Tag Archives: discussion

Discussion: How to stay vegetarian once you’ve started

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There are probably more than a few people out there whose New Year’s Resolution was to go vegetarian or vegan. Well, that was ten days ago now and if you’re anything like me, the resolution is dissolving in the face of habit inertia and the difficulty of changing a lifestyle. So I thought I’d put together a few tips that helped me when I came over to the veggie side (we have cookies!)

1) Mouthfeel. I’ve seen many books on becoming a vegetarian and they have been full of sound nutritional advice but I don’t think I’ve seen any of them explain that how a food feels in your mouth is as important as how it tastes. If you’re used to chewing on meat, eating vegetables and pulses is not going to feel as satisfying. A veggie bean chilli is fine for one meal, but when that’s what you’re eating day in day out you need to find a way to add more chewiness to your meals. Step forward mushrooms, nuts, smoked and pressed tofus and tempeh. Keep adding these to your meals and you’ll find you won’t miss meat as much as you did. Which leads on to…

2) Meat substitutes. Veggie sausages. Quorn chicken pieces. Soy mince. These get looked down on by the foodies, veggie and otherwise. Somehow you’re not doing it properly if you’re eating something that resembles meat, you should be embracing the totality and purity of vegetables. Listening to various cooking and food programmes, I have come to the conclusion that there is no more fervent advocate of a puritan approach to vegetarianism than a meat eater. This is the phenomenon of meatsplaining, where a meat eater explains to the veggie just what they should be eating. Not everybody likes or wants meat substitutes and not everybody likes all of them, but no one should feel ashamed for eating them. The only standard for being a vegetarian is ‘Are you eating a bit of a dead animal?’ if the answer to that is ‘No’ then you’re a vegetarian. You set your own standards after that and you are answerable to no one except yourself. Which reminds me…

3) Everyone makes mistakes. Bits of dead animal get into all sorts of food you wouldn’t expect – cheese, sweets, desserts. Sometimes you don’t know. Sometimes you forget. Sometimes you don’t check. I went vegan for November. On the first workday in December it was someone’s birthday in the office and they bought some sweets and cakes in. I had eaten several rocky road bites (they were small) before I remembered that they contain marshmallow which contains gelatine. So not only had I stopped being vegan I’d stopped being vegetarian. Ooops. So what do you do in that situation? Stop eating them and remember not to do it again. Something I learned at a Slimming World class – Don’t let a bad meal become a bad day. Don’t let a bad day become a bad week. Don’t let a bad week make you give up altogether. Of course if someone deliberately gives you meat and doesn’t tell you that’s their guilt not yours. And if it gives you an upset stomach you are fully entitled to fart next to them. And that’s another thing…

4) Farting. It happens. If you’ve gone vegetarian the chances are you’re adding more fibre to your diet and your digestive system has to get used to not having meat to work on. This can produce gas and you may notice that you’re moving to some of the higher numbers on the Bristol Stool Scale. If you think things are moving too quickly as it were, try white bread, rice, potato and pasta as the carb content of meals to calm things down. Generally people are advised to drink more water. Mint and fennel teas can also help as they’re well-known herbal digestive remedies. In extreme cases try something like Colpermin or other over-the-counter remedies for irritable bowel syndrome. As your gut adjusts to your new diet you should find the symptoms decrease. Of course, if you get worried, go see your GP about it.

5) Feeling hungry. This is pretty normal. Your body is used to you eating in one way and now you’re presenting it with another. The eating patterns that used to work may not satisfy you any more. You might have to switch from three big meals a day to four or five smaller ones. I have found that I generally need a snack about 4pm most days. There is also some evidence that eating olive oil can help you feel full. Also, keep an eye on your nutrition. You don’t need to turn into a qualified dietitian, but try and make sure you’re covering the bases over the course of a week. In my opinion, it’s impossible to eat too many green leafy vegetables. Oh, and don’t worry if you don’t suddenly feel more alive and bursting with energy after going vegetarian. I’ve seen that promise made several times on various vegetarian forums. It never happened to me. It doesn’t happen to everyone and you’re not doing it wrong if it doesn’t happen to you.

6) Being the only vegetarian in the village. Some studies have put the number of vegetarians in the UK as about 10% of the population. That’s a sizeable minority, but it is a minority and it’s easy sometimes to feel alone in this new venture in your life. There are vegetarian and vegan groups that meet up regularly. The Vegetarian Society, The Vegan Society and Viva! all have groups listed on their webpages. If, like me, you’re not that into groups then there are plenty of vegetarian/vegan communities and forums on the internet where you can find advise and contact. Also, look out for vegetarian/vegan festivals -the biggest are Veg Fest but you can also find local ones out there as well.

That’s it for the advice. Good luck. Being vegetarian/vegan is a good thing to be for yourself, for animals and for the planet. It’s well worth persevering with and if you need advice or general pompom waving please ask in the comments. And enjoy it! It shouldn’t be a penance. It’s OK to laugh and have fun along the way.

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Discussion: Hobson’s Vegetarian – when the vegetarian option is Hobson’s choice

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Let me set a scenario for you. A person goes out for a meal at a restaurant. When they look at the menu they make a choice of starter and main course. Allowing for personal likes and dislikes, they will usually choose a main that contrasts with their starter in main ingredient, texture or cooking method. So they won’t have salad for both courses, or pasta for both courses, or cheese, or fish. They’ll mix and match.

If you just read that scenario and nodded your head in recognition that, yes, this is how eating out works for you, then the chances are you’re not a vegetarian. With the honourable exception of Italian, Indian and some other ethnic cuisines, a vegetarian at a mainstream restaurant will have a choice of about 2-3 starters and 1-2 mains (and it’s much more likely to be 2 and 1!)

So the choice is limited and remember that contrasting tastes and textures thing? It doesn’t happen so much for vegetarians. There’s a little restaurant not far from me. It’s current menu has two vegetarian starters – arancini with leeks and blue cheese or deep fried bri wedges with cumberland sauce, the one vegetarian main course is macaroni cheese. That’s cheese or cheese followed by cheese. They have actually expanded their vegetarian options. Last year the vegetarian options were garlic mushrooms for starter and wild mushroom casserole for main.

OK, you can laugh at them, and I do. I also haven’t stepped through their door. They’re a small, local restaurant with no apparent ambitions beyond good write-ups on TripAdvisor. Peace to all such!

But that clueless restaurant got me thinking. What is it like for veggies at the higher end of the market, where the restauranteurs court reviews from broad-sheet restaurant critics. What’s it like where Jay Rayner & Giles Coren go to dine?

Well, here’s a real menu I found (name withheld to protect the guilty):

Starters
SautÈed Razor Clams, Kohlrabi, Pineapple, Wasabi and Coriander
Chargrilled Quail, Green Papaya Salad and Peanut Sauce (£1 Supp)
Pressed Skate, Saffron, Dill, Radish and Tomato Emulsion
Globe Artichoke, Dandelion, Parmesan Custard, Truffle and Honey,
Red Pepper Gazpacho, Feta, Toasted Hazelnut, Dried Olives, Capers and Basil
Frogs Legs, Smoked Garlic, Pickled Fennel and Lemon Mascarpone

Mains
Fillet of Beef, Buttered Potato, White Onion, Roasted Bone Marrow and Parsley Butter (£6 Supp)
Roast Monkfish, Spiced Lentils, Beetroot Raita, Shallot Pakora, Tomato and Cardamom Sauce
Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, Crispy Pigs Trotter, Black Pudding, Sweet Potato and Cider
Duck Breast, Confit Duck Roll, Butternut Squash, Runner Beans, Soy and Blackberries
Open Ravioli, Goats Cheese, Chargrilled Summer Vegetables, Toasted Pine Nuts, Oregano, Confit Tomatoes
Fish of the Day

Look at the ambition in that menu! Individually each course makes your mouth water. But for a vegetarian, that’s a starter with feta followed by goats cheese. I strongly suspect that the restaurant thinks that there are two vegetarian starters, but parmesan hasn’t been vegetarian for years!

Well, that’s one menu. Is it representative? To find out I went and looked. I took as my sample restaurant reviews in The Guardian, The Observer, The Telegraph and The Independent websites for August 2013. I went to the restaurant websites and looked at their menus. Where there was a dinner or a al carte menu I counted the number of vegetarian starters and main courses they offered, noting how many of those included goats’ cheese or other cheese. I did a quick check to see if any set menus had veggie options as well. I also counted whether a ‘V’ next to a menu item was accurate as well.

These are the reviewed restaurants that had a website with a current, or sample, menu:
The Honours, Caisse-Croute, Whyte&Brown, Le Champignon Sauvage, Hutong, Rock Lobsta, Blue Boar Smokehouse, Grain Store, Otto’s, Fleet Street Kitchen, The Green Room, Plum + Spilt Milk, Shoryu Ramen, River Cottage Canteen, Paesan, Picture, La Famiglia, The Olde Bell, 63, Manchester, Rockfish, Hartnett Holder & Co, The Dairy, Taqueria, The Kitchin, Van Zeller.

I have not contacted any of these restaurants for clarification or explanation. I’ve treated this exercise as I would if I was looking for a restaurant I wanted to visit. A restaurant’s website is the face they want to present to the world as much as their restaurant front window. If they choose to present a face that’s unfriendly to vegetarians I’m going to take them at their word.

There were 25 restaurants that I examined. Of the dinner and set menus, there were 475 main courses in total, 75 (16%) of which were vegetarians and 43 (57%) of those that contained cheese. There were 291 starters, 90 (30%) of which were were vegetarian and 39 (43%) involving cheese. Now 16% vegetarian main courses is ahead of the game considering that only about 10% of the population is vegetarian but that vegetarian population does have to like cheese.

Speaking of cheese, 7 restaurants only offered mains that contained cheese and 5 offered only cheese based starters. And, yes, there was 1 that offered only cheese as a starter and a main course.

On another cheese related tack, 13 restaurants marked the vegetarian items on their menus. A scary 5 (that’s nearly 39%) were inaccurate about what constitutes vegetarian – mostly this was to do with parmesan cheese being thought suitable. The only way to deal with this is to be that vegetarian and interrogate the waiter at every meal. You cannot assume anything from the menu. One restaurant offered ‘Sourdough bread with smoked butter’. Sound innocuous enough, but the review of this place nonchalantly praised the smoked bone marrow that gave it such a wonderful flavour!

6 places (that’s nearly 25%) offered no vegetarian main course and a further 5 offered only one choice. Hobson’s vegetarian indeed. A couple of places said that they would do something special if a vegetarian asked before arriving, but gave no indication of an example of what this might be. One place, which offered not a single, solitary vegetarian option either as starter or main, would do a ‘surprise’ vegetarian tasting menu (the surprise being that you have no clue what they think constitutes ‘vegetarian’) as long as the whole table ordered it. So, they expect a bunch of vegetarians to turn up mob-handed and order, sight unseen, a very expensive meal. I can only guess at the take-up rate for that, I wouldn’t risk it.

This makes me sad and angry. Angry because it looks like a substantial minority of the chefs at these restaurants just don’t care about vegetarians. It makes me sad because these are the places we should be going to. These are the independents, the quality places, the individualistic ones, the ones that add difference to the high street. And if they’re not getting it right, the chains are. Nandos has a better vegetarian selection than most of the restaurants I looked at. ASK has a better selection, so does Pizza Express. I don’t know how many trips to restaurants are negotiated around vegetarian options but I know my friends do it with me and so does my office – if there isn’t a decent vegetarian option we don’t go to those places. That means a place with bad vegetarian options doesn’t just lose the custom of the vegetarian, they lose it for everyone in that party that would have spent money with them otherwise. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the chains have figures around how often that happens and have changed their menus accordingly.

Now I get that vegetarians make up, at best, only 10% of the population. I get that, in a non-specialist restaurant, only vegetarians will tend to eat the vegetarian main course. No restaurant can afford to have menu items that very few people pick. But, it shouldn’t take a genius to construct a menu with one main course that’s different to the starters. Now maybe the restaurants I looked at don’t need to worry about what vegetarians want. Maybe they don’t care. But until they do, this vegetarian will be at my local pub. It’s not posh or gourmet, but it has a separate vegetarian menu with two vegan options! That beats every single other restaurant in that list of twenty-five. They get it. What’s stopping the big guys?

Quick Bites: Arsehole Coffee

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I like good coffee and I’m in a semi-permanent search to find a type that will taste as good as it smells. On the list of coffees to try was Kopi Luwak coffee – the one that’s been eaten by an Indonesian civet cat, pooped out the other end and then the beans are roasted like normal coffee. The pre-processing in the civet cat’s digestive tract are supposed to make it taste smooth and wonderful. It has a wonderful price too at £145 a pound.

That’s a huge amount for coffee beans and I would have just written it off as another Idiot Tax, like £5000 handbags and the like, if I hadn’t read this article in The Guardian. Essentially, the demand for this coffee has changed its production from a cottage industry into something heading towards intensive farming. The civet cats are kept in small cages and force-fed the coffee beans. They have a miserable life and some endangered species of civet cat are being captured and used to produce the coffee as well.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me rage at humanity’s ability to exploit and mistreat fellow living creatures for any or no reason whatsoever.

And the worst thing is according to those who know about these things, it’s not particularly great coffee either!!

So, kopi luwak is off my list of coffees to try. I urge you, dear readers, not to buy it either. Don’t buy it for home. Don’t buy it in coffee shops and restaurants. If you’re not a vegetarian but wouldn’t eat foie gras, don’t drink this coffee either. I don’t want cruelty-flavoured coffee and I’m guessing most people won’t want to either.

Vegan Bingo

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It’s amazing how threatened some people are by vegans. It just seems to get people all riled up and they just have to tell you their opinion on it.

Case in point this post on a skeptical blog I frequent: http://skepchick.org/2012/03/waiter-theres-a-bug-in-my-frappuccino/.

You can practically play Vegan Bingo on the comments, but it’s particularly notable for the concept comment Marilove has, that insects aren’t animals, so vegans should eat them.

There’s a follow-up post now: http://skepchick.org/2012/04/guest-post-on-being-vegan-and-a-skeptic/ , presumably from a non-threatening vegan. Comments are reasonable so far, but it’s early days yet, so I hopes for more insanity down the line.