DUBAI // A travelling souq will be launched in Dubai in January with the aim of persuading more people to follow a vegetarian diet.
The Souq Al Nabati will educate the public about the benefits of vegetarian food and leading a healthier lifestyle.
"Education is key and the travelling souq will focus on everything that is environmentally friendly and healthy, as well as vegan-vegetarian," said Sandhya Prakash, the founder of Meveg, the Dubai-based vegetarian support group that is behind the initiative.
"It will not be in one particular place. We will move it around because we want to reach out to schools and malls across the country."
After a trial day at the JSS International School in Dubai last June, the group decided to take the concept a step further.
"We wanted to see how people received it," said Ms Prakash. "People can come, see and taste - it's got vegetarian food among other things like gardening."
The souq group will encourage residents to grow their own vegetables and to use compost while gardening. "It's the entire spectrum," said Ms Prakash. "We want people to walk the talk."
Twelve companies are involved in the project, including Green Bags UAE, which sell eco-friendly products to replace plastic bags. "People are also encouraged to try rooftop gardening, which retains a lot of water," said Ms Prakash. "We're exploring anything that can help and try things out the natural way."
The group also has volunteers who give talks and lectures. "People will drive it," said Ms Prakash. "I'm very happy that the Ministry of Education has decided on no more junk food for school canteens. All our work is now paying off."
The group has also been reaching out to food outlets, encouraging them to print menus that show which items are suitable for vegetarians. It is also organising a vegetarian festival in December.
"A lot of volunteers have been talking to restaurants in their vicinity because that's the only way businesses will understand," said Ms Prakash. "There is a need and there is a shift now, especially over the summer."
Some of the chefs they spoke to said that they found preparing vegetarian food a challenge because of the need to maintain the taste, texture and colour, said Ms Prakash. "So we are reaching out to a lot of chefs to experiment more with food."
One of the food items they are suggesting chefs experiment with is faux meat. It tastes like meat but is made from mushroom stems or soy bean. It is proving popular among Indian and Chinese vegetarians.
"If you're not told it's soy bean, you would think it's meat," said Daniel Brouka, the executive chef at Abu Dhabi's Meridien Hotel. "It's quite original and we use a nice thick, spicy sauce to cover its taste because it's a bit rubbery."
He said, however, that the important thing in vegetarian diets was to make the food presentable to attract vegans. "It's not complicated, it's all about the ingredients and using fresh vegetables," said Mr Brouka. "It's important to keep it simple and natural because it's already tasty."
Since Meveg was set up in 2008, it has claimed some progress in encouraging vegetarianism. But the Middle East remains a tough market to crack.
"There's still a long way to go," said Ms Prakash. "A lot more people need to get into this."