Heaven Leigh realises the irony of Bodhi’s first Sydney site. It was 1988 and her mother, Leigh Whong, had located the vegan restaurant above a Chinese butcher in Haymarket.
“Those poor vegans … would come up the stairs horrified by what they had seen hanging in the windows,” says Leigh. “There was such a shortage of vegan restaurants in Sydney that it didn't deter them and they just kept coming.”
Leigh recalls her mother’s inspiration for starting Bodhi. “She was out looking for something to eat one day in Chinatown and she met a Taoist who offered her a vegan meal. She didn't even know what vegan was and she was curious enough to try the food and ask why, why vegan food? That conversation and meal for her was profoundly deep and changed not only her but the way she saw the world.”
So until the day she retired, she spent the rest of her working life cooking vegan dishes.
Heaven Leigh had a different motivation for opening the current incarnation of Bodhi – now safely located away from butcher shops in a leafy part of Sydney’s Cook and Phillip Park.
Passion for animal welfare inspired her to take custody of the vegan yum cha concept her mother started and give it a modern update. Of course, she tries to retain the familiar comforts that powered the original Bodhi, too.
“The Peking ‘duck’ is certainly something I inherited 17 years ago, every time I try and take it off the menu, customers complain.”
Diners also maintain deep loyalty to the classic yum cha options, like the dumplings and barbecue buns.
And while hot pots used to rule back in the day, Bodhi’s menu has evolved to include more tapas-style dishes like satay ‘chicken’ sliders. Traditional Chinese ingredients, like ginseng and goji berries, are making room for contemporary pantry items: quinoa, for instance, makes a cameo in savoury dishes, while chickpea brine subs in for eggwhite in desserts. Charcoal adds a dramatic shot of colour and cleansing after-effect, too.
The traditional vegan yum cha staples – like the ‘prawn’ har gow dumplings, barbecue ‘char siu’ squares and, of course, the long-standing Peking ‘duck’ – are reminders that mock meats have long been a big deal at Bodhi. And while these replicas of meats can be welcoming for people who are curious or haven’t fully shifted to a vegetarian diet, gluten (the main ingredient in many mock meats) has gotten quite a knocking since Buddhist monks began using it centuries ago.
So, at Bodhi, there’s been a move to alternatives that use soy or konnyaku (Japanese potato, also known as konjac), as well as more vegetable-based dishes in general. There’s even a gluten-free bar menu launching next month at Bodhi.
As meat-free dining has become more mainstream, the audience has flipped from a mainly “alternative” crowd to curious carnivores.
And just as the food has undergone many shifts, so has the restaurant’s audience. As meat-free dining has become more mainstream, the audience has flipped from a mainly “alternative” crowd to curious carnivores.
“It’s not unusual to see a family with young kids, body builders, corporate workers, a prominent judge, some famous actor or a bunch of young models sitting near a group of Buddhist monks.”
Mark Price has noticed a similar demographic shuffle at the Vegie Bar in Melbourne – which he officially joined 21 years ago. Things were different (and dire) back when his business partner Laki Papadopoulos originally launched The Vegie Bar in 1988. “The vegetarian options would have been a salad or a dish minus the meat.” He only remembers two other places that catered specifically to vegos – and only one (Shakahari) still exists.
The Vegie Bar is still going strong, though. What began as a takeaway shop then doubled in size and became a warehouse-style eatery. Despite turning 30 next year, The Vegie Bar still has some unshakeable greatest hits: like the mee goreng, burrito, tofu burger and rice balls. “They’ve been on the menu for all that time.”
Certain trends have cycled, though: raw food had its peak, “in the 1990s, everything was soy” and “mock meat was quite big” in the early 2000s. Vegan cheeses were sourced from America – “but when you looked at the ingredients list, it was like reading the back of a shampoo bottle” – so The Vegie Bar has since shifted to natural alternatives, like cheeses derived from cashews or macadamias. Wholefood bowls are more of a thing today, of course: think poké bowls with compressed watermelon or soba bowls with wasabi cashews and smoked tofu.
“We do a gluten-free pizza base now, but honestly I tried probably 10-15 years ago doing gluten-free pizza bases, and no one ordered them,” says Price.
Nowadays, there’s a bumper crop of vegan dishes on the menu (he counts 25 dishes on the current list) and the growing interest in animal-free dining led to the launch of Girls and Boys, the vegan dessert bar next door – its menu boasts baklava soft-serve, ‘caramisu’, matcha almond tarts and, of course, activated charcoal coconut water, which presumably offsets those indulgences. And there’s also Transformer, which offers fine-dining twists on vegetarian food in a leafy setting by Breathe Architecture: “with Transformer, we wanted to go to the next level”.
But staff members are careful not to soapbox about the meat-free approach to the food, regardless of the venue.
“We try to do it under the radar, because we’re not about preaching. It’s up to people to make their own choices from there. That’s been our belief all along.”
2-4 College St, Sydney, NSW.
Yum cha, Mon-Sun; dinner, Tue-Sun.
380 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Vic.
Images courtesy of Bodhi and Vegie Bar.