Despite the UK being home to over seven million vegetarians and vegans, just a decade or so ago you would have had to do some serious research before dining out with people who don't eat meat or consume animal products. Now the nation – and especially London – bustles with an abundance of exciting choices; and these non-meat options can't be sneered at.
The list of restaurants that use wholly plant-based ingredients while remaining firmly dedicated to providing amazing food that is flavourful and even ‘exotic’ – in a chic setting, is now very long. And as Vogue magazine pointed out in 2020, a “cherry on the top” is the fact that many of these vegan establishments are ethically-focused, so they also prioritise taking care of the planet by, for example, reducing waste… and might even throw in a donation to charity garnered from the price of every meal.
In 2021, London offers a veritable buffet of vegetarian and vegan choices – to the point where the only thing not on offer is vegan steak. Oh, scratch that. Actually, 3D-printed steak is about to hit the city.
Currently, in restaurants in Israel, alternative-steak is made of 100% plant-based materials and – as the name implies – is printed by a 3D printer. Other interesting tasty meat substitutes include the obvious, such as various veggie kebabs or vegan burgers, but there are also “meaty” vegan pizza restaurants and at least 10 locations in the city for vegan sushi.
Here’s when there's always that person who has to make the unoriginal observation that: “if you want to eat sushi or steak… why not just eat the real thing?” Um… it's not like the majority of people who gave up meat did so because they didn't like the taste of meat, it's generally due to a combination of health concerns, environmental issues, and moral/ethical objections.
There are certainly some who prefer vegetables without too much ornamentation, but as a rule, vegetarians and vegans aren't attempting to escape the world of flavour. Something that has the texture and flavours of meat isn't forbidden because of a resemblance – it's a step in the right direction if nothing else.
It probably doesn't surprise you to read that the percentage of vegetarians in famously beef-loving Argentina is low. But the UK figures are somewhat surprising. When compared to India, a nation often considered the global veggie/vegan world champion due to its significant number of people (as high as 33%) who do not eat meat, mostly for religious reasons, the UK pushing past 14% of adults is a big deal.
Humans have been eating meat for a very long time and the flavour of meat is almost universally agreed to be delicious. Yes, some people will tell you that after they stopped eating meat the smell of it cooking isn’t as attractive as before, but we'd wager these people are a minority.
For most, it’s the fact that the food was once part of a living animal that's the problem, not the texture or smell or mouthfeel of animal flesh. And restaurants are finally understanding this and stepping up to the plate.
Eat of Eden in Brixton Village has vegan Caribbean organic cuisine, and plenty of the menu items include meat substitutes. Purezza does a remarkable vegan pizza with pulled BBQ “pork” (and remember, vegan means the cheese is plant-based, too). Unity Diner is a restaurant that’s also essentially an animal rights campaign – they offer southern “fried chicken” or vegan prawns that devotees say are better than the real deal.
Looking out the situation objectively, it's probably safe to predict that we are headed for a meatless future. For one thing, it's been definitively proven that red meat and many other animal products are not exactly healthy.
Secondly, we all know that the meat industry is environmentally unsustainable. And finally, there's a growing awareness that animals are friends, not food. This doesn't mean we have to give up our culinary heritage. Instead, we must evolve new ways of satisfying taste needs.
People who give vegans a hard time over meat substitutes are missing the point. These items taste good… and that's why they’re on the menu. For some, “new/alternative” meat substitutes might act as a bridge, helping connect them to a full transition.
You don't have to, however, be an animal rights fanatic or Greenpeace protester to see the writing on the wall. If you accept the scientific consensus of climate change then consider droughts as just one example. When one realises that the small piece of an animal they’re eating requires the same amount of water it takes to sustain an entire field of some edible crop, eating meat starts becoming indefensible – especially if your main argument is “it tastes good.”
With so many substitutes and flavour options across the city, vegan dining is no longer a niche. Instead, it could be on its way to becoming the new normal.