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What do vegetarians really eat?

I seem to know more and more vegetarians. (The official stats say it's growing and growing in the UK, so it's no surprise.) Me too. And for some reason, I was wondering, what does everyone tend to eat, on an ordinary weekday evening meal? Although it's nice to share recipes and maybe even food photos, that's a completely different thing from the mid-week everyday cooking.

So what do people have on a normal Wednesday...? Well. I asked them all. This Wednesday. Here are the answers I got:

  • "Lemon and spinach risotto"
  • "Pasta with courgettes, toasted pine nuts and goats cheese. Then I had some strawberries and blueberries. Then I had a pepsi max and some Milka because I'm a fatty!"
  • "Golden beets + lettuce in lemon vinaigrette, cauliflower rice, grenaille potatoes, olive oil-based chocolate cake"
  • "Soba noodles"
  • "Runner bean and aubergine Keralan curry"
  • "Pad thai! Home made. No fish sauce. Ridiculously delicious."
  • "Burrito"

  • "Cereal (sorry! my bad!)"

  • "Phoned in a curry :)"
  • "Pizza with my vegan cheese"
  • "Veg casserole and dumplings"
  • "Griddled halloumi, fried red onion, coucous and salad"
  • "One-pot gnocchi with halloumi, peppers, courgete, leeks and tomatoes & side salad"
  • "Quorn chicken & leek pie, roast potatoes, peas & sweetcorn"
  • "Veggie moussaka made with Quorn mince and aubergine"

  • "Homemade patatas bravas with salsa and sour cream and tomato & cucumber slad with croutons"

  • "Okonomiyaki"
  • "Soup made from beans, tomatoes, carrots, swede, and broccoli (read: contents of the veg drawer)"
  • "Cheddar cheese sandwich, using sourdough spelt bread, rocket and cucumber,with a small amount of mayo"
  • "Thai green curry (quorn and general veg) and soba noodles on the side because I had no rice"
  • "Skyr with musli (too busy to cook)"
  • "Thai takeout over riced cauliflower instead of rice"
  • "Lentil lasagne and spinach salad"

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm niiiiiiiiiiiice. That all sounds lovely.

Have we learnt anything? Well, Quorn gets a decent showing (I notice that because I'm not into it myself), pops up 3 times versus halloumi's 2. At a rough guess, approx half of the meals rely on cheese. I kinda think I rely too much on cheese for veggie cookery. But there's a pretty good spread in the types of protein and the types of carbs people have in their meals. Anyway. It all sounds very nice.

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Fake meat around the world

I've always thought fake meat was a bit silly. When I recently starting eating more veggy food I promised myself I wouldn't have to eat Quorn pieces, those fake chicken pieces that taste bland and (unlike chicken) don't respond to cooking. They don't caramelise, they don't get melty tender, they just warm up. If you like cooking, you're much better off cooking some actual veg.

So it's a shock to be saying that some of the best meals I've had in 2017 have been fake meat. It seems the veggie world is just stepping up and stepping up. I've been lucky enough to travel for work and here are some amazing things I ate (mostly paid from my own pocket, BTW):

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In Beijing, there was this braised fish dish, an extravagant centrepiece to a meal. A big pot of braised Chinese vegetables, and at the centre a mock fish steak. I don't know what it was made of but it had been slashed across the upper surface (like you would do with meat to get flavours in) and that upper surface was grilled and caramelised, while the lower part in the braising sauce was meltingly tender.

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In Sweden, I got off the train in Lund and within a few minutes my eyes lighted on a kebab shop (Lunda Kitchen) with a massive list of things labelled "vegan": burgers, kebabs, pepperoni pizzas... My host actually said that he thought "vegan" probably didn't mean the same thing as it did in English. Anyway it does. Their vegan doner kebab was just ace: just meaty and spicy enough, all the trimmings as usual.

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In Germany, I had this literally unbelievable vegan schnitzel (at Max Pett, Munich). It wasn't just that it had the taste of a breaded steak "Wiener art", but also the structure, the resistance and texture you expect when you cut into an actual schnitzel. The only reason I didn't grab the serving staff and double-check whether it was veggie or not was that I was in a very definitely vegan restaurant.

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In France the seitan bourgignon was a great idea but the execution wasn't ideal. However we had excellent seaweed "tartare" and artichoke "rillettes", both of which captured specific je-ne-sais-quoi tastes of the traditional dishes they were paying tribute to. These were in various Paris vegan bistros.


In India... I didn't have any fake meat at all. I had some amazing dishes, since they've a massive history of veggie cuisine of their own, but it doesn't centre around fake meat.

Back in London? Yes there's plenty of good food around, such as vegan doner kebab or cheezburger from "Vx". But... the veggie version of a roast beef Sunday lunch? I haven't seen it yet...

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Vegan mozarella cheese for pizza

Excited today to get a delivery of the new mail-order vegan cheese from my friend's new London cheezmakery, Black Arts Vegan! It came beautifully packed, see:

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Their first cheese is a vegan mozarella. We unpacked the cheese and had a taste - yes, a good clear taste like standard mozarella. But they've worked on getting it right so it goes melty and gooey, and browns nicely in the oven. So let's try it on a pizza!

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It really does come into its own on the pizza - the lovely warm melted mozarella consistency is great, and it's easy to forget that it's plant-based and not dairy. Magic :)

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My climatarian diet

I was shocked - and frankly, really sceptical - to realise that eating meat was one of the biggest climate impacts I was having. On the flip side, that's a good thing, because it's one of the easiest things to change on our own, without upending society. Easier than rerouting the air travel industry! I've been doing it for a couple of years now and hey - it's actually been surprisingly easy and enjoyable.

Yes meat-eating really is an important factor in climate change: see e.g. this recent letter from scientists to the world - but see also the great book "How Bad Are Bananas" for a nice readable intro. For even more detail this 2014 paper and this 2013 paper both quantify the emissions of different diets.

The great thing is you don't have to be totally vegetarian, and you don't have to be an absolutist. Don't set yourself a goal that's way too far out of reach. Don't set yourself up for failure.

So, my climatarian diet. here's how it works:

  1. Don't eat any more beef or lamb, or other ruminants. Those are by far the most climate-changing animals to eat (basically because of all the methane they produce... on top of the impacts of all the crops you need to feed them up, etc).

Actually, that rule is the only rule that I follow as an absolute. Avoid other meat as far as possible, but don't worry too much if you end up having some chicken/pork/etc now and again. The impact of chicken/pork/etc is not to be ignored but it's much less than beef, and I find I've not really wanted much meat since I shifted my eating habits a bit.

More tips:

  1. Seafood (and various fish) is a good CO2-friendly source of protein and vitamins etc for someone who isn't eating meat, so do go for those. Especially seafood, oily fish. (Though it's hard to be sure which fish is better/worse - see e.g. this article about how much fuel it takes to get different fish out of the sea. Farmed fish must be easier right?)
  2. Try not to eat too much cheese, but again don't worry too much.
  3. When people ask, it's easiest just to say "vegetarian" - they usually know how to feed you then :)

I never thought I'd be able to give up on beef (steaks, roasts, burgers) but the weirdest thing is, within a couple of months I just had no inclination towards it. Funny how these seemingly unchangeable things can change.

If CO2 is what you care about then you might end up preferring battery-farmed animals rather than free-range, because if you think about it battery-farming is all about efficiency, and typically uses less resources per animal (it also restricts animal movements) - however, I'm saying this not to justify it but to point out that maybe you don't want to have just a one-track mind.

Vegans have an even better CO2 footprint than vegetarians or almost-ish-vegetarians like me. Vegan food is getting better and better but I don't think I'm going to be ready to set the bar that high for myself, not for the foreseeable. Still, sampling vegan now and again is also worth doing.

Is this plan the ideal one? Of course not. The biggest problem, CO2-wise, is cheese, since personally I just don't know how to cut that out when I'm already cutting out meat etc - it's just a step too far for me. The book "How Bad Are Bananas" points out that a kilogram of cheese often has a CO2 footprint higher than that of some meats. Yet vegetarians who eat cheese still contribute one-third less CO2 than meat-eaters [source], because of course they don't eat a whole cheese steak every day!

You don't have to be perfect - you just have to be a bit better. Give it a go?

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Food I found in India

I just spent a couple of weeks in northern India (to attend IBAC). Did I have some great food? Of course I did.

No fancy gastro stuff, just tried the local cuisine. Funny thing is, as an English person and living in East London for more than a decade, I already knew plenty about the food! Or at least I knew more than the other international delegates did. The Indian names, the difference between naan and chapatti and poori, for example, or what's a palak paneer.

Credit's got to go to Sarab Sethi for showing me his favourite street food when we were in downtown Haridwar - aloo tiki, which is fried potatoes and yogurt with sweet and savoury sauces. Kind of like an Indian equivalent of chips with mayo+ketchup, maybe... or maybe that doesn't do it justice! And thanks Phil for the photo:

In the north India region, two staples of the local cuisine seem to be dhal makhani (buttery thick lentils) and paneer (cheese) curry, which we were served often. To be honest, though, those are very rich, too much to eat every day. On quite a few days I went for a lovely dosa instead - a crispy curry-filled pancake, which is from south India originally, and also not an everyday meal but I do like it.

I did have some top dishes locally though. At a dhaba (a roadside caff) we had some excellent-tasting chana (chickpeas) - no idea how they were flavoured so well but they were. The curried brinjal (okra) dishes were good too, nice and fresh-tasting.

In Delhi (at the start of the trip) I found a well-reputed eatery called Khaki di Hatti. They do massive naan breads - seriously massive, I recommend you agree to order the "baby" one when they suggest it! - and I had a great spinach kofte dish there. It was kofte ("meatballs", you might say, though vegetarian in this case) made of breadcrumbs and who-knows-what-else, in a lovely savoury spinach sauce.

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Eating veggie is easy in this region, since so many people are veggie. But then so is eating non-veggie. Lots of places are "pure veg" and in most other places it's really clearly labelled.

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Best veggieburgers in East London

Veggieburgers have come a long way - and London's vegetarian scene has quite a lot going on in the burger department! - so I wanted to try a few of them. I particuarly wanted to work out, for my own cooking, what's a good strategy for making a veggieburger that is hearty, tasty, and, well, frankly, worth ordering. For me, your old-fashioned beanburger isn't going to do it.

So here's my list of top veggieburgers in London so far, mostly in East London. It's not an exhaustive survey, and I might update it, but I wanted to get at least 5 really solid recommendations and then write this up. I'm surprised to find that most of them are not only vegetarian but vegan. Here's the top 5! You should definitely eat these:

  1. Untitled Arancini (Dalston) "vegan burger" - Really tasty and substantial fast food, made of their risotto stuff. A good whack of umami from the aubergine sauce, and good chips too. Highly recommended burger. As this other blogger puts it: "This is a burger where all the elements are nicely thought through - good bun, fresh salad, lots of good chutney [and the burger is] one note in a well-played burger orchestra."
  2. Untitled Mildred's (Camden and elsewhere - Dalston coming soon) "smoked tofu, lentil, piquillo pepper burger" - A great burger with plenty of bite to it, nice smoky burgery flavour. I think the tofu provides the heft while the lentils add texture. It was a little bit dry so I had to add tomato ketchup (nowt wrong with that), and with that in place it was the full package. Just look at it!
  3. UntitledEat17 (Homerton): This was a curious place, housed in the corner of a Spar supermarket, and also serving the Castle cinema upstairs. Anyway they gave me a nice black bean + quinoa burger, with a good crispy exterior. Presumably it's got some beetroot in it too, given the rich purpley colour. The flavour of the burger itself could be a bit heavier, and the chips were too salty as always, but otherwise a very good showing, especially coming from a non-veggie place.
    (BTW I think this is the only non-vegan burger in the top five.)
  4. Untitled Black Cat Cafe (Hackney): "beefish burger" I think they called their vegan burger, but actually to me it had a pleasing chorizo-like taste. The burger is firm and hefty (good), the chips are good, and their vegan mayo tastes great.
  5. Untitled Vx (Kings Cross): a tasty and filling cheezburger, near to Kings Cross station - handy! They're not trying to be fancy-fancy - in fact this burger has quite a McDonaldsy taste to it, except that the burger patty (made of seitan) is more generous/filling than a McD. Good stuff.

...so that's the top list so far. Plenty more to try. Here's something that surprised me: although there are plenty of nouveaux popup veggie burger stalls popping up and down all around, those aren't where I seem to find the best burgers. They get the twitter hype but they don't seem to have got their recipes to match the hype. The list I just gave you is mostly well-established places (and two of them are omni).

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Some other burgers I tried:

  • Mooshies (Brick Lane) - I had the "where's the beef" burger which is made of black bean and quinoa, plus all the trimmings. I was disappointed that the burger pattie had not much bite to it - it was more like "vegan mince" than "vegan burger", splodging everywhere at the slightest provocation. The flavour was nice, the black beans providing a dark enough flavour (more beef-like that a nut-burger or a veg-burger) and the quinoa provided a good bit of structured feel on the tongue. So I think black-bean-and-quinoa is a good idea, but you really need to put those together with something that'll make a good firm patty. Flavour-wise, the mayo left me with an overly vinegary aftertaste, so I hope they do something about that too.

    On a second visit we had the pulled-pork bbq jackfruit which was fine (but my recipe's better ;), and the onion bhaji burger which was really nice - crispy and full of flavour.

  • Greedy Cow (Mile End) - nice fresh-tasting vegetable burger with a nice crispy exterior to the patty. Definitely tasted like they care about their veggieburger. I liked it and for an omni place it's very good indeed, but it's not up in the top league since I'm more interested in the more "meaty" angle on a veggieburger.

  • The Hive Wellbeing (Bethnal Green) - The burger pattie was oddly small, about 1/2 the size of the bun, which was silly. The pattie itself had a lovely clear fresh pumpkin-seed flavour and texture (it's made of mushroom and courgette too). Nice chutney underneath. The flavours overall are savoury and sharp (also from the mustard mayo too) - good, though potentially not for everyone. On a second visit, I found again that the burger was made of good stuff but was kinda awkwardly put together - proportions a little bit off - maybe it's a good recipe, inattentively prepared? It seems to me it could be in the running to be the best, if it were given a bit more care.

  • Vurgers (popup) - I had the "BBQ nut" one, because it looked likely to be the most substantial. It was a decent meal and hefty enough, but way way overseasoned - so much sugar, so much salt, so much acid. I know that "BBQ" largely implies they'll overdo those things, but there's supposed to be more than those blunt notes. The burger was filling and decent but didn't have much bite - it kept its shape through inertia rather than strength, if you get what I mean. Certainly good enough to mention, but not getting near the top, and served in a poncey-seeming location with price to match.

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The best vegetarian recipes of 2016

I've been cooking vegetarian in 2016. It's about climate change: meat-eating is a big part of our carbon footprint, and it's something we can change. So here I'm sharing some of the best veggie recipes I found this year. Most of them are not too complex, the point is everyday …

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Vegetarian food in Paris

While in Paris briefly (on my way somewhere else), I decided to go only to vegetarian restaurants. This helps to narrow down the list!

The curiously-named Sense.eat is an Italian veggy restaurant right in the centre of town, just a touch south of the river. Friendly and efficient atmosphere …

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Vegetarian armoury: things you might need

I've been cooking more and more vegetarian food this year. It's better for the climate and why not. You don't have to give anything up, in my opinion - you don't ned to go full veggy, just go in that direction.

So, to mark World Vegetarian Day here are my secrets …

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Food in the Bavarian Forest

Just back from a trip to the Bavarian Forest - hiking, eating, wandering around. Here are the highlights of what I ate!

Traditional:

  • Pork Schnitzel Wiener art - classic around here, and in Eisensteiner Hof in Bayerisch Eisenstein I had a really excellent one. The meat was tender and flavourful, and the …
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Bacup test kitchen July update

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Getting better at vegetarian food

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Mushy peas three-way showdown

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How to cook the perfect Lancashire hotpot

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The invention of cooking

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Best places to eat in Cambridge

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South Woodford: the nom review

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Cambridge sushi review

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Ale in Dartmoor and Devon

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Boulder Colorado IPAs

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