What’s Not On The Menu? 2

CHRISTMAS HAS COME and gone once more, and once more I’m finding myself at the receiving end of moans from meat-eaters and lacto-vegetarians about tight waistbands and the need to diet.
I don’t want to sound smug, but I’m pleased to say our vegan Christmas has spared us from this problem. Which isn’t to say that we deprived ourselves. In fact, we ate extremely well, and certainly enjoyed our food, but the thing is that any excess weight seems readily shed on a vegan diet.
The reason is pretty simplistic: it seems that when you give your body real, whole foods, the body knows exactly what to do with those foods and has no problem extracting the energy for use and duly ‘processing the waste product’ once the goodness has been absorbed. In contrast, highly processed foods do not seem to enjoy this relatively short and easy passage (so to speak).
Med-RisottoHERO-e5bc93b2-f8e5-4528-9df2-b82348df75d6-0-472x310Speaking of highly processed foods, I mentioned in my last blog that I wasn’t expecting the upcoming seasonal work dinner at a café/bistro to come up trumps for its two vegan diners. No surprises there. Despite the restaurant being told at the booking stage that there would be a couple of vegan diners, clearly no thought whatsoever was put in beforehand. So much so that the 3-course set menu choices presented offered not even one vegetarian option. It was left to the (very pleasant, I might add) waitress put on the spot on the night to liaise with the chef as to what they could possibly feed us. The entrée offered (and which we of course accepted, being the polite, non apple-cart-upsetting vegans that we are) consisted of some very hard ciabatta (I don’t usually eat wheat but had to make an exception that night), a few olives and a small dipping bowl of quite nice olive oil. For the main course a vegetable risotto was suggested, and this was perfectly pleasant. Dessert we declined, since the offer of a ‘fruit smoothie’ was not one that either of us fancied after a risotto. Overall it was a fairly lame effort – which could have been far more graciously handled if 10 minutes of thought had gone into it at some time prior to us being seated at the table.
A huge leap needs to be taken in the minds of restaurateurs to accept that there are some diners (probably more than they think) who would really appreciate eating a meal that does not consist mainly of animal proteins: i.e. meat, fish, cheese, milk, cream, eggs, and often all together on the one plate! There are so many simply wonderful dishes that can be created without using any of these ingredients, if only some thought was applied.
My dear Dad was telling me the other day after we’d eaten a very simple lunch I cooked that I should write a recipe book. Now that’s going too far, but I appreciated his sentiments enormously. In all honesty though, I have never been much of a chef, and don’t think I ever will be. In fact, when I got married many moons ago the only ‘dish’ I could present was spaghetti bolognaise. On the same note, my son probably grew up thinking that Mum’s ‘baking’ was a packet of iced animal biscuit or chocolate-covered tiny teddies.
I share these little gems not to give the impression that I was perhaps a lousy wife and mother, but rather to prove that when you put your mind to something, applying thought usually results in some good ideas – meaning that If I can turn out tasty vegan meals every day, then surely any chef worth his apron could manage to do the same.
So why don’t they then? Lack of demand is the reality. There is no incentive for chefs to do anything differently, so long as the wave of diners continues to happily accept what’s currently on offer, and celebrity chefs certainly aren’t leading the charge towards healthier menus.
I continue to find the hardest thing about being vegan to be dining out, which always leads us back to the same cuisine – Thai or Indian. However, to complicate matters, I’ve decided to take a break from Indian as I’ve discovered from experience over the last few months that those lovely spices that make the food so yummy do a really great job of turning my clear o rings a pretty shade of yellow. Now, for those readers who’ve long distanced from memory any past experiences in the orthodontist’s chair, ‘o’ rings are little clear plastic caps that cover the wires on each tooth. Since I’ve splashed out on clear porcelain brackets on my 6 front teeth for sublety (okay, vanity), it doesn’t look too pretty when the o rings turn yellow. At home, I’m still managing to knock up a nice Saag Aloo and a hearty dhal using only (non-staining!) garlic, ginger and coriander for flavour – but I can’t expect my local Indian to leave out their spices for the sake of my dental ware. This small nuisance is only temporary, and it will all be worth it in the end when I can once again sport the grin of a teenager fresh from the orthodontist’s chair, to compliment my ‘vegan rejuvenation’ from the inside out.
So, In search of some different cuisine to temporarily replace a good curry, we tried a Vietnamese restaurant the other night. We’d only eaten Vietnamese once before, and were disappointed that the menu did not feature the beautifully fresh and tasty spring rolls (wrapped in dampened rice paper – not fried) which had made such an impression on us previously.
Here, as is usual at Thai restaurants, the trick seemed to be finding choices that didn’t contain fish sauce – which even many of the ‘vegetarian’ options do. None the less, the waitress was pleasant and we managed to order two meals. Our meals arrived at much the same time as those at an adjacent table and the difference in appearance couldn’t have been greater. I can best sum it up by saying that in comparison to those at the other table, our meals looked like something you would expect to be served at a health retreat in a converted monastery somewhere in the mountains of a small picturesque village with cold, airy rooms and icy water for bathing. (Amusingly, the contrast also brought to mind for me a passage in travel writer Bill Bryon’s book Neither Here Nor There, where he talked about recognising nationalities, saying that “the Danes had Carlsbergs and cream cakes, the Swedes one piece of Ryvita with a little dead fish on it.”)
Back to our meals though: the ‘veges in garlic sauce’ consisted of a plate of bokchoy and broccoli in a colourless sauce, and the ‘fried rice’ was just that, very lightly fried rice with only a tiny smattering of diced carrot and a few peas. Though I did rather enjoy the simple meal, I do wonder what other choices we might be able to select if we went again, since it was hard enough the first time.
What was a little bizarre was that when paying the bill, the waitress told hubby about another dish that is supposedly “very popular with vegetarians” and ‘’comes in a bowl with vermicelli” (a noodle soup, perhaps?). In response to his comment of not having noticed this on the menu, he was told that it isn’t on the menu. Well, I’m confused.
As difficult as it is to find vegan food when dining out, I don’t believe that ‘vegan restaurants’ are the answer. Which is good – because I don’t know of any! My reasoning for this is that since most of us dine out for social reasons, restaurants need to cater for a variety of diners. Personally, we don’t have any vegan family or friends, so when we dine out with other people we are usually the only ones choosing vegetarian/vegan options.
I will stick my neck out here and say that if meat eaters were made to go to a vegan restaurant to eat, they would not hold back in loudly declaring their feelings that the menu was lacking, and would not be easily subdued. We vegans, on the other hand, are so accustomed to being in the minority that we somehow manage to look as pleased as punch if someone says they can leave out the meat and cream and throw in a carrot. I don’t think there is an easy answer. But I do know that we need to keep asking the question – “what dishes are or can be made vegan?” And the more people who ask that question, the better. I am hopeful that as more vegetarians swing to being vegan, together we’ll have a better chance of influencing the status quo. CARRIE STEELE

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2 thoughts on “What’s Not On The Menu?

  • Gary Steel Post author

    I agree with most of what you say, Carrie; especially that it’s time for restaurants to raise their game, pull finger and, especially, get a little creative in providing tasty options for vegans, vegetarians (and others who have food intolerance issues, etc).
    What I don’t agree with is your point about preferring to eat in restaurants that have meat as well. Personally, I find it incredibly gratifying to eat in vegetarian and vegan restaurants; knowing that not only can I eat everything on the menu (what a joy!) but that the kitchen won’t be polluted with any meat. And more importantly, that there won’t be any kitchen cross-contamination, as often happens. There are a few restaurants that have completely separate kitchen space and utensils for cooking vegan (the Heritage hotel, for instance), but they’re few and far between.
    The other thing is: Why should we bend over backwards for meat eaters? Why can’t they eat at vegan or vegetarian restaurants occasionally? Do they have to eat meat at every single meal?

  • Carrie Steele

    Thanks Gary, it’s always good to hear another point of view. Just to clarify though, it’s not that I prefer to eat in meat eating restaurants at all, far from it. In my ideal ‘Sim City’, I would prohibit all animal products from consumption and then sit back and bask in the glory of my decision 🙂 However, in reality, I feel that the first step towards acknowledgement of vegans is for ALL restaurants to start offering options on the menu, rather than us having to drive for miles every time we want to eat out. This is really the point I was making on the issue of restaurant choices. On the North Shore strictly vegan or even vegetarian restuarants are pretty scarce (I actually don’t know of any) and as an apartment dweller living in a CBD who likes to walk as many places as possible, I don’t relish having to hop into the car every time I fancy eating out, when I am surrounded by restuarants already. Thank heavens for a couple of excellent Thai restaurants near home!