Vietnamese staple vegetable pho, with mushrooms, carrots and pak choi. Photograph: Thomas Levine Photography/Alamy
Like most revolutions, the current surge in meat-free eating takes much of its energy from its newness. This is a hip and sexy break with the past, a movement with Silicon Valley solutions to the historic restrictions of a meat-free diet.
Consequently, we hear a lot about trashy vegan street food, plant-based wellness and futuristic “bleeding” burgers, but little from those nations where meat-light, vegetarian and vegan food has flourished for centuries. It is bizarre. Such cuisines offer huge inspiration for anyone keen to increase the creativity and flavour of their meat-free cooking.
The chef Andrew Wong is baffled by western food manufacturers pouring money into developing mock meats. “Why waste your time R&Ding this stuff? It’s been done. Just go into Chinatown,” advises the chef-owner at London’s Michelin-starred A Wong.
Since Buddhism’s arrival in China about 2,000 years ago, regularly abstaining from meat has been a feature of Chinese life. Wong says a meat-minimal approach to eating is now “ingrained”.
“In every province and echelon of society, people understand food is medicine and eating too much meat is not good. In old recipes, there’s never a massive amount of protein. My grandmother would cook vegetable dishes and use a small amount of meat as a lubricating source of oil.”
In the Forbidden City’s imperial court, that absence of meat spawned highly playful food theatre in which other ingredients were used to mimic meat. Today, Chinese chefs and food producers simulate meat and fish textures using vegetables, gluten and tofu in endless ingenious dishes and products. In these, mushrooms might pass for eel or offal, for instance, or gently cooked egg whites for crab meat.
Despite being widely available in the UK’s Chinese supermarkets, many of the core ingredients in this cooking are little known outside Chinese kitchens. “When westerners think of tofu,” Wong says, “they think of one hard, claggy 80s product, not the variety and finesse in 50 types of tofu all specific to individual dishes. Now you can get tofu as smooth as creme brulee. Bean curd skin, a tofu by-product, is versatile, too. You can fry and crisp it, steam things in it to give them a skin-like texture or cook it over fire, to create this crunchy, cheesy, stringy thing.”
All this mimicry is underpinned by numerous fermented ingredients that build umami flavours into dishes: “Bean curd or chilli bean paste, dried black beans, preserved dried vegetables – these all add layers of savouriness that fool your brain into thinking there must be meat there.”
Even within Orthodox Christianity, the Ethiopian Tewahedo church is hardcore on fasting. Its attempts to “chastise the body”, as St Paul advised, mean followers abstain from meat and dairy for up to 180 days of the year. “It’s very common to be vegan every Wednesday and Friday,” says Tutu Melaku, the chef-owner at Tutu’s Ethiopian Table in Reading, who estimates that, given that meat is still a luxury product for many: “The Ethiopian diet is 70% vegan.”
Some Ethiopian staples, such as injera, a tangy, pancake-like bread made from fermented batter, can take years to master. “Sometimes, even I don’t get what I really want,” laughs Melaku, who uses wheat flour, not the traditional teff, in her injera. Export, she believes, is exacerbating the soaring cost of teff back home, so she adapted: “Why do I need to bring teff from my people, taking what they can’t even afford? I can’t do it.”
However, from breakfast beso, a pan-toasted barley flour porridge, to tikil gomen, a cabbage and fried potato dish seasoned with whole jalapeño, there are easier ways into Ethiopian cooking. On fasting days, families often enjoy beyaynetu, individual vegetarian platters where dishes such as fasolia (green beans in tomato sauce), gomen (simmered greens), shiro (a highly seasoned chickpea flour paste similar in texture to pease pudding) and thick, spicy wat stews are all served on an injera flatbread.
From misir (red lentil) to atakilt (cabbage, potato and carrot), wat stews of just a few ingredients, perfumed with hot berbere spice mix, are central to Ethiopian cooking. Find a high-quality berbere and take time with the wat’s onion base. The onions must be finely chopped and gently sweated until utterly broken down, which can take over an hour. “We do everything by the book and by hand,” says Melaku.
Mayur Patel, co-owner of the northern Bundobust restaurants, insists the Gujarati food he grew up on is “simpler than it’s made out. All the ingredients are available in Asian supermarkets everywhere and we don’t use dozens of spices. It’s more about how you combine and cook them – say, adding the garam masala at the beginning or end, which creates completely different flavours.”
You do not need to understand the Ayurvedic roots of meat-free Hindu cooking (certain “hot” foods are thought to dangerously excite the senses, yet fresh green chillies are somehow “calming”) to get to grips with Patel’s beloved dhal baht, “like Indian gravy that you add to rice”, or bataka shak, a dry-fried potato curry. Instead, you need to stock up on seasonings (mustard seed, fenugreek, coriander powder, cumin, asafoetida and curry leaves), buy a pressure cooker to speed up all those lentils you will be cooking and, importantly, perfect your tempering to either start a curry or finish one with a flourish.
“Starting by tempering oil with fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds and ground onion is fundamental. That gives you that savoury, jammy, umami flavour, like Marmite. Then, as you add fresh ingredients – green beans, aubergines, potato – you get different textures coming out. Okra, for instance, really thickens the base. It’s like making a cocktail, combining and blending vegetables. I think that gives you more creative space than basing a dish on one simple protein.”
It is a learning process. But you have Google and a head start, in that most Britons are familiar with the flavours of Indian food, if not the vast hinterland of Indian regional or even Gujarati cooking. Patel, for instance, is obsessed by his mum’s khandvi, pillowy pasta-like rolls made with gram flour and yoghurt.
Salvo’s serves 19 vegetarian dishes and 10 meat-free sides. The Leeds Italian has a dedicated vegan menu, too. The co-owner Gip Dammone relays these stats to demonstrate how, as the son of southern Italians – mum from Campania, dad from Sicily – he has a love of high-quality seasonal vegetables and vegetable dishes in his DNA.
The Dammone family lived in Salerno in the 70s: “We were almost naturally vegetarian without knowing. Meat was an expensive commodity, utilised sparingly. Mum would send me to the butcher’s, but I never ordered more than 100g of meat. A meat ragu wasn’t a load of mince; you’d be excited to find a scrap of meat in there. We’d have mainly bread meatballs or often ‘meatballs’ made with diced, fried aubergine.”
In the poorer Italian south, families had learned to cook without (much) meat and, making a virtue of a necessity, use every last scrap of the beautiful produce growing in the rich volcanic soils of Puglia and Campania. Turnip tops went into pasta with capers and anchovies; bitter lettuces were stewed with garlic, oil and water; “ amazing” quarter-inch-thick slices of aubergine (known as la carne del popolo, the meat of the masses), were dipped in egg, floured and fried, years before the cauliflower steak. On the courgette-mad Cilento coast, you would see sliced courgettes drying on balconies, so when they were fried, they browned quickly: “They know how to process veg in southern Italy.”
Understandably, Dammone is mystified by meat substitutes such as seitan: “It’s like boiling dough. There’s a better mouthful in a lot of veg.” This is something he is reminded of every time he visits Italy, where “vegetables are still revered in their own right”. Could demanding far better vegetables be the key to unlocking Britain’s meat-free future?
Three more meat-free hot spots
Jamaica: Ital, a belief system focused on increasing “livity” or life-energy, whose purest adherents eat only organic, vegan food, developed alongside Rastafarianism in 30s Jamaica. Check out the bean and pumpkin curries and stews at Negril in Brixton, south London, or Liverpool’s street-food outfit Ital Fresh. Think jerk-marinated cauliflower wings.
Vietnam: In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhist dietary rules gave rise to dedicated meat-free dishes and veggie versions of everyday staples, such as banh mi sandwiches and noodle bowls. For his much-praised book Vegetarian Việt Nam (£25, WW Norton), Cameron Stauch spoke to monks and home cooks to get the skinny on daily dishes and specials, such as the Twelve Predestined Affinities Salad.
Greece: “The Orthodox tradition of [meat and dairy-free] fasting is strong here and widely practised,” says Heather Thomas, the author of The Greek Vegetarian Cookbook (£24.95, Phaidon). “True believers abstain for several months each year, many supermarkets have dedicated nistisimo fasting foods, and some of Greece’s best-loved dishes evolved from fasting: dolmadakia vine leaf parcels, Lenten spinach “risotto” spanakorizo, and many lentil, bean and vegetable stews like gigantes.”
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