What vegans want to eat

I’ve been working for some months on international research into public attitudes to food sustainability. I’ve been supporting campaigns against rainforest deforestation (a lot of which is for livestock feed). And after a lifetime of eating mostly vegetarian food, as a family we’ve been vegan since Christmas 2020. So, I’ve lately been even more conscious of how a vegan diet is perceived and serviced by public and businesses.

Here are some of the advantages of going plant-based

Most are obvious but a few we hadn’t realised:

  • Knowing that you’re not propping up a cruel industry, holding animals captive in poor conditions then slaughtering them.
  • Cutting your emissions to help climate change.
  • Helping biodiversity and protecting ecosystems (especially if you grow your own or buy local / seasonal).
  • Cutting costs (especially if you avoid high end, overly processed products).
  • Getting optimum nutrition and being healthy (especially if you eat a variety of colourful, flavourful foods and enough good fats and protein).
  • Avoiding food waste, and fewer hygiene worries (plant-based alternatives keep for ages, and plant waste goes in the compost).
  • Enjoying being inventive and discovering new ways to create tasty, satisfying meals (especially if you can do this with other people).

What do people get wrong about vegan food?

Vegan is on trend, especially since the pandemic. Some restaurants, like our local Naifs, are going vegan only. In London, we have a lot more choice in shops and restaurants.

But there’s a lot more to be done and things are still going wrong.

Here’s one big thing that people get wrong: they think vegans mostly want to eat fake meat and dairy. Too many businesses are focusing on overly processed products, often fake meat and dairy. Most people don’t get that we (in the global north) already over-eat protein, and that protein is available in foods like broccoli, peas and mushrooms. Sure, it’s great to access plant-based milky, creamy stuff, and chewy, textured stuff, but to use in exciting cooking, not served plain, bland and lonely as the main event.

And some other things that are wrong:

  • Not enough choice when eating out, with vegan option(s) being too simple and pallid, when omnivores can eat everything on the menu. (Why do I have just aubergines on my plate when my friends have meat, veg, potatoes and sauce, for the same price?)
  • There’s not enough flavour, when the potential is there to cook with a variety of fully-flavoured plants, including spices, pulses, roots, shoots, flowers and more.
  • The assumption that a vegan diet is more expensive than a normal diet because you have to buy the ‘alternatives’, or you have to buy organic. This myth of costliness is used to put people off. Many plant-eaters will say their food bill is less than if or when they ate meat and industrial products. This research found it was 40% cheaper.
  • There is confusion about definitions. We should distinguish between a vegan person who chooses a cruelty-free life, and foods that are ‘suitable for vegan’ but can be eaten by everyone whatever their values. More people these days are eating plant-based diets that still might include some meat and dairy. The shift to plant-based is good and must be encouraged if we’re to tackle the climate & ecological emergency. The shift to fully vegan for more people is even better.

Foods we like to eat

The point of this post is to share, from our experience, what vegans (or mostly plant-eaters) like to eat. I hope this will be seen by people in the food sector willing to serve the growing vegan market, and to offer everyone healthier, greener food as a default rather than as a niche. I hope also it will be helpful to anyone not knowing what to cook for a more plant-based shift at home.

We like lentils

It’s a cliche, yes, but lentils are so satisfying, cheap and easy. I’ll choose dal every time over a vegan sausage roll or burger. Ways we like with lentils:

  • Red lentils with cinnamon & cumin
  • Green or yellow split pea dal with a bit of smoky sauce (liquid smoke or vegan nduja)
  • Black lentil dal, well-cooked and creamy, with garlic (try black garlic, or a whole pre-roasted bulb squeezed on top)
  • Lentil and chickpea curry, packed with onions, carrot, mushrooms, greens, coconut milk, tamarind sauce, and spices like ginger, cardamom & star anise.
  • Vegherd’s Pie — savoury spicy brown lentils, dark mushrooms, spinach etc, topped with a mash of sweet & normal potato and vegan cream.
  • Puy lentils served cool in pasta or potato salads, with olives, tomatoes and herbs.

We like pasta with tasty sauces

Some fresh pasta is eggy, but mostly pasta is vegan. Here are some ways to make vegan pasta dishes tasty and luxurious:

  • We love pasta made with non-wheat flours such as lentil or pea flour, as this provides extra flavour, protein and chewiness. We buy it from health food shops and — more affordably — make it ourselves.
  • Make vegan pesto by whizzing up any herbs/greens, any nuts/seeds, garlic, spices & olive oil. You can get vegan Parmesan to add but it’s not essential.
  • Make a creamy cheese sauce using e.g. Vegan Block or Pura ‘butter’, plant-based milk, Alpro cream, or cheeses from brands like Violife. It will need extra flavour e.g. with mustard, herbs, or smokey sauce, because vegan dairy can be a bit salty and sickly on its own. Try using a thicker, tastier flour like buckwheat instead of refined cornflour.
  • Pasta with tomato sauce: properly reduce the tomato (& onion & garlic) sauce to maximise its flavour and richness. Cook other veg like red peppers or aubergines separately — frying or roasting them — and drizzling on olive oil to get a lovely unguent mouth feel. (Big yuk to sour watery tomatoes still in chunks.) Our favourite pasta dish stuffs herbs/vegan cream cheese/spinach in big pre-cooked pasta shells and bakes them in rich tomato sauce.

Vegan cakes are better

You need one main ingredient to make vegan cakes stick: milled flaxseed. Make a flax egg with a dessertspoon of milled/ground seed soaked in a bit of boiled water. Ground chia seeds do the same thing for a crunchier bake.

For fat, use brands like Vegan Block or Pura ‘butter’, or coconut oil (it must be in a glass jar), or nut or olive oils.

You can make any kind of cake with these substitutions but instead of frosting & whipped cream get more inventive with fruit, syrup drizzles, spices, seeds, nuts, chocolate, candied ginger or lemon peel.

We use a lot of chickpea or gram flour

This is the vegan cook’s ‘go to’. It’s cheap and nutritious. There’s a huge list of delicious things we make: fritters, savoury pancakes, felafels, koftes, pakoras and bhajis.

You can add it as a thickener to stews and bakes. You can mix it with aquafaba (chickpea water) to make Yorkshire puddings. You can make a batter to coat tofu.

It’s a key ingredient in one of our favourite recipes:

Cauliflower-base pizzas — whizz up a cauliflower and make a dough with gram flour and a ‘flax egg’. Top it with rich tomato sauce, mushrooms, capers, artichoke hearts, seitan slices and vegan mozzarella.

Flavour matters most

We try a lot of different products — including vegan alternatives to meat and dairy — out of interest and because the best of them can be useful in combination with less processed plants. The main factor in quality is flavour.

Vegan cheese can taste like dairy cheese if creative approaches are used with fermentation and fungi/mould. But vegan cheese that tries to copy the look and feel of types of dairy cheese typically doesn’t taste great.

Here’s one company that gets it right: Nettle, who make blue cheese and a feta-like cheese with cashew and macadamia nuts.

Yes, it’s not cheap but it’s a really special flavour, they age it for months, and they are a tiny company that I want to support. These treats are combined in our diet with really cheap staples of beans, pulses, root vegetables, grains and oats, so we save a lot of money overall.

Veg & fruit take centre stage

I feel like I’ve hardly scratched the surface of the possibilities of delicious vegan food. We just bought this book, Jackfruit and Blue Ginger by Sasha Gill, which is full of Asian things we’ve yet to try.

And there’s more that we love to eat:

Like raw beetroot salads and slaws

Like kimchi

Like noodle soups with seaweed and miso

Like roasted hispi cabbage with garlic, caraway and lemon

Like savoury loaves made with nuts, seeds, mushrooms, grated carrots, onion and other stuff

Oh, and finally, for a lovely chewy treat, try making Barbecue seitan ribs.

If you feel moved to support me in my work as an unsalaried Regenerative Culture leader, you can make a donation here.

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bridgetmck

bridgetmck

Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK. Co-founder Culture Declares. Cultural consultant & researcher, artist-curator, educator. https://linktr.ee/BridgetMcKenzie