Hail seitan! How vegan food got down’n’dirty

6 September 2017

It will come as a surprise to nobody, but some of Jeremy Corbyn’s best friends are vegan. At an event this week for the cosmetics chain Lush, which has been campaigning against animal testing for the past 20 years, the Labour leader was asked by one of the audience whether he would consider converting his decades-long vegetarianism into veganism. “The food has got a lot better – one of my close relatives has just become a vegan and I went to her house for dinner and it was absolutely brilliant,” he replied. “So, I’m going through the process, all right? I won’t go any further than that.”

A Labour party spokesperson later clarified that Corbyn was not actually in the process of becoming a vegan – giving up eggs, dairy and animal products – but simply in the process of eating more vegan food. He’s in good and growing company. According to the Vegan Society, there are now at least 542,000 vegans in the UK; 10 years ago, that figure was about 150,000. Tesco has said that demand for vegan and vegetarian products has grown 40% in the past year alone. A survey in March by research company Mintel suggested that 11% of Britons have tried to follow a vegan diet at some point.

There’s an old joke about vegans that is trotted out with predictable regularity around any discussion about eschewing animal products. “How do you know if someone’s vegan?” it goes. “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” It speaks to a strong and enduring stereotype of a vegan as malnourished, pasty, hemp-clad and hectoring, someone who eats only lentils and salads, while, yes, reading the Guardian and dogmatically lecturing meat-eaters on the evils of farming. Satirical news site the Daily Mash responded to Corbyn’s vegangate with a story headlined: “Even I’m not sanctimonious enough to turn vegan, says Corbyn”.

But in the past few years vegan food in the UK has undergone a massive change. The market for vegan comfort and junk food – burgers, fried “chicken”, pizzas, tacos and kebabs – has exploded. In east London, the Temple of Hackney takeaway shop is almost never without a queue; it sells fried chicken made of the gluten-based meat substitute seitan (the company that runs it is called Temple of Seitan) and mac’n’cheese. In Shoreditch, grime superstar and Corbyn-supporter JME is often to be found at Cook Daily, which is not quite as junk-based, but does a mean “chickn” or “praun” pad thai” . At four locations in London, there’s an astonishingly good Mexican joint called Club Mexicana, which sells “fish” tacos and pulled jackfruit burritos – jackfruit is native to south India and has a texture that resembles pulled pork. “If you’re looking for chickpeas and chia seeds, you’re in the wrong place,” reads its website.

It’s not just London, either: vegan comfort food is available across the UK. Dave Shaw runs Make No Bones in Sheffield, which sells kebabs, pizzas and burgers, among other kinds of comfort food. He has been vegan for about a decade and opened the business four years ago, while working in a pub with some friends. “There was nothing on the menu that I could eat,” he recalls. At first, they did a vegan night and it sold out every time they put it on. Then they started doing events. A year ago, they opened up the restaurant. “Because we’re doing vegan comfort and junk food, we’re attracting people who are not vegan to come and try it when they probably wouldn’t have before, because they’re excited about it.” He says their surf-and-turf – vegan barbecue ribs and tofu scampi – is very popular. “We do other options, but generally it’s the unhealthy, junky stuff that sells the best.”

“It’s really blown up over the last two or three years,” agrees Tsouni Moss, who runs the popular vegan Instagram account Yes, It’s All Vegan (tagline: “Mostly junk food, all plants … bc eating animals is weird”). “When I went vegan 10 years ago, there was one all-vegan cafe in London, and it wasn’t great. Now you can walk down the street and see ‘vegan’ written outside all sorts of places.” She says that, because it’s all so new and exciting, it encourages innovation that you don’t necessarily see in other areas of the restaurant business. “The vegan junk food scene is so young, so there’s so much room for making things that no one has ever done before. For a while everyone was making jackfruit burgers, and that seemed trendy for about a year, but then this guy Biff, who runs Biff’s Jack Shack, made jackfruit ‘chicken’ wings, and everyone wanted to try that. If you’re in that field, you can have a lot of fun.”

Moss puts the increase in vegan junk food down to influences from the US, particularly on the culture of eating out. “I think we’re 10 years behind America,” she says. “All the big college towns have had way better, more fun vegan food for a much longer time.” There are two places in the US that stick in her mind – one is a food truck in Portland, Oregon, called Homegrown Smoker, which has recently become a restaurant. “Look at their Instagram and it’s all oozing cheese and shiny burgers,” she drools. The other is a place in Austin, Texas, called Arlo’s. “They have a Big Mac that’s indistinguishable from the real deal.”

In the UK, the plant-based mimicry of fast food has become an increasingly popular business model for vegans and non-vegans alike. Moss calls it “the vegan pound” and says she knows of plenty of vegan cafes and restaurants that are run by non-vegans. This divides the vegan community, but she says she’s fine with it, if it means vegan food is more available and more visible to people who might not ordinarily encounter it. Certainly, vegan food is more accessible than ever. Even high street chains such as Zizzi and Pizza Express now offer vegan cheese on their pizzas, and it’s perfectly possible to have a decent vegan meal in chicken chain Nando’s.

This growing appetite for plant power – the slogan of Indian street food stall SpiceBox, which does incredible things with cauliflower – has led to an increase in vegan food markets, festivals and events. One of the most prominent vegan bloggers, the Fat Gay Vegan, holds beer fests and food markets on a regular basis around the country, selling everything from vegan versions of fish and chips, barbecues and kebabs to doughnuts and cakes. In August, the street food company Kerb, which runs a number of markets around London, hosted its first solely vegan festival over the course of three days, called Livin’ on the Veg. A ticket bought eight taster meals, which included Temple of Seitan’s chicken burger, Biff’s jackfruit wings, banh mi by Eat Chay and Young Vegans’ dairy-free peanut butter mud pie and ice-cream.

Even a dedicated omnivore would have been hard-pushed to miss meat or even dairy there. One woman told the Temple of Seitan stallholder that it was the first time she had eaten anything like fried chicken in 20 years. The burger came in a tiny brioche bun, with a gherkin topping and sweet maple-mustard sauce. It was obscenely moreish – juicy, spicy and with the texture of, well, meat. Vegetarian food has tended to lack texture and bite; not any more. The event was run as a “rumble”, meaning attendees could vote for their favourite trader at the end of it all. The deserved winner was Petare, a Venezuelan stall that usually trades in meat options as well as vegetarian and vegan ones, but which served a special and absurdly tasty “chip butty” arepa with cassava chips, plantain, “feta”, avocado and garlic sauce. It was a gut-busting day out.

Kerb’s head of markets, Ian Dodds, says that, ironically, the idea came from a festival run by Kerb devoted entirely to fried chicken. “We thought, let’s do the equivalent of that with vegan food and see how popular it is. It turned out to be more popular,” he explains. “It sold out. We had people coming from all over the world.” Intriguingly, he says that, of the attendees Kerb surveyed, at least 20% were meat-eaters. Partly, he puts that down to the quality of the food. “Livin’ on the Veg was infinitely more interesting [than the chicken festival]. Everything had more complexity to it. Most people have known for a long time that vegan food can be good, it’s just accessing it.” The festival was a huge success and he thinks Kerb will do it again. “We may have to do it bigger, because demand was so high. We’re flirting with the idea of trying to run a vegan lunch market.” People’s interest in vegan food, he says, is growing. “As more people engage with the ethics of [vegan food], there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be delicious.”

When Moss set up Yes, It’s All Vegan two years ago, she just wanted a place to post pictures of vegan burgers. “I thought, my real friends are going to hate this shit, so I set up another Instagram account to do it privately,” she says. But now that it has grown, it has become useful, too: she can point people in the direction of a fast food place in Cardiff, Glasgow or Birmingham, and ask for tips for where she should eat when she’s travelling.

“I think there are three reasons people go vegan,” she says. “It’s environment, it’s health, it’s animal welfare. You can pick and choose how much you care about each of them. Unless you go vegan just for the health, which is really rare, then there’s no reason you’d want to stop eating delicious foods that are full of fat and sugar once a week. I don’t eat that food all the time, but going vegan doesn’t change your tastebuds. It doesn’t mean you stop thinking bacon or fried chicken taste good. I just don’t want to have things that taste that way, made in the same way as they’ve been made before. So if there’s an alternative, why would people think it’s weird that I’d want to eat that instead?”

Five places to eat vegan junk food

Make No Bones, Sheffield
Co-owner Dave Shaw says Make No Bones serves the kind of food he would eat at home, using meat substitutes such as seitan – a gluten-based meat substitute known for its meaty texture – for ribs, kebabs and jerk “chicken”, as well as poutine fries with almond cheese and mushroom gravy, and avocado wings with a ranch dressing and hot sauce.

Temple of Hackney/Seitan, London
The vegan fried-chicken shop opened in January and sells deep-fried crispy seitan as hot wings, pieces or burgers, as well as dairy-free mac’n’cheese and coleslaw. It recently tested the bae-cone, a seitan “bacon” cone stuffed with chicken, fries and cheese sauce, which it called a “pig-free pig-out”.

V Rev, Manchester
V Rev serves huge, stacked burgers made from seitan or a gluten-free alternative, with names that are almost as good as the flavour: try the Jerry Zinger chkn burger, the Whopper Flocka Flame “beefy” patty or the Go Ahead, Mac My Day mac, “cheez” and “baecon” sandwich.

Biff’s Jack Shack, London
This wings and burger joint serves pulled jackfruit shaped into a wing, coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, with a sugarcane “bone” through it, as well as the Jack Bauer Tower burger, which makes the bold decision to add a hash brown to its jackfruit burger stack.

Flying Duck, Glasgow
The bar/club/diner/event space Flying Duck claims to have invented the “macarrito” – a burrito with macaroni cheese in it. It also has a substantial burger and hot dog menu. It’s part of a thriving vegan scene in the city.

 

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