This Pop-Up Proves That Chinese Takeaways Don't Need Meat to Be Delicious
Forget luminous sweet-and-sour chicken and bland chow mein, Phung Kay Vegan is revolutionising British Chinese food.
Photo via Ruby Lott-Lavigna.
I am extremely hungry when I turn up to meet Jade Rathore and Angie Li at home in North London. The two friends run Phung Kay Vegan, a supper club and pop-up specialising in vegan Chinese food. Luckily, I don’t think there will be any danger of me leaving in the same state—a feast is already being prepared in the kitchen. Bao buns prove on the counter, Rathore mixes a noodle salad, and a table has been specially set up outside for yum cha, the Chinese brunch usually reserved for Sundays with the family.
“Do you want some Prosecco?” Rathore asks. This is going to be a good meal.
The name Phung Kay comes from the two chefs’ Chinese names (“Phung 鳯”, meaning “phoenix” and “Kay 琪”, meaning "a type of jade”), and was first launched as a supper club in September 2017, later evolving into a market stall at Hackney Downs Vegan Market. Alongside full-time jobs, the pair also sell sauces and condiments under the brand, and have quickly become part of a London-wide movement of innovative vegan street food, joining the likes of Temple of Seitan, Dee’s Table, and Club Mexicana.
As we sit around the garden table, mounds of food now in front of us, the pair burst out laughing when I innocently ask for the story behind their friendship. “I used to date Jade's sister,” says Li. Rathore and Li then lived together for awhile, and remained friends after Li and Rathore’s sister went their separate ways.
“Typical lesbians—we moved in after like two months,” jokes Li. “But I've learned my lesson now.”
Although neither currently work in the restaurant industry, both Li and Rathore's families are heavily involved in food. As a result, the pair were exposed to the pungent frying oils of the kitchen from a young age.
“My parents had the tofu factory while I was growing up,” says Rathore. “They came to this country [from China] in the early ’80s, started making tofu in a pretty much kitchen-table-back-garden situation. Looking back, it was so nuts.”
Some of Rathore's relatives worked in her parents' tofu business, while others founded restaurants of their own. “I had 101 part-time jobs when I was younger,” Rathore continues. “It was always, ‘Help out at one restaurant, help at another takeaway.’”
Li had a similar experience, having grown up in Hong Kong with family in hospitality.
“My grandad was a head waiter at one of the floating restaurants in Aberdeen [in Hong Kong], and every Sunday, we'd have family gatherings where my grandad would cook for all of us,” she explains, artfully picking up bao with her chopsticks. “My dad's also a head chef in a Chinese restaurant, and he had his own restaurant for 25 years. I did the part-time job there, smelling of oil, and I never wanted to cook again.”
She rolls her eyes. “Look where we are now.”
Clearly, food’s genetic pull was too strong. “It was pretty much always us in the kitchen, and we've always experimented in food together, and we've always talked about doing food together, but we never did, not until last year,” says Rathore.
“Even when we were living together, I thought about doing street food,” Li tells me. “We even did one food tasting day, but it didn't get anywhere.”
At the end of 2017, the pair decided to formalise their idea for tasty, vegan, Chinese food. Earlier that year, Rathore had begun trialling a stall at Redemption Brewery in Tottenham, getting a taste for the rigours of operating a successful food venture. Using this knowledge, she and Li launched Phung Kay as a supper club at local cafe Craving Coffee. They focused on the dishes they knew and loved from their upbringing— siu mai and ha gow, two types of traditional Cantonese dumplings, bao, turnip cakes, and Asian salads—but with one significant twist: it was all vegan.
“The food is basically stuff that we grew up eating and stuff that we love,” says Rathore. “But we wanted to veganise it.”
She and Li had both reduced their consumption of meat and dairy, and worried that the British Chinese food scene was too reliant on animal products.
“We wanted to show vegetarians, vegans, and general customers that [Chinese food] is more than just sweet and sour sauce, tofu, and black bean sauce,” explains Li. “If you go to a Chinese takeaway for veggie or vegan, really it's tofu in black bean sauce or vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce.”
They both laugh at how terrible these options are, despite them basically being my vegetarian Chinese go-tos. I stay quiet.
“We just want everyone to try nice Chinese food, that doesn't have to meat-based,” Li continues.
They’ve definitely made their point this lunchtime. During our chat, I am given about eight large servings of food. There are truffle and mushroom dumplings, black pepper mince bao, taro rolls in netted rice paper, dim sum, turnip cake with their homemade XO sauce, and pickled cucumber and enoki salad, which is a dish inspired by the Vietnamese side of Rathore’s family. It’s all delicious, and the XO sauce is mysteriously rich and nutty—a far cry from the bland options vegans are sometimes subjected to at Chinese takeaways.
Not every dish, however, was easy to veganise. “For the sui mai, that took a few goes before we got the right texture,” says Li. “It's just playing around with different types of ingredients.”
“We use lots of seitan, and the vegetable protein to get that mince texture,” she continues.
“But stuff like this turnip cake is quite easy,” adds Rathore. “It's just about removing the dried shrimp.”
I am now so full I feel a bit sick (“Just have one more sui mai,” Li encourages, as I slowly try to remove myself from the chair), but Rathore insists I take the leftovers home with me. She hands me a Tupperware container with at least two more dinner’s worth of food, along with a jar of the unreal XO sauce. I have one final bite of taro roll, before taking my still-warm Chinese haul back with me on the tube.
This is way better than a takeaway.