With ASDA becoming the first supermarket to display the Vegan Society trademark on its products and ubiquitous cafe chain Pret a Manger opening entirely an vegetarian branch, plant-based food has officially gone mainstream.
Of course, Manchester was into veggie food before it was cool. The city is home to a number of longstanding vegetarian and vegan establishments, including Simon Rimmer's acclaimed Greens and the health food co-op and cafe The 8th Day, which has been going since the 70s. More recently, retro vegan diner V Revolution has introduced Mancunians to seitan burgers and in nearby Stockport, The Allotment is raising the bar for vegan fine dining.
But none boast a veggie menu as extensive as that of Lotus Vegetarian Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant in the city's Withington suburb that opened in 2014. The options at Lotus are so sprawling that anyone accustomed to choosing between the risotto and the cheese salad may feel slightly overwhelmed.
"The menu is inspired by a lot of different food, from Malaysian to Japanese to Thai," explains owner Sally Li, who hails from Hong Kong.
But perhaps the biggest shock for the veggie diner at Lotus is the amount of meat dishes on offer for place with "vegetarian" written above the door. But everything here, from the Szechuan crispy beef and barbecue roast duck to the prawn crackers, is entirely meat-free.
"Our biggest inspiration is the Chinese takeaway. That's why we use the substitute meat to look like real meat," continues Li. "We make prawns in the same shape but we use flour, soya fibres, and gluten. We've been in the catering business for over 20 years so we know what the Western people like."
Indeed, Li tells me that her most popular dishes are those with the most meat-like texture, including with the mock crispy duck and sweet and sour ribs.
"The customers say the texture of the meat is really like real meat. I haven't tasted real meat for a long time so I don't know what it tastes like, but their enthusiasm assures me," she explains. "We can home-make all the sauces, we home-make all the gluten but some of the dry stuff we import from Malaysia or Taiwan. They've been doing the mock meats for over ten years, trying to improve the ingredients. Aside from gluten, we mainly we use soya. Soya is really good for digestion, it's really good for the immune system, it's got a lot of vitamins."
The success of Lotus' mock meat dishes is down to the methodical way in which they are prepared and cooked. The gluten used in the veggie ribs, for example, is "coated in flour and deep-fried so it tastes like the fat of real ribs," Li says.
Similar care is given to the non-meat elements of each dish. Li's Kung Po chicken comes with crunchy broccoli, sweet peppers, and juicy tomatoes while the sweet and sour veggie ribs are covered with cashew nuts and a thick syrupy glaze that make the mock meat glisten—just like a Chinese takeaway. I'm also keen on the prawn on toast, which comes generously sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Lotus might have received awards at the city's annual food and drink festival and plaudits from the local press, but Li doesn't want to rest on her laurels. When I visit, she is trialling new dishes with her kitchen team, whom she humbly credits with the restaurant's success so far. I'm asked to give my verdict on two deep-fried dishes: cauliflower and tofu wrapped in seaweed. The batter, made from soya milk and Chinese cheese is light and mild. Although both are very good, I'm especially keen on the tofu. Li tells me she might change the tofu to a firm variety, but I really enjoy the silken one used in this version. It melts in the mouth like an ice cream would and is followed by a kick from the accompanying soy sauce.
As I tuck into my dessert (banana fritters, what else?), Li explains that although being the only Chinese vegetarian restaurant in Manchester has its advantages, she would rather there were more places serving this kind of food.
"We need to share our knowledge and keep coming up with more different styles. I hope more people become vegetarian in Manchester but for that we need more vegetarian restaurants."
Speaking as a lifelong veggie and a Mancunian, I couldn't agree more. But while we wait for the rest of Manchester to catch up, Lotus Vegetarian Kitchen will remain my go-to Chinese.
All photos by Akash Khadka.