An increasing number of people are becoming “plant-curious,” especially since the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Report, which recommended a plant-based diet to save the planet. That same year, Canada revamped the Food Guide to encourage Canadians to add more plant-based proteins to their diets. Whether for health reasons, environmental concerns, or ethical objections to farm practices, more and more people are ditching the steak and eggs for tofu scramble.
Whereas the word “vegan” refers to a completely animal-free diet (and is often part and parcel of an ‘ethical’ lifestyle), “plant-based” doesn’t have any hard and fast rules. A plant-based diet is based on plants but potentially straddles the omnivorous line.
For some, this shift towards plant-based foods means an exciting new journey into the vegan kitchen and learning how to work with new ingredients. For others, this might mean finding a restaurant to impress their vegetarian date. Fortunately, Halifax has a wealth of great retailers and restaurants offering all kinds of plant-based options, and you don’t need to be a card-carrying vegan to enjoy them.
Gottingen Street has become something of a “Little Vegan” village, with plant-friendly pizza, pubs, and even doughnut shops lining the street. The epicentre, however, is the neighbouring powerhouses, Real Fake Meats and Springhouse Market.
Springhouse Market opened in 2019 as a café with healthy fare focused on fresh vegetables, tofu, and legumes. But due to the pandemic, they chose to pivot, replacing the dining area with a market of vegan staples, from fresh produce to vegan jerky. They currently offer a take-out menu, and you can browse the grocery section while you wait, undoubtedly leaving with an armful of treats.
“I had a friend in university that made kale chips and cashew cheesecake,” says owner Jessie Doyle, of her inspiration for the restaurant. “My parents instilled ‘eat your vegetables,’ but the idea that treats could be made from healthy ingredients was an exciting revelation to me.”
Doyle got her start selling kale chips at the Seaport Market and eventually opened Fruition, a permanent market stall, with her partner Seth Graham. Together they sold desserts, dips, pantry items, juices, smoothies, and “raw garden burgers.” Focused initially on juicing and raw food vegan, this proved a little too fringe for Halifax.
Doyle and Graham wanted to be more accessible and inclusive to people, so they rebranded the company, changing the name to Springhouse Market and offering a wider variety of vegan foods. They added cooked items like legumes and soups and kept a few classics like raw vegan desserts and their popular dill pickle dip.
“We were looking for a storefront at the same time as Real Fake Meats,” says Doyle. “And I thought: what a dream come true if we could be neighbours.”
Real Fake Meats is a vegan butcher shop, masterminded by Chef Lauren Marshall, specializing in vegan meats and cheeses. She makes a range of items from the popular “cheeze ball” to deli slices and fancy holiday roasts. Vegan butchers generally produce seitan products, which are mock-meats made from high gluten flour. Seitan has roots in ancient China, where it was eaten as a meat replacement by Buddhist monks. It has become quite fashionable with modern-day vegans who want to mimic everything from popcorn chicken to BBQ brisket.
In addition to vegan groceries, Real Fake Meats has a take-out menu with signature items (like their Halifax donair), all-day breakfast, and a rotating “late night” menu on Fridays and Saturdays. While house-made seitan is central to the vegan butcher concept, Real Fake Meats has many gluten-free options, and menu items can be made gluten-free upon request.
A classically trained chef, Marshall worked in the industry for eight years before attending the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. During her time at the school, she became interested in veganism.
“I made the slow transition through studying and learning,” says Marshall. “I would be cooking beef at the restaurant but trying new techniques on the side.”
Marshall has cooked all over the world, from Lake Louise to Nantucket Island, Belize, Australia, and India. She was on Season 4 of Top Chef Canada and was the first head chef at EnVie. She also taught cooking classes throughout the years, and this is where she noticed people taking more of an interest in vegan proteins.
“There weren’t many places to get it,” she says. “It was always the same thing: Costco black bean burgers at every pub.”
Vegetarians were tired of the supermarket’s processed foods and the healthy halos of sprouts topping every dish at vegetarian restaurants. There had to be room for something in the middle; meals fit for a hangover but made from whole foods.
Marshall saw the success of vegan butchers in other cities and immediately recognized the potential in Halifax.
“I created the vegan meat boxes to see what would happen, and it blew up,” Marshall says.
The next logical step was to open a retail location, so in January of 2019, she opened Real Fake Meats on Gottingen Street. Beyond Meat entered the Canadian market just three months later, generating a crescendo of hype for plant-based alternatives.
“Plant-based” has become the latest buzzword, and the food industry is tripping over itself, trying to capitalize on the growing demand. But it wasn’t always this way.
Kirsten Costello moved from Vancouver to Halifax in 2008 and noticed that there weren’t any exclusively vegan restaurants. She had worked all over Canada, from chateaus to mom and pop shops, since graduating from culinary school in 2001, but she was unfamiliar with the industry’s business side. Undeterred, she managed to secure a spot on Windsor Street, and in May of 2013, she slowly took the paper off the window of her new restaurant, Wild Leek, and waited to see what would happen.
“I just wanted to get people through the door and for people to say, ‘Oh, this is good.’ It doesn’t have meat, or cheese, or eggs, but it is recognizable food like mac ‘n cheese.”
The restaurant now has a loyal following, and their signature dish, “Dragon Fries,” is admired by both omnivores and vegans alike, who desperately try to crack the dragon sauce flavour code.
(Fortunately, you can buy tubs of dragon sauce from Wild Leek’s to-go fridge).
Wild Leek has a chill diner vibe, with a side of freshly squeezed juice, but has been closed for dine-in service since the beginning of the pandemic. Costello has had to pivot to a quick service/delivery model for the time being.
Like Springhouse Market and Real Fake Meats, which also have delivery options, Wild Leek has had to adapt to the “new normal” in which many people eat and prepare food at home.
But Costello’s front-of-house manager, Vanessa, chimes in, suggesting that there may be positive spin-offs from the pandemic.
“There are a lot of people who just moved here, due to the pandemic, who work from home,” she says. “We’ve gained some new people trying to eat healthily. Lots of people are cutting down on their meat consumption and getting inspired for cooking and baking at home too.”
But perhaps the easiest transition into vegetarianism is the old model. Many cultures worldwide eat a predominantly plant-based diet, with lots of legumes, bread, rice, and starchy vegetables. If you wander into a Lebanese restaurant, for example, you could easily eat a vegan meal by accident.
One notable addition to the scene is Kam-Moon, Halifax’s only Egyptian restaurant.
Kam-Moon is a family business owned by Mohamed Ramadan and his son, Hossam, who moved to Halifax 12 years ago. They were drawn by the educational opportunities and quality of life in Halifax but found something missing.
“We always missed the taste of Egypt,” says Hossam. “When we would go back home, we always had to bring bread back with us. So instead of going to visit Egypt, we thought, why not make it happen here and get people to try it?” After years of living in Halifax, the Ramadan family noticed a growth in the Egyptian community, so they decided it was time to get the dough ball rolling.
Egyptians call their flatbread “eish baladi.” The word for bread, “eish,” means “to live,” which shows just how central this bread is to Egyptians’ lives. It is the bread of life and the inspiration behind Kam-Moon.
Their bread is a whole wheat pita (more robust than its Lebanese cousin) dusted with wheat bran and split into pockets stuffed with various fillings. Hossam says it took a lot of trial and error to get the family recipe to scale, but they are very proud of it.
One of the most popular fillings for the pita is the Egyptian-style falafel (made from fava beans rather than chickpeas). Another plant-based option is ful medames, a warm stew of mashed fava beans with olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin.
Kam-Moon recently opened a second location in Lower Sackville, and they are working on a third spot in Bayer’s Lake. Hassam says the feedback has been positive so far, as people are happy to have new healthy options in their communities.
Halifax restaurants are starting to offer more thoughtful plant-based options, and it is refreshing to see more choices. But you can always count on these pioneers of old-world classics and vegan innovations to inspire your plant-based journey.