafes had been sprouting up around the city, packaged snacks – convenient, portable and accessible – still were an untapped market. Brothers Stephen and James Costello realised this and decided to start Stephen James Organics in 2008.

“We saw that a lot of people ate a good diet, but when we really drilled down, we found out that they had a ridiculous snack regimen,” says James. “So we thought, let’s make the best snacks in the world.”

In 2011, the brothers introduced their organic whole food bars made from pre-sprouted seeds and nuts in a facility in Macau. From being stocked at only a small health food store run by a friend, the bars eventually proliferated in major mainstream retail outlets.

“Sales have been good, up 100 per cent year on year since we started,” says Stephen.

Hong Kong distribution rights for their products – which also includes pink Himalayan salt, volcanic pili nuts and Carazuc coconut flower sugar – has just been handed over to Classic Fine Foods, a local importer of luxury European dairy, meat, seafood and deli products. Stephen says this is a “great sign that raw health food snacks have become part of the mainstream realisation”.

Increasingly, local snack products stand shoulder-to-shoulder with imports on supermarket shelves.

“There sure is a growing demand for local health food products,” says Shima Shimizu, a raw food chef who started selling her own range of raw food snacks called Raweggie last August.

“People are aware it makes sense to buy and eat local. Local products are fresher and I think they taste better than those that have travelled for miles.”

Shimizu works with Green Vitamin to make snacks such as flax crackers, kefir, kale chips and yogurt from a kitchen in Sha Tin. “The inspiration to make my own products was simply the demand,” she says. “I was getting requests to sell these products.

“The variety in Hong Kong is not as much as in other countries, but the more support we get from local consumers, the more we will be able to produce. I’m sure we will be having more and more new players in the market as well.”

Raw vegan chef Moises Mehl also started selling his Nood Food raw living snacks and ready meals last August at Pure Yoga studio in Central. His most popular items are raw granola and maca bars.

“There has been a growing awareness of health food snacks in Hong Kong over the past six years,” says Mehl, who operates from a kitchen in Chai Wan. “In the beginning, there was no awareness of the benefits of such products and the way they were manufactured to be considered as raw and healthy.”

The foundation of a raw food diet is the belief that food in its most natural state is at its healthiest, containing all the enzymes the body needs for digestion and nutrient absorption. When food is cooked, heat is said to destroy these enzymes and nutrients, and create toxins, and the body works harder to digest food.

In the early days, followers stuck to mainly greens, but they soon realised that good fats, oils and proteins are important, too. “If you ignore those, you’re going to shrivel away,” say the Costellos, who adopted raw foodism in the 1990s.

Nuts and seeds hence form a key part of a raw food diet. They are usually eaten pre-sprouted by soaking in water and then dehydrated in a special low-temperature oven.

This process is said to neutralise enzyme inhibitors that interfere with the body’s absorption of proteins and nutrients, and encourage the production of beneficial enzymes, which increase the vitamin and mineral content of the nut or seed.

Because of the relatively tedious process for the average person to make his or her own raw food meals and snacks, raw foodies often turn to ready meals and packaged snacks.

Each bag of Goh’s Rawnola, for example, takes about three days to make: buckwheat groats, almonds and pumpkin seeds are pre-sprouted overnight and combined with amber coconut nectar, dried cranberries, cinnamon, vanilla and Himalayan pink salt and left in the dehydrator for 48 hours. She has invested more than US$40,000 in her industry-standard dehydrator.

Goh studied raw cooking at the Matthew Kenney culinary school in Santa Monica and tweaks recipes to suit local tastes. “The Western products tend to be too salty or too sweet, or very heavy in oils. Cantonese cuisine is lighter and more delicate in flavour,” she says.

Business has been so good that’s she’s set to expand: this month she will open an Anything But Salads store in Tai Ping Shan, where she’ll sell not only packaged but also freshly made snacks, such as fermented nut cheeses, mycotoxin-free coffee, yogurt and superfood ice cream.

 

Raw power

Anything But Salads - vegan snacks

Lokali - Cafe at 82a Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai

Mana! Fast Slow Food - Vegan cafe at 92 Wellington Street, Central

Nood Food - Snacks and food bar at Pure Yoga, 2/F Asia Standard Tower, Central

Pure Swell - Superfood blended drinks

Rawthentic Food - Private dining, catering and cooking classes

Raweggie - Vegan snacks

Stephen James Organics - Whole food bars

jeanette.wang@scmp.com

This article was first published on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 in the South China Morning Post.

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Day 7: To market, to market

After a good night’s rest, day two in Amsterdam started out bright and early with a morning run past some of the key landmarks in the city. I had tried to do this loop the day before, but it gets a little tricky navigating a map and riding a bike at the same time. It’s much easier on foot and also better for stopping to take photos. So, with map in hand and Fuji x100s in my running bag, I headed out for a fun trot. I know I keep raving about the weather, but it was truly perfection on this day. Crisp, cool and super sunny.

The first major stop was the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) over the Amstel River – you may find it familiar as it has appeared in some films, including the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. The bridge is said to have been built – at least an earlier, much skinnier version of it -  in 1691 by two wealthy sisters who lived on opposite sides of the river and wanted to be able to visit one another every day. It’s definitely a super pretty sight looking across from one bank to the other.

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From the bridge I headed to Waterloo Plein, where people were just beginning to set up their stalls for the day at the Waterloopleinmarkt. The huge daily flea market is one of the city’s many street markets, which I planned to explore later in the afternoon. A short jog away is De Waag, a 15th-century building on Nieuwmarkt square in Amsterdam’s Chinatown that was originally a city gate and part of the walls of Amsterdam. A run through the adjacent Red Light District brought me to Dam Square, the city’s town square. The square is bordered by the Royal Palace, the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the National Monument, a white stone pillar designed by J.J.P. Oud and erected in 1956 to memorialise the victims of WWII.

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From Dam Square I ran through De 9 Straatjes, so named for its nine alleyways of shopping, back to Leidseplein where my hotel was. I highly recommend Hotel Freeland, by the way, which for 45 Euros a night was a great price for a clean, cosy and comfortable accommodation in an excellent location. The room comes with a great breakfast – eggs, ham, cheese, toast, yogurt, jams and spreads, all sorts of tea, juice and some other nibbles like rice cakes and ontbijtkoek, a traditional Dutch breakfast spiced cake.

After a hearty breakfast I checked out and hopped on my bike for the day’s adventure: market hopping. First stop was Dappermarkt, considered to be the most affordable and multicultural of Amsterdam’s markets. Getting there was simple enough – a straightforward ride along the Singelgracht, through Oosterpark (where I couldn’t help but stop for a photo) and then you’re there.

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At the Dappermarkt I picked up a couple of blocks of Gouda cheese as gifts, one with nettle and the other with olives, tomatoes and garlic. I also bought a pair of Birkenstocks for a steal. Most of the stalls sold clothing and handbags and accessories, or local food like fish and cheeses and bread. I was tempted to buy the whole bread stall!

The next stop was the Albert Cuypmarkt at the very hip De Pijp district. Compared to the Dappermarkt there were more stands and a better mix of stuff for sale, from shoes and luggage to fresh vegetables and fish, to typical Dutch treats like raw herring or warm, freshly made stroopwafels. I bought more gifts here: another slab of cheese, this time Old Amsterdam, and a bag of stroopwafels in a Delftware tin. I also had my lunch – a couple of sticks of super yummy satay chicken and the most amazing froyo I’ve ever tasted!

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The final stop for the day was De 9 Straatjes. I tried on a couple of pieces from a local designer but it was useless trying to buy with the bump. I did however come away with a very cute bee print swaddle from one of the shops called Mint Mini Mall.

In fact, save for a pepper mill, the Birkenstocks and a couple of magnets, I haven’t bought anything else for myself the entire trip. I’ve bought lots of cheeses, chocolates and waffles as gifts. And I finally started buying clothing and toys for little M. Picked up a bunch of local Dutch branded things you can’t find in Asia: adorable onesies, a lazy goose stuffed toy and this super cute Delftware edition Miffy!

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When little M can finally understand me, I’ll tell her of all the adventures I had while carrying her for 10 months. Being half-German, hopefully this trip has also acquainted her a bit with some German food and language!

The day was rounded off with a quick ferry ride across the water to Amsterdam Noord. A quick snap of the sun setting on central Amsterdam, and I was back on the ferry to Central Station for my train back to Cologne. Thirty-three hours in Amsterdam is way too short – I’ll definitely be back!

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Day 5: Brussels

A compact city that’s less than two hours away by train from Cologne, Brussels was a perfect day trip. I spent about nine hours in all exploring the major attractions, wandering the cobbled streets, tasting lots of chocolate, practising my rusty French and soaking up tons of 20 deg C sunshine.

Some random trivia: did you know it is the home of the Smurfs and also the Capital of Tintin? You can even folllow a comic book trail and discover some pretty cool wall murals, like this one.

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There is a public bike rental scheme with several stations across the city, but the area is small and convenient enough to be covered and enjoyed on foot, which I did. (That way you also don’t miss the murals.) First stop: Grand-Place, via the Bourse de Bruxelles.

The Grand-Place is the central square of Brussels and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse (Maison du Roi), and has a few alfresco cafes and restaurants too. Standing in the middle of the square, there’s a certain majestic and magical feeling… broken only by noisy mainland tourists, I kid you not.

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Moving on: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a shopping passage built in 1847. I picked up a couple of items here – a super delish hazelnut praline spread at one of the bakeries, and a Tintin comic book from a museum bookstore.

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A short stroll from the arcade strip is the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, set atop a small hill and fronted by a grassy park with blooming purple and yellow flowers. The park was packed with people and their picnic lunches – what a great sunny spot that I wish Hong Kong had!

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A couple of minutes down the road was a much bigger sunny lunch spot, the Parc Royal de Bruxelles. In addition to picnickers, there were many lunch runners trampling across the dirt/sand paths that criss-crossed the green space. It wasn’t the prettiest park – could do with better landscaping – but there were a few beautiful sculptures dotted around it.

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Exiting the park on the other side, I walked past the Palais de Bruxelles, through the museum street, down the Jardin du Mont des Arts, to Manneken Pis – that famous 15th century bronze sculpture of a boy taking a piss.

By now it was about 2.30pm and I was starving, which was exactly how I wanted to feel to enjoy a good lunch of moules-frites!

Walking down an alley of restaurants adjacent to the shopping arcade, I simply followed my nose and it led me to Chez Léon. Its reputation was unknown to me till after I’d finished my lunch, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Mussels in Brussels – that’s another strike off my bucket list!

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