You're a what now? It can, despite the growing prevalence of veganism here in the UK, feel a little vulnerable, announcing yourself as a vegan.
Some people think it’s a dirty word. Saying ‘I follow a plant-based diet’ is a bit easier. Forewarning a restaurant or a host that you’d prefer a meat and dairy-free option feels safe enough, although the awareness that many non-vegan home cooks would find such a demand difficult to cater for can be confronting. But the truth of the matter is that many people feel awkward, uneasy, apologetic or embarrassed to be vegan; when, if anything, they should be bursting with pride. Where exactly does the shame lie? In making a choice not to cause suffering to another living being? In caring for the environment? In making a sacrifice for the greater good? It’s difficult to think of another scenario whereby someone would feel shamed for doing only good; but for many vegans, hostility, shame, mocking and disgust are regular responses to their lifestyle choice. So, let me begin with this disclaimer; we are vegans, these are our experiences, and we are sharing the un-learning and learning that we have done in the hope that it might inspire others to take the first step into enjoying a plant-based diet or a vegan lifestyle; not to shame anyone into submission. It wasn’t that long ago that we were enjoying meaty meals and thought oat milk was a bit too funky for us, after all.
When asked whether they had any regrets about turning vegan, every vegan I know answered “I only wish I’d done it sooner.” I, too, wish I had done it sooner; but we did the best we could with the information that we had, and unfortunately a lot of that information was wrong. My partner and I used to be passionate consumers of meat and dairy products; we had perfected our reverse-sear technique for our weekly steaks, we enjoyed fine cheeses from tiny shops and dairies around the world, we devoured chicken wings and roasted lamb shanks and grilled fish. It makes me feel physically unwell to think about now; how we so flippantly consumed what we thought we were ‘supposed’ to consume without a second thought as to what we were actually doing, which was causing suffering and death to hundreds of animals, damaging our own bodies, and paying for the destruction of the planet. We thought the milk we drank would make our bones strong and protect our teeth, we thought the only way to get iron and vitamin B12 was from meat, we thought because we have canine teeth in our mouth that we must be intended to tear into flesh and digest red meat. We bought meat labelled as ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ and reassured ourselves that the animals had been humanely slaughtered; that they had lived a good life and that this was natural; it was all natural, and it was all normal. It wasn’t natural, but it was normal to live this way because we were all subjected, from early childhood and via our parents who had received the same message, to near constant marketing from the meat and dairy giants who are so dependent on us consuming living creatures.
We know more now. We know - and this is public, scientific knowledge, not vegan propaganda - that red meat causes cancer. We know that the only diet which can reverse heart disease is a plant-based diet. We know that calcium is just as easily obtainable via green leafy vegetables and tofu as it is from cows milk, without the undesirable side effects which come from consuming said cows milk. We know that there are an abundance of vegan iron-rich foods, and vegan B12 sources, and more than enough protein to go round without so much as looking sideways at another animal. My partner, an Olympic athlete, started getting regular personal bests in his testing after adopting a vegan diet. I saw relief from several aspects of the chronic illness which has plagued much of my life. I have to follow a gluten-free diet owing to having coeliac disease and have found this relatively simple to do alongside veganism. The United Nations has been encouraging people to adopt a plant-based diet, citing it as the most efficient way for all of us, as individuals, to slow climate change. We have the enormous privilege, living in the UK and having a huge range of nutritious food at our fingertips, of choosing substitutes over animal products. And yet, despite all of this, so many aren’t willing to consider the idea. Perhaps the animal welfare aspects or the health benefits aren’t of interest, or they’ve fallen prey to ‘climate change defeatism’ and have accepted their, and the rest of the planet’s, fate; and we have all been there. It’s very rare to find someone of our generation who has always been a vegan, who has never had or used an animal product, because it simply wasn’t ‘normal’. Now, however, more and more children are being raised as vegans - our (thriving, strong, smart, and happy) children included - and among younger generations, it’s becoming increasingly abnormal to consume animal products, because we are empowered with the knowledge that it is in the best interests of our health, the animals, and the planet to avoid doing so.
So it’s difficult not to sing the praises of a plant-based diet; we have encountered no obstacles in terms of practicality, finance or enjoyment, and we have been reaping the rewards, and so of course we want to encourage others to do the same. Not a day goes by in the office where we aren’t sharing recipes, raving about our dinner the night before, sharing delicious snacks or daydreaming about what we would like to eat next. Our enjoyment of food, flavour, and cooking itself, has sky-rocketed - all thanks to having to be a little more adventurous in our everyday habits.
Take, for example, our standard lunches and dinners pre-veganism. Cheese or meat-filled sandwiches, beef bolognese and pasta, stir fries, risottos, roast meats and vegetables, meat stews, meat curries, salads, cows yogurts and ice cream, eggs and bacon for breakfast; whether we were being healthy or treating ourselves, the main focus of each meal was a significant amount of meat and/or dairy. When seeking out replacements, we weren’t enthralled by the idea of a cold, damp, flavourless block of tofu replacing the flavourful chicken pieces in our stir fry - who would be?! Just as we wouldn’t want a cold, unseasoned lump of chicken on our plate! We wanted flavour; but we needed the protein, the iron and the calcium in which tofu is extraordinarily rich (more so than chicken, as an aside). Just a quick Google search later, we were armed with tofu recipes; and we haven’t looked back since. Crispy tofu with a peppery Cambodian Lok Lak sauce, both tangy and sweet all at once, on a bed of fresh tomatoes and crunchy lettuce leaves for scooping. Breakfast tofu scramble which tastes almost identical to scrambled eggs. Silken tofu dark chocolate mousse, so rich and decadent that you’d think it was made with the richest cream from angelic cows above. Rich, earthy, truffle-infused lentils with smoked tofu which tastes as if you’re sitting on a rustic Tuscan hillside at sunset. That unassuming beige block of nutrition had been transformed for us; just one of the countless vegan ingredients which we had so foolishly overlooked for decades. It just needed to be treated the same way as meat; to be given a little care and attention and cooked correctly - and, even if it isn’t cooked correctly, it won’t give you food poisoning, which is another bonus of vegan food.
A big sticking point for many people struggling with the idea of a vegan diet is cheese. I have so often heard “I couldn’t give up cheese, though” or “but don’t you miss cheese?” and the short answer is no, I don’t miss cheese, because I still have cheese. The range of delicious vegan cheeses - often with a taste and texture identical to the real thing, if you know where to look - is growing month by month and believe me when I say, we eat as much cheese as ever. Vegan cheeses tend to be made from nuts such as cashews or coconut, so they pack a nutritional punch while lacking the inflammatory agents found in all dairy foods. Blue cheese, baked camembert, barbecue-able halloumi, punchy cheddar, crumbly salty feta; there’s a vegan version of them all, along with delicious vegan butters, and, as with all plant-based foods, they’re not only widely available in supermarkets now, they’re priced similarly to their dairy counterparts.
Another sticking point for some people can be milk. It’s rather strange that nut milks and other plant-based milks are seen as strange, or icky, or weird, when we are brought up believing that it’s normal to drink the pus-containing, antibiotic-enhanced breast milk of bovines, but there we have it. For decades, the dairy industry (which is an advertising and marketing powerhouse) has touted the benefits of cow’s milk, stating that it’s the very best source of calcium and that our teeth and bones will suffer without it. Calcium is indeed an essential mineral, but it’s found in equally significant and sufficient quantities in non-dairy foods such as beans, seeds, and almonds. The problem with cow's milk is that it has actually been proven to be damaging to human health; contrary to what we have always believed, several studies, including a huge Harvard study, have shown that not only does drinking milk not help bones, it can actually put you at higher risk of bone fractures. Men who drink two or more glasses of milk per day were twice as likely to develop advanced prostate cancer than those who didn’t drink milk. The higher cancer risks associated with milk are believed to be linked to the casein protein, as well as hormones and antibiotics found in all dairy products (yes, even the organic ones; all cows receive medical intervention) and the insulin-like growth factor, which is intended for huge baby cows and instead drunk by humans.
When you look at the science and take a moment to reflect, it’s really rather strange that we drink cows milk. Add in the ethical dilemma - which is incredibly upsetting, so I won’t write about here, but is worth investigating - and it just makes sense to switch to a plant-based milk. Yes, you may be able to taste a very subtle difference between cow's milk and plant-milk, but within a few days, you will have adjusted, and it’s as simple as that. The already vast and ever-expanding range of plant-based milk choices is exceptional; oat, soy, hemp, cashew, almond, pea, to name but a few. For Gordon, the switch happened when he realised that using soy milk in his morning porridge actually made it taste nicer. For me, it was the sudden, sheer revulsion at the thought of cow’s milk that made making the switch a simple one.
The range of uncannily ‘meaty’ meat substitutes in supermarkets has been expanding at an incredible rate. Gone are the days of dry bean burgers and strangely textured soy substitutes; now there are burgers such as Beyond Meat burgers which char on the outside, remain pink and juicy inside, and taste just like meat (my previously carnivorous father couldn’t believe that they were vegan). There are fish substitutes, chicken wing substitutes which taste and feel like the real deal, crispy bacon, tender kebab strips, juicy sausages and even egg replacements which make vegan baking a breeze. Whatever culinary pleasures you are used to enjoying, there’s a vegan version, and that applies to all with a sweet tooth too; unbelievably creamy and decadent desserts and cakes are available not just in supermarkets but in an increasing number of exclusively plant-based bakeries, delis, cafes and restaurants which are springing up around the UK.
Meat and dairy substitutes are great, but the main revolution in how we see and prepare food has come from a back-to-basics approach with vegetables, fruit, grains, herbs and spices. After a very brief transition period during which our taste buds and brains did some adjustment, our appreciation of the bright tang of a lemon, the umami of miso paste, the earthiness of a fried mushroom, the sweetness of ripe, seasonal fruit and extraordinary combinations of spices and herbs from around the world was off-the-charts. We were eating foods from countries whose cuisine we had never sampled before, experimenting with new techniques, being bold and brave in the kitchen, and it was not only producing exquisite results, but it wasn’t taking a second longer or costing a penny more than pre-veganism cooking; in fact, our food bill has significantly reduced, as has our food wastage, while our ability to savour and appreciate new foods and flavour combinations has skyrocketed.
We truly are in the midst of a food revolution; one which could have a hugely positive effect on our planet, our health, and our mindsets. Aside from vegan food being utterly delicious, I have felt - if you’ll excuse me sounding very new-age - so incredibly at peace with myself and my place in the world since becoming a vegan. I am and always have been an animal lover; obsessed with all animals since I was a baby. And yet I would needlessly consume them, I would pay others to torture and kill them. It was a state of dissociation fostered and nurtured by the society I grew up in, terrified of anemia and protein deficiency and my teeth and bones crumbling. I’ve made myself watch the videos from ‘humane’ slaughterhouses. I’ve spent time with farm animals, I lived on a farm for some time. I’ve heard the cries of calves as they’re taken from their mothers, and the cries of the mothers for days afterwards, wondering where their babies went. I’ve seen how desperately pigs try to escape the gas chambers, fuelled by the same desire to live that we all have. I’ve researched, I’ve spoken to doctors, I’ve learned from my peers, I’ve listened to the powers-that-be who tell us to eat more plants, and I don’t have a single regret, aside from not going through the process earlier. Just today, world leaders convened at COP26 to try to find a way to save our planet; or, at least, that is our hope - that urgency and decency will override profit and power, and we will put words into action and slow climate change to a salvageable level. Going vegan, or significantly reducing the amount of animal products that you consume, is one of the most powerful ways to play your part; and the food is brilliant. I love food more than I ever have, and I love the lightness that comes with knowing that I’m not having a negative impact on the planet while I enjoy my scran.
We hope that we might have provided some encouragement; but if you’re still undecided, try one of the vegan recipes below - we have each picked a couple of favourites as well as sharing some useful resources and information.
Celeriac, Hazelnut and Truffle Soup - luxurious, impressive and warming, this winter soup makes the perfect starter to impress guests - or a surprisingly simple supper! https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/celeriac-hazelnut-truffle-soup
Tofu Lok Lak - a Marloe favourite. This Cambodian speciality is peppery, sweet, tangy, and ridiculously more-ish. https://www.mobkitchen.co.uk/recipes/tofu-lok-lak
Creamy Mushroom Miso Pasta - comforting, decadent, savoury goodness. Macaroni cheese’s sophisticated cousin. https://www.mobkitchen.co.uk/recipes/creamy-miso-mushroom-pasta
Vietnamese Bún Chay - a zingy, fresh noodle salad which makes an appearance at least twice a month in our homes. https://thewanderlustkitchen.com/vegan-bun-chay-vietnamese-noodle-salad/
Gluten-free Clementine Cake - the most moist, citrusy, addictive cake ever and zero-waste as you use several entire clementines, peel and all! https://holycowvegan.net/vegan-clementine-cake/
Vegan Chocolate Pots - Jamie Oliver’s spin on a good old chocolate pot, with a hidden ingredient or two. Nutritious, delicious and perfect for a quick-to-make dessert. https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/chocolate-recipes/vegan-chocolate-pots/
Left Coast Culture - The best vegan cheese out there, fact. Follow them on Instagram, and consider donating to their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign; Marloe wouldn’t be here without the generous support of our backers, and this one-woman-business and all-round powerhouse deserves our help. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/left-coast-culture-the-next-chapter#/