“Plant-based eating is no longer just a fad,” says The Chefs’ Table executive chef Kayla-Ann Osborn. “Vegan has become a normal way of eating and we have an entire vegan a la carte menu, a vegan tasting menu and also offer vegan options for special events like wine dinners.”
Exposure seems to have broken down much of the stigma that vegetarian food is boring and an endless parade of vegetarian lasagne, butternut and creamed spinach. And it’s no longer just strict plant-eaters ordering vegan food – diners with more traditional palates are increasingly choosing items championing fruit and veg.
Chef Alex Poltera, of Fern Hill Hotel in the Midlands, is a long-time fan of vegan food and an ambassador for the Green Mondays movement, which promotes the concept of eating plant-based once a week. “Since I started on my menu with three vegan items, it’s grown to over two pages of vegan dishes and a lot of them are repeatedly ordered by non-vegan customers,” he notes. Chef Charlie Lakin of Maha Café has had a similar experience and says it’s all about prioritsing taste. “We eat for pleasure and making vegetables taste good is key. I like to add lots of miso and fermented elements which provide that satisfying, savoury, umami kick.”
There’s no doubt that the growing movement towards diversifying diets is good for health and the planet – but it’s also important to be conscious of where your vegan food is sourced and to question whether the chefs in the restaurants you frequent are making ethical choices in all elements of their business. Just because meals are vegan it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily better for the planet.
“Many vegan and vegetarian options are not all that eco-conscious and it’s important to consider things like whether the palm oil that’s used in lots of vegan meals is ethically sourced and not, impacting on the habitats of orangutans, or how much imported food you incorporate into your diet, to ensure you don’t inadvertently increase your carbon footprint,” cautions Osborn.
Lakin advocates balance in eating with a strong focus on local produce. “It’s important to be aware that if you’re only going to eat vegetables from monoculture farms that mass-produce, you’re still negatively impacting the environment,” he notes.
Poltera says if enough people at least become conscious of what they are eating, and diversify their diets, there could eventually be a decrease in unethical factory farms and farming conditions as the knowledge and attention of consumers with regard to where their food comes from expands.
Simply not eating meat doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be healthier, either. “Beware of falling into the “junk vegan” trap — faux meats and vegan fast food should be treats, not staples, as they can often be high in fat and salt, like all junk food,” says Poltera. He adds that tracking your intake of calories and nutrients is important if you do go full vegan. “If you’re concerned about protein intake, if you’re very active, get a plant-based protein powder. A great South African brand is Wazoogles,” he says.
If you get those elements right, though, vegan cooking and eating can be a very satisfying endeavour. “Veg curries, tagines and nut cheeses are favourites of mine,” says Lakin. “It’s all about using the wide variety of vegetables available and thinking creatively about them. I even do a vegetarian samp and beans. Indigenous pulses and grains, like millet and sorghum, are readily available and cost effective.”
There’s strength in numbers here and, if many people make small changes to their eating habits, it can have a big impact, so even choosing plant-based just one day a week is doing your bit.
“Make weekday lunches plant based,” suggests Osborn. “Salads are a great way to start. Not just your average green salad, though — add chickpeas, lentils, roasted vegetables, seeds, nuts, spices to make it interesting. Indian cuisine is a great place to draw inspiration as so much of it is vegetarian and delicious.”