Social Dining Heaven on Lamma Island – Olive Leaf Serves Up Vegan Israeli Feasts

On a beautiful sunny Hong Kong Saturday, we board a small ferry from Aberdeen pier to be transported 20 mins away to Pak Kok Village, on Lamma Island. This is not the usual Lamma ferry, nor the usual Lamma stop. Pak Kok Village sits at the North Eastern tip of Lamma Island, hidden away among lush vegetation and traditional village houses surrounded by banana plants and lychee trees. The tiny community with only a few dozen households is quiet, scenic and worlds away from the bustle of Hong Kong, and it’s where Israeli chef Ayelet Idan hosts her weekly* plant-based Middle Eastern afternoon feasts from her bohemian family home, which we are here to enjoy.

When the ferry docks on the tiny pier, we are met by Jack, Ayelet’s genial husband and co-host, who cheerfully escorts us to the house, where Ayelet is waiting in their garden with pitchers of iced rose hibiscus tea and bowls of fresh lychees, dates and oranges. We get busy cooling down and getting acquainted with the other guests- there are about 8 to 12 people per meal. Everyone is friendly and chatty, most of all Ayelet and John, who make everyone feel welcome with their warmth and generous hospitality. We take a tour of the garden where Jack points out Ayelet’s herb planters and the neighbours longan. So far, so lovely. And so un-Hong Kong! Social dining, as Ayelet refers to it, is hardly commonplace in a city where most of us don’t know our own neighbours.

A lazy half hour later, Ayelet calls us into the house to sit for lunch, which is just as well- I’m starved. It’s early June, and over 30 degrees so the brunch is taking place inside; at more temperate times of the year, the meals are hosted in garden. The excitement is palpable. Platters of glistening dishes adorn a long dining table: there’s vine leaf cake and roasted cauliflower and smoked eggplant and hummus and almond labneh balls and caramelised onion flatbreads and all kinds of salads. There are well over 20 different dishes and I want to stuff my face with everything. Luckily there’s plenty to go around.

We all sit down and get started, accompanied by free flow wine and sparkling served generously throughout the meal by John. The atmosphere is convivial and my dining companions are a lovely bunch. Quite a few are omnivores who simply love great food. A fair few are vegans who are thrilled to bits to be wholly catered to this deliciously and amply. Ayelet offers vegetarian versions of this event too but this week’s iteration is 100% vegan. No one misses the meat.

Other than Indian food, Middle Eastern may be the most vegan-friendly cuisine around: “Israeli food is a melting pot of all the different cuisines from all the people that have come to Israel, and of course the local influence of Arab culture and ingredients. You will see a lot of salads and fresh herbs, it’s a lot about freshness, but in contrast there are heavy dishes cooked overnight. Its so varied.”

It’s hard to believe that Ayelet prepares all this food herself from her tiny (by catering standards) kitchen with only one oven! It’s even harder to believe that Ayelet is not professionally trained: “I’ve always loved food and am very much interested in food history and traditional ways of cooking, but I never learned it formally or worked in this industry before. I never dreamed I’d work in the food industry.”
For any farmers markets regulars and avid home cooks, Ayelet is a familiar face: she has been hosting Middle Eastern cooking classes and sharing her dips and breads around Hong Kong for a couple of years now. She started Olive Leaf’s weekly dining events because of a yearning for home: “I think the main thing is longing, missing my country, family and friends, and wanting to re-create what I missed. I always have liked to host.” She is also passionate about showcasing how wonderful plant-based eating can be “as  a vegetarian and raising my children as such, it is important for me to show people more vegetarian and vegan options that are healthy and very tasty.”

What are the chef’s favourite dishes? “There are a few…One of the stars are the flat breads- some are plain, some are stuffed with herbs and sumac. There is also the savoury vine leaf cake baked for hours with pomegranate molasses. Also very popular with guests are the pomegranate salads and the smoked eggplant baked with tomato and tahini sauce.” Ayelet clearly enjoys her food. I couldn’t pick my favourite either…
Eventually I have to stop eating, though I don’t want to. I am properly full and there are still leftovers galore. I consider asking for a doggy bag but quickly remember my manners. I can hardly believe it’s past 3pm but the time has flown by and it’s not over yet…There’s herbal tea, Turkish coffee and delicious desserts – pistachio baklava and tahini chocolate fudge in case you were wondering. We eventually roll out of the house with full bellies and happy hearts and run to catch the 4:15PM ferry. It’s been a magical day, and one of the most memorable and tasty dining experiences of the past few years  I immediately begin plotting my return…

 

Olive Leaf hosts regular Israeli vegetarian and vegan lunches, as well as Middle Eastern cooking classes on most Saturdays and Sundays. Check the schedule for upcoming dates. Private group bookings during weekdays can be arranged upon request. Meals are HK$ 450 per person and including all food, welcome drinks, sparkling wine, tea, Turkish coffee and two desserts. It’s worth underlining that you do not have to be vegetarian or vegan to enjoy Olive Leaf’s spreads- it’s just fabulous food (some of Hong Kong’s best) no matter what your eating regime.

 
*Check Olive Leaf Facebook Events Calendar for upcoming dates and exact timings. 


All photos courtesy of Green Queen.