When COVID-19 scuttled her plans to open a restaurant in Hong Kong, food-focused entrepreneur Simran Savlani switched to authoring and sauce-making, resulting in the publication of her first vegetarian cookbook, A Spark of Madness, and the launch of a sauce range under the Spark name. Taiwan-born but a long-time Hong Kong resident, Ms Savlani had already switched careers to follow her passion – and she explained how it all came about.
You graduated in marketing originally?
Yes. I spent seven years working in media and lifestyle, but I was always keen to be involved with food and beverage. Even when I was working in media, I would always engage closely with restaurants. Finally, in 2016, I decided to switch careers and moved to Paris to study restaurant management at Le Cordon Bleu. After that I started working as a restaurant consultant and helped open restaurants in different cities across Asia and Africa. I always clarify that I am not a trained chef, neither am I a writer – I am just a girl who loves food and loves feeding people.
Is that what you do full time now … the cookbook and the sauces?
At the start of 2020, I thought I was finally ready to open my own restaurant and was working on my business plan, but then COVID hit and everything came to a standstill. I couldn’t build on the plan and was instead stuck at home, without a job. Since I had to cook meals anyway, I decided to use that time to put myself through my own cooking school.
Over nine months I looked up recipes and tried to tweak them with different cooking techniques, then started writing about them. These recipes formed my cookbook, A Spark of Madness, and when that was about to launch – in late 2021 – I decided to also launch Spark sauces at the same time.
Why do you think the plant-based eating trend has been growing in Hong Kong?
I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years now and have noticed a shift in eating habits in Hong Kong, particularly in the past few years. Whereas before, you had to check with the restaurant if there were veggie dishes on the menu, now every menu has at least a few vegetarian and vegan options. I believe consumers are driving this – they want to experiment more with their food and are looking for more plant-based and environmentally friendly choices.
How did you set up your cookbook?
A Spark of Madness is an Asian vegetarian cookbook. Having travelled extensively, I’ve eaten across each of the cities mentioned in the book and have personal anecdotes about each dish: Why did I make it? Why is it in the cookbook? What is the story behind it? Where did the ingredients come from and become such a key part of the region’s culture? I am intrigued by these stories and hence wanted to share them.
The book contains 116 vegetarian recipes covering regions from Singapore to Seoul, Thailand to Taiwan, and Indonesia to India. Around 80% of the recipes are vegan or have suggestions on how they can be modified for a vegan diet, with several gluten-free options as well. That being said, this book is not just for the meat-free – there is truly something for everyone to enjoy.
What was your aim in writing it?
I wanted to make cooking accessible, easy, and fun, whether through my sauces or recipes. All the recipes are fool-proof, flavourful and with an easy to find ingredient list. I’ve specified ingredients when they are essential, but for others I suggest substitutes or hacks to make do with what you already have in your fridge and pantry.
However, I did want to showcase a wide variety of vegetables and not focus solely on those we are used to seeing on a menu for vegetarians. So, don’t be surprised if you see vegetables being used for sweet dishes, and fruits for savoury dishes.
The other aspect that was important for me with the book was that the photos be realistic. Staged food photography shot in a studio with everything clean and pristine looks nothing like the dish you end up making at home. All the photos in A Spark of Madness were taken by me, at home, using my family’s plates and bowls. I want them to be a little messy, I want to use a slightly chipped bowl. I want it to look real with sauces splattered around the bowl. Cooking is meant to be fun, delicious and a little mad.
Why is Hong Kong a great place to launch your business?
In my media career and later launching my business, there is no idea I’ve presented in Hong Kong that has been rejected. And I’ve had a few mad ideas. This city has given my dreams momentum. The ease of doing business, the support the industry provides to newcomers like myself and the means to succeed – no other country provides all of that.