Raw deal! The vendetta waged against vegetarians

A new survey reveals that diners who don't eat meat are dished up a poor choice by high street restaurants. But it's all too true, says Martin Hickman, our consumer affairs correspondent, who became a vegetarian 18 years ago and is fed up with being offered boring cheese bakes...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A lack of effort and imagination characterises the failing of vegetarian food in Britain.

It isn't a problem of availability, generally. Apart from the countryside, pubs, or an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse, you can almost always find something a vegetarian can eat.

No, the problem is that the lone, sad "vegetarian option" is there because the restaurant is expecting to serve a lone, sad vegetarian. It is not meant to be delicious; it is perfunctory it ticks the box.

Some restaurants will put on something more adventurous than a boring cheese bake or stir-fry, even two or three dishes that stray beyond the everyday into the flavoursome, using cutting-edge ingredients like pulses, nuts, or fungi. The Michelin-starred eateries have to make an effort, even if their menu is overwhelmingly carnivorous.

But, as Ethical Consumer magazine has found in a new survey, most high street restaurants are emphatically unimpressive when it comes to vegetarian food. The author, Sarah Irving, writes in the January edition: "Vegetarianism is a fairly mainstream dietary choice nowadays... so it is surprising and depressing how poorly vegetarians and especially vegans are served in chain restaurants."

She described many options, especially those at Hard Rock and Loch Fyne restaurants, as, "unimaginative and nutritionally limited".

This is no surprise to anyone who is either not tempted by or fundamentally objects to a succulent, juicy steak. Most chains have only one or two bland non-meat mains displaying their green V-signs alongside the pork chops, lamb cutlets, beef wellington and Thai green curry chicken.

Which is fine, if you're not fussy. Which, of course, is precisely what we vegetarians, with our insistence on changing everything to suit us and our pesky no-slaughter policy, are meant to be. Isn't it enough that there is something to eat? What more do we want? A choice? Why are vegetarians always asking if the cheese is made from animal rennet or the jelly from gelatine? Why can't we just be like everybody else?

There are many reasons why we can't; and they can be very personal. Not all vegetarians inhabit or want to inhabit the moral high ground. Personally, I stopped eating meat 18 years ago (around about the time I cleverly started smoking). I'd always been uneasy about having gristle and bones littering the dining table and cooking for myself made me confront something that had always troubled me: surely it wasn't right to kill animals for the sake of my palette when there was an alternative?

I did, however, continue to eat fish, partly because I felt less strongly about them and partly to make it easier for myself. Now, I justify it on the basis that at least most fish live wild before they end up on the plate.

Are vegetarians disliked? Being a pescatarian earns both the disapproval of strict vegetarians and the suspicion of meat-eaters. Meat-eaters ask how I can resist a bacon sandwich or a steak (easily) and wait for the expected propaganda, or the disapproval when the steak arrives.

As it happens, I don't mind other people eating meat. After all, human beings are omnivores. What bothers me is factory farming. In 2007, more than 90 per cent of broiler chickens are so freakishly reared they can barely stand up. Some 88 per cent of factory pigs have their tails cut off... I could go on.

The upside in 2007, though, is that I can order more veggie food in restaurants (though, of course, now I cannot smoke.) The rise in veggie food does not stem from the goodness of chefs' hearts. Many hold that people who do not eat meat are missing out on a world of amazing flavours and textures. For them it is a matter of taste. They take vegetarianism seriously, at least on face value, because a growing proportion of the British population does not eat meat at least some of the time.

According to the Food Standards Agency's latest research, the 2006 Consumer Attitudes to Food, the number of strict vegetarians has remained steady at about two per cent of the population. But many more are not eating meat some of the time; 7 per cent of people are "partly vegetarian", meaning that 9 per cent of people sometimes or never eat meat. This makes vegetarianism the third biggest reason for not eating particular food, after medical reasons and diets to lose weight.

Why? Probably, because people dislike eating too much red meat for health reasons, but also, perhaps, because there are more veggie options. And perhaps because they are concerned about factory farming. Restauteurs provide some meals for these four million potential customers. They would lose money if they didn't.

Now, even the inebriated queuing late at night for the kebab shop can choose a veggie-burger. The chains, too, know that they must offer something. The difference is between those who try quite hard and those who barely try. Not surprisingly, vegetarian restaurants remain the best place to find food lacking sinews and muscle. Often run by dedicated vegetarians, they take the view that cooking without meat can be not only nutritious but fun and tasty.

Dining abroad can be tricky, particularly in Spain and Italy, where the concept of vegetarianism is baffling. Waiters serve up non-meat dishes with chicken or bacon; you need to scan soups for fibrous lumps.

Worse of all, though, is the awkwardness of dinner parties, where the entire meal has been skewed towards the preference of the non-meat eater.

The Spectator's former food columnist Digby Anderson considers vegetarians to be ill-mannered, as well as eccentric, because they do not reciprocate by cooking meat for their guests. "Eat with vegetarians", he writes in The English At Table, "and not only do you get second-rate food, cooked by people whose heart is not in it and who have no manners but they will regale you with diatribes about patriarchy or capitalism to go with your sloshy lentils."

Twenty restaurants that offer a tasty meat-free alternative

Ceylon Spice Company, 92, St John's Road, Liverpool

The UK's only Sri Lankan restaurant outside London, Ceylon has a Green Pea and Cashew curry and khottu roti (bread fried with carrots, leeks, onions and tomatoes).

Itsu, All over London

The sushi chain has yet to make it out of the capital, but for London-based vegetarians who eat fish, Itsu is a must. For pure vegetarians, there's always bean and kombu maki rolls and sesame spinach.

The Bay Tree, 403 Great Western Road, Glasgow

Inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, the Bay Tree's falafels, veggie burgers and fruit smoothies keep the cheap canteen-style restaurant busy all year round.

Zamzama, 163 Drummond Street, London NW1

The area's Indian restaurants are popular with local Hindus. Zamzama is particularly well known for its South Indian dosa (crispy pancakes filled with spicy potatoes).

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, All over London

We all know about their famous beefburgers, but what about the equally delicious ones made with falafel, puy lentils, Portobello mushrooms and camembert?

Woodlands Restaurant, Marylebone, Chiswick, Hampstead and Piccadilly

A popular chain of eateries serving South Indian cuisine. Don't miss Utthapam, a soft flat lentil pizza dish from Tamil Nadu.

The Nosebag, 6-8 St Michael's St, Oxford

A lovely little place to sit and contemplate among the dreaming spires. Cosy and calming, it provides plentiful salads with colourful, fresh ingredients, vegetarian quiche and cakes galore.

Ottolenghi's, London N1, W1 & W8

Yotam Ottolenghi's three cafes serve meat but maintain a 'vegetarian philosophy'. Each offers a well-stocked, imaginative salad bar as well as plenty of vegetarian a la carte options.

Vin Caffe , The Walk, Edinburgh

In 2004, the world-famous Valvona & Crolla delicatessen opened this chic eatery. Vegetarians can choose from sumptuous antipasto or go for one of the pasta, pizza, risotto or pancake dishes.

Caf Gallipoli, London N1 (x 3)

As well as traditional grilled meat options, Gallipoli customers can choose from a range of spicy vegetarian stews, delicious cheese-based pastries, salad platters or marinated pulse dishes.

Fifteen, 13 Westland Place, London

Jamie Oliver has always been an advocate of vegetarian food and his famous London restaurant is no exception to that rule. Excellent soup, salad, risotto, pasta and stews can be expected.

Pierre Victoire, Dean Street, London and Little Clarendon Street, Oxford

Who said French food meant meat and only meat? These restaurants offer good vegetarian options such as falafel with houmous and aubergine, and excellent salads.

Sandinista!, Cross Belgrave Street, Leeds

The locals swear by this cocktail-cum-tapas bar, whose South American-influenced menu and superb cocktail mixers ensure that guests leave satisfied whether vegetarian or not.

Thai Lemongrass , Edinburgh E11

The quiet Brunsfield dining room serves a range of vegetarian curries infused with rich-tasting basil, ginger, spring onion and you guessed it lemongrass.

Est Est Est, Venues nationwide

Stylish, traditional Italian cuisine, modestly priced, including a penne funghi al forno (wild mushrooms and peas in tomato and garlic sauce topped with mozzarella and breadcrumbs).

Smiths of Smithfield, 67-77 Charterhouse Street, London EC1

Despite being in the heart of London's only working meat market, there are plenty of affordable options, such as the truffled leeks with Jerusalem artichoke risotto.

Chez Gerard, Venues nationwide

Orthodox French cuisine with a wide selection of vegetarian specialities. The Burger grilled goat's cheese field mushroom, rocket and sun blushed tomatoes with pommes frites and salad.

Zizzi, Venues nationwide

Modestly priced Italian cuisine, with an open plan design. Try the fusilli alla genovese roasted peppers, roasted aubergine and mushrooms in a pesto sauce with crme fraiche

Bombay Bicycle Club, Restaurants across London

These Indian curry houses have caught on with vegetarians. The vegetable dopiaza, with mixed vegetables in yoghurt, coriander, onions, and capsicum is top-notch.

Pizza Express, Venues nationwide

Chefs at this no-nonsense Italian diner are happy to adapt pizzas for vegans: just ask. But they'll also do hearty salads, including the bosco: mozzarella, warm garlic mushrooms, avocado, and tomatoes.

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