Updated: Mar 6
Everywhere you look, someone is turning vegan or vegetarian - and telling you all about it. How popular is the plant-based eating scene in the Bay? Is this way of feeding ourselves better for our bodies and for the planet than consuming animal products? Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explores
It's just before 1pm Saturday as people queue for tickets at Mount Maunganui's Soper Reserve. They've come to buy products, hear speakers and listen to music, but mostly, they've come to eat. This is Vegan Vibes, billed as the Bay's first dedicated vegan festival.
Food stalls showcase fare such as Hungarian langos (fry bread) heaped with tomatoes and pesto or dusted in cinnamon sugar; vegetarian hot dogs; faux fried chicken; barbecued Miso eggplant and deep fried bao bun; paella; kimchi omelette; and a 'McMuffin' with scrambled tofu, 'bacun', avocado and cheese that looks much like its namesake.
For a sweet tooth, there's vegan gelato, raw tiramisu slice, banoffee pie, Snickers bites and so much more ... Scents of fried dough, spices and pineapple mingle as patrons stand, sit and walk with their meals. "Where did you get that and what's in it?" asks one woman of another, pointing at something resembling a taco. Woman number two motions towards a food truck and says the filling is spicy cauliflower.
Now it its fourth year, Vegan Vibe's stated purpose is to educate and entertain through food, products, talks, performance and exhibitions. It welcomes all eaters, even omnivores. I ate vegan chicken salad with peanut butter dressing from V on Wheels and a cinnamon-sugar langos. Delicious.
"They're very, very yummy," says Hana Stevenson, nodding at her garlic langos.
"We're vegetarian. It's really nice to come to a place where you don't have to worry about what you can eat. You can eat everything. There's so many options people can experience ... you don't have to eat [only] carrots and lettuce."
Stevenson was raised vegetarian, calling herself a 'hippie from the Coromandel' who now lives in Tauranga with her husband and children.
"It's really cool to have discovered this."
Paddy Maddren waits with his two girls, ages 5 and 3, for vegan hot dogs. His family, including wife and twin 18-month-old boys, travelled from Auckland for the event. They've been eating mostly vegetarian for eight months.
"My wife, really, she did it first to lose weight and get healthy and then just went from there. Kids don't seem to mind."
Maddren says he still eats meat, but not as much as he used to. He holds remnants of a vegan wrap. "What's in it?" I ask. "Not too sure," he replies, saying it was pretty good.
There are additional rows of stalls selling vintage clothing, honey, peanut butter, tempeh, soy candles … and a tent for speakers. Shortly before 2pm, Auckland vegan activist Chris Huriwai is talking to a couple dozen people about the slaughter of bobby calves (more about that later). One of his slogans is 'Peace starts on your plate'.
Rachel Garbary is the 29-year-old co-owner of a smoothie and coffee trailer called Vitality Organics. She and her partner have been operating in downtown Mount Maunganui for four years. Garbary says she's not a strict vegan, but mostly eats that way, which means no animal products such as milk, butter, cheese, meat and honey.
"I like to eat intuitively and 99 per cent of the time, my body's craving plants and natural foods. Every couple months if I'm craving an egg or fish, I'll source that. It's more about where the food is coming from, rather than what's going in."
Garbary says many of her customers are already on the veggie trail, and she's noticed an uptick the last few years in the number of them questioning product ingredients or switching from cow's milk flat whites to an alternative such as soy or almond.
"I'm definitely seeing a rise in people who want to clean up their diets and becoming more empowered through eating foods that'll support their health and wellness."
She says she buys organic products and local fruits and vegetables in season. Garbary prefers domestic produce, but bananas and mangos come from overseas.
"I like to keep it as simple as possible, getting as much as possible from farmer's markets without waste and looking at the bigger picture of what we're putting on our plates in terms of food miles."
Even if she avoids animal products, Garbary doesn't call herself vegan.
"I don't like the idea of telling other people what they should or shouldn't eat - you can get vegans who are very attached to that title - and I like to be a bit more intuitive and open and flexible."
She says diet is deeply personal. For some people, going vegan or vegetarian is about health and the climate; for others, it's about animal rights. Above all, Garbary wants us to respect each other's choices.
"I always want to think about methods behind the production. It can be very political depending on your reasons behind it."
Bay Business Opportunities
V on Wheels has been delivering plant-based frozen meals since 2016.
Founder Mila Arena says she started her business from home to serve Tauranga clients, but in the last six months has grown her delivery area to the entire North Island.
She's stocking shops like Huckleberry and Bin Inn. Whereas she used to make and deliver all the meals herself, she now works with a chef and has much of the food couriered. Arena says the company delivers between 20 to 300 meals per week.
"I have freezers everywhere and try to keep them full. If there are heaps of orders, the stock is there. I just have to work faster to restock."
Arena, a native of Argentina, says she went vegetarian eight years ago for "compassion reasons", but then had a bout with sickness that encouraged her to try to heal herself through nutrition.
"I realised it was so easy to make just vegan food, and anyone can eat it."
Arena has won two Innovator of the Year awards locally as the first vegan online meal delivery service in New Zealand. She says her most popular dishes are lasagne and curries.
"The point of the business is to bring clean meals to people and go back to their roots of what they're eating ... just avoiding preservatives and chemicals and product ingredients that are too processed."
Bay foodies have a growing number of vegan, vegetarian and plant-friendly cafes and restaurants to visit, including George Cafe, The Nourished Eatery and Gratitude Cafe. Indian, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants also get high marks on Trip Advisor for being vegetarian-friendly.
Kitchen Takeover's Secret Garden
The art of presentation, new taste sensations and hundreds of chatty diners combined over six nights this past week during an event called The Secret Garden. The vegan pop-up restaurant held at Mixture Cafe in Mount Maunganui is the food baby of Tauranga's Stacey Jones.
Jones started Kitchen Takeover last year to offer Bay residents a mystery feast with top-level cuisine. Her first event, a 10-course Vietnamese-themed banquet at Spongedrop Cakery in the Mount last February, sold out in two hours. Jones cooked all the food herself. For the next event, she hired international chef Shane Yardley to prepare a meal with the theme of Hunter Gatherer at Central Deli.
"Seventy per cent of the food was foraged or gathered from our local region," said Jones.
The first dinner had 30 people for one night; the second event fed 100 people over three nights.
"It's the full experience ... a secret location, you find out one hour before the event, there's no menu, no venue, no wine list to look at. It's sort of a leap which makes it quite exciting."
Kitchen Takeover's Secret Garden was a five-course plant-based degustation. It featured chef Yardley's beetroot ravioli stuffed with broccoli and almonds; smoked miso tofu wrapped in collard greens and a palate cleanser of coconut yoghurt rock cooled with liquid nitrogen for a 'wow' factor.