A moveable feast

“New vegetarianism” is an opportunity, not a sacrifice
April 24, 2012
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s depiction of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, 1590. Modern cuisine is also recognising the potential of vegetables

About a year and a half ago, I joined the ranks of the those eating less meat. I didn’t do this primarily out of ecological concern, or from a desire to be healthier, but because I moved in with my girlfriend (now wife), a strict vegetarian. As I do almost all the cooking in our household, I realised that a major shift in my culinary approach was required. I now cook vegetarian most of the time, and save meat and fish for when we’ve got guests.

I’m not alone. In recent years, there’s been growing talk of “meat reducers” and “flexitarians”: people who, while not strict vegetarians, incorporate elements of vegetarianism into their diets. According to the Vegetarian Society, while the number of actual vegetarians in the UK has remained static over the past decade at around 2m, there are many more who say they’ve significantly reduced their meat intake, or now eat fish but no meat. Retail statistics back this up: between 2006 and 2010, supermarkets reported a 20 per cent growth in the “meat-free market,” while the average amount of meat a person eats in a year fell from 81.4kg to 76.2kg. For hardliners, however, vegetarianism isn’t a lifestyle choice but a moral imperative; a halfway-house just isn’t acceptable.

What’s been surprising is how little I’ve minded. Previously, like most meat-lovers, I instinctively viewed vegetables as accompaniments. I had a handful of vegetarian dishes in my repertoire, but I couldn’t imagine doing away with meat altogether. Through embracing semi-vegetarianism, however, I’ve become comfortable with the idea of vegetables taking centre stage, and enjoyed the challenge of finding ways to make them interesting. When vegetables are side-dishes, it’s easy to treat them lazily (boil or bake; slap on some seasoning). When they’re all you’ve got, you’re forced to be more creative.

Fortunately, becoming a part-time vegetarian now seems less of a sacrifice than it would have in the past. Veggie cooking has come a long way from the bad old days of anaemic salads, pulse-based stews and imitation sausages. A large part of the improvement has come about organically, simply because Britain has become more open to the cuisines of other countries, many of which have richer traditions of vegetable cookery than we do. These days, instead of being stuck with nut roast or bean hotpot, vegetarians can roam the globe, making risotto or pasta one night, hummus, baba ganoush and tabbouleh the next, and then sag aloo and dal the day after that.

Just recently, too, vegetables have enjoyed a surge of attention from chefs and cookery writers who aren’t themselves vegetarians. The most dramatic example of this is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who, long known as a dedicated carnivore, underwent a kind of Damascene conversion, and declared that henceforth he would subsist mainly on vegetables. (This was accompanied, naturally, by a book and TV series.) In a less showy way, Nigel Slater trod a similar path with his two-volume cookbook Tender, based on produce from his garden. And then there’s Yotam Ottolenghi, whose “new vegetarian” Guardian column and vegetable cookbook Plenty have had nearly as much impact on middle class cooking habits as the River Café books did back in the 90s.

Ottolenghi, who comes from Israel, is a culinary hybridist, borrowing rampantly from many cuisines to create a cooking style all his own. His eponymous London restaurants (he has four) embody a modernist informality, with their stark white communal tables and rows of sumptuously presented, ready-prepared dishes. Speaking on the phone, Ottolenghi tells me that he finds the challenge of vegetarian cooking quite different from that of cooking meat, which has “more of its own savoury, umami flavour. So it doesn’t take much to make it delicious. All you need to do is put it on a grill and season it. With vegetables, to make something really satisfying takes a bit more attention and effort.”

He adds, though, that the options become much greater if one doesn’t stick rigidly to vegetarianism—something in keeping with the new “flexitarian” approach. “For example, in parts of Asia, you get a lot of use of shrimp paste, which can be used sparingly but has a very strong taste—so you don’t need to eat a cow to get all those fantastic flavours. It comes from something that is more easily available and more ecological.”

Most haute cuisine establishments in Britain now offer vegetarian tasting menus, something very few did a few years ago. A recent visit to the Ledbury, a Michelin two-starred restaurant in Notting Hill, became a compare-and-contrast exercise in how successful this could be: while I had the normal tasting menus based on meat and fish, my wife had the vegetarian one, and allowed me to plunder liberally from her plate. Although her menu was imaginative and faultlessly executed, many of the dishes, when set alongside the richer flavours of mine, did seem underpowered, as if lacking something.

Given its reliance on great depth of flavour, vegetarian haute cuisine may always struggle to hit the heights. But elsewhere, certainly, even if the future isn’t vegetarian, it will surely involve considerably less meat.