When it comes to veganism, Whole Foods ain’t playing around. And the Piccadilly Circus superstore is a proper plant-based day out. I walk the aisles in a daze. Picking up gourmet supermarket gold like Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten, Follow Your Heart Garlic Aioli Vegenaise, Cocofina Coconut Aminos and Crosstown Doughnuts to go.
Predictably, the store’s on-the-go vegan food is just as lavish, decadent, and most importantly, imaginative. Instead of chickpea flatbreads and onion bhajis I found a dreamy-sounding smoky bacon maple tempeh, tomato, guacamole and cheeze option on a ciabatta roll. And I think I might have just discovered my new favourite sandwich.
If you haven’t tried tempeh yet, do it. It’s like tofu, only meatier. And when it’s smoked, glazed in maple syrup and served up like bacon – with melted vegan cheese and guacamole – oh man. It’s like a little soy based, Indonesian vegan dream. And the fact that the sandwich is hot is a massive novelty as well. What a treat.
I remember when Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers were far-off Instagram fantasy posts by U.S. vegan celebs. They seemed unreal. Like “liquid smoke” and Field Roast sausages. Nice, in theory. But too fantastical to ever imagine cooking at home. Then I remembered it’s 2019. And plant-based dreams do come true. Every week.
Recently, Tesco beefed up its vegan meat options BIG time. Adding new plant-based sections in superstores across the country. And two of the stars of the show are chilled (not frozen) Beyond Burger patties and the, until very recently, fabled Beyond Sausage.
A couple weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton’s new restaurant, Neat Burger, became the first vegan burger joint in the U.K. to add Beyond Sausage to the menu. Halo Burger soon followed. And now here we are. Beyond Sausage. In Tescos. In my kitchen. Ready to go.
Until now, finding convincing plant-based sausage alternatives has been hit or miss. And mostly miss. Sainsbury’s has a good mushroom-based chorizo option. Heck’s Bollywood Bangers are tasty, but very plant-based. Fry’s Smoked Hot Dogs are decent, when dressed properly. And that’s about it, really. Tofurky? No worky.
The Beyond Sausage, on the other hand, is a proper game changer. It tastes just like the real thing. Not a strip of spiced cauliflower and pulses, or a chorizo-flavoured shroomdog. When I tried Neat Burger’s Neat Sausage I literally could not believe it. The Beyond Sausage tastes like an actual grilled beef sausage. Like South African boerewors.
The first time I cooked them at home I kept things simple. Rolls. Mustard. Ketchup. Fried onions. But the second time I went all out. I made a caramelised onion and balsamic vinegar gravy. A creamy potato root mash. And grilled the sausages like bangers. It was incredible. A new permanent addition to my weekly cooking rota.
“Make veganism radical again.” That’s what a friend of mine posted on Instagram. Followed by a photo of him sitting, smugly, in a hip vegan restaurant, eating a gourmet, plant-based hotdog with some hip vegan buddies. All good. What is making veganism radical again, however, is Ben & Jerry’s new range of non-dairy ice creams.
Netflix and chill – with a frozen tub of Ben & Jerry’s, of course – had become a thing of the past. An old indulgence I’d all but forgotten. A dream I’d just about relinquished. That was, until I spotted a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Non-Dairy Ice Cream in my local ASDA. Radical.
I know I say this a lot but I really could not believe my luck. To me, the non-dairy version of the classic Ben & Jerry’s flavour tastes even better than the real thing. There’s just something about it. The flavours are richer. The chocolate’s more decadent. And the ice cream’s even more luxurious. Somehow, it tastes more small batch. More-carefully put together. Like Ben and Jerry actually have something to prove again. It’s irresistible.
I’ve tried the vegan Peanut Butter & Cookies vanilla ice cream option as well. And it’s just as good as its non-dairy counterparts. But if you’re anything like me, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is way more enjoyable with a tub of chocolate, fudge and brownie-based ice cream and a big spoon. Now I’m on the lookout for the latest addition to the vegan range, the gorgeous-sounding caramel number, Cookies On Cookie Dough. Remember vegan kids; don’t give up on your plant-based dreams.
Man, I used to LOVE döner kebabs and lamb shawarmas on a big night out. Not the ones that look like a compressed elephant’s leg. Proper ones. Like Woody Grill, Camden or Beirut Canteen, New Cross. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t crave them. AT all! But imagine if you could recreate the experience, without killing any baby sheep or torturing cows. Cue magical, plant-based döner kebab (and tzatziki and baklava) pioneers What the Pitta!. Who show us, yet again, that anything’s possible.
The first time I tried one I couldn’t believe it. Before I ordered, I kept asking the cashier, “Is the tzatziki vegan?” “Yes.” “Garlic sauce?” “Yes.” “Chilli sauce?” “Yes.” “Baklava?” “Mate, it’s all vegan. What do you want?”
The spiced soya “meat” is incredible. The texture’s mind-bendingly convincing. Somehow, it even has that same tasty, chargrilled lamb edge you’d expect from a great döner kebab. The salad options are perfect too. Diverse, colourful and delicious. The wraps are all fresh and made in-store. The hummus and chilli sauce get the flavour party started. And the soya-yoghurt tzatziki completes the dream. I’m in doner kebab heaven – without any dead animals.
What the Pitta started out at The Pump in Shoreditch in 2016. Now they’re in Shoreditch, Croydon, Camden and Brighton. The Boxpark, Shoreditch store’s like a shining vegan oasis, or meat-free sanctuary, surrounded by some of the fleshiest restaurants in London – its neighbour, Salt Shed, smells more like a butchery than a fast food restaurant. Encouragingly, though, What the Pitta!’s always packed. But that’s not surprising. I can’t recommend the place enough. If you still think vegans eat salad, hummus and chickpeas, wrap your lips around a What the Pitta! vegan döner. You won’t believe until you try.
I remember when Beyond Meat first launched the Beyond Burger in the U.K. Before mega-chains like Honest Burgers, Byron and BrewDog were serving them on tap the patties were meant to be available at Tesco stores across London. I looked for them. A lot. Months apart. At several jumbo stores. But I never found any*.
So Beyond Burgers became a novelty. A mysterious treat I enjoyed at dreamy joints like Halo Burger, Vurger and Co., and most recently, Neat Burger. Until I found a pack of two in Whole Foods, Piccadilly Circus’ frozen vegetarian section and kicked down that vegan fourth wall, with added Follow Your Heart Pepper Jack cheese slices and SGAIA’S Streaky Mheat Rashers. Burger night would never be the same again.
I couldn’t believe it. In my own kitchen. The packaging looked so unassuming. Like I’d bought any old Vivera, Linda McCartney, supermarket brand “soy protein” burgers. Not Beyond Burgers. Not the real, “bleeding-vegan” deal.
“Made from plants. Soy free. Gluten free.” So what is it? Pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil and refined coconut oil. Mostly. Plus “two percent” or less experimental vegan science like bamboo cellulose, vegetable glycerine and methylcellulose (and a bunch of extracts, acids and other things you’d probably rather not know too much about).
Still, in moderation, Beyond Burgers are meant to be healthier than processed beef. And of course, ethically and environmentally there’s no comparison. If meat is murder (and it is), Beyond Meat is a life saver. Interestingly, although they’re processed, some nutritionists don’t even classify the patties as junk food. Either way, one thing I’ve never had is the vegan meat sweats.
Just like any regular beef burger, you have to know what you’re doing when it comes to cooking Beyond Burgers. You can’t just throw them on the pan, poke them around a bit and hope for the best. Just ask Honest Burgers. There’s an art to a good Beyond Burger.
As someone who liked his burgers medium to well-done, I like to cook my vegan burgers more or less the same. And even then, there’s an art. Between overcooking and drying it out and cooking it just right, so it’s not bloody but it’s still juicy and full of flavour. And let me tell you, I nailed it.
Just before serving I fried up my vegan rashers, laid my cheese slices on my patties under the grill and dressed my bun with lettuce, vegan mayo, sriracha mayo, ketchup, mustard and pickles. Then I popped the melted cheese-topped patties on the lettuce side of the buns, crossed two bacon strips over them and neatly positioned the sauce side of the bun on top. I was in vegan burger heaven. Not quite Halo Burger good. But way better than Honest Burgers. So a winning start, really…
* looks like the burgers are available from Tesco online. But who buys groceries online, right?
I used to think it was weird that vegans and vegetarians were so into “fake” meat. Now I get it. It’s how we were raised. It’s comforting. It’s convenient. The unshakeable evolution of the human fast food diet. And besides, nobody gives up bacon because they don’t like the taste. We do it because it’s cruel, it’s unhealthy and it’s killing the planet.
I have tried a few meat, dairy and egg-free bacon alternatives since I went vegan. And unsurprisingly, some of them taste like dry, “hickory flavoured” cardboard. But there is hope for plant-based foodies craving that perfect, juicy, smokey bacon taste on burgers, pancakes and scrambled tofu.
They really do look the part. The uncooked rashers are “juicier” and more bacon-like than Upton’s, and even This Isn’t Bacon. And when you pop them in a hot pan with a splash of oil, the sizzles, crackles and smells are perfect. Close enough to trigger the feels, yet different enough to not smell like actual dead flesh cooking – which now grosses me out, a lot.
I tried the rashers in toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches and on burgers, and I’m definitely hooked. They’re crispy, chewy and bacon-thick. The taste’s fantastic as well. Salty. Smokey. With a hint of sweet maple – thanks to the combination of beech wood liquid smoke, molasses and maple syrup. Next time I think I’ll cook up a vegan carbonara. Mmm…
Now this one is straight out of vegan dreamland. A sign that veganism might have reached some kind of monumental tipping point. Where anything is seemingly possible.
Recently, I was talking to a friend, who asked me if there was anything I missed since I’d gone vegan. And because I grew up in South Africa the only two things I could think of were biltong and mutton curry bunny chows. Turning bunny chows vegan was never going to be a problem, but biltong seemed like a plant-based pipe dream not worth holding on to.
Then, a few days later, I saw a bag of Kings Black Bean Veggie Jerky dangling from a shelf at eye-level in the coffee aisle of my local ASDA. A light shone down through the cobwebs on the rafters. Like a sign from the vegan gods. If you dream it, it will come.
To be honest, initial excitement aside, I wasn’t expecting much from my tiny bag of “marinated air-dried strips of vegan protein.” It was more of a novelty buy. But they really surprised me. They’re just so tasty and moreish. A perfect light “pub snack.” In fact, I could do with a bag right now.
The soya strips have got great texture as well, but they’re not as chewy as biltong. I guess that’s why it’s called veggie jerky. Right. But for a former biltong fan it’s as close as I’ve come for a very long time. There’s only about five pieces in each bag. So it’s all over in minutes. But it’s a great few minutes. There’s an Eastern BBQ version out there as well, which I’ll be trying real soon.
The relatively new Bermondsey branch of deep-fried risotto ball pioneers Arancini Brothers is a bright orange all-vegan joint on the starting line of Maltby Street Market. Only it’s open all day. Seven days a week. Serving vegan cake, croissants and sausage rolls. And burgers. And loaded risotto ball pots. And paprika fries. And eggplant tomato sauce. I could go on.
All-vegan fast food employees must get tired of answering the same dumb questions about the menu. “Yes, the smoky chorizo is vegan.” “No, there’s no egg in the special mayo.” “Yes, the cheese is all plant-based.” But it’s just like it is in the memes. You stand there dumbstruck for a second. Spellbound. “You mean, I can order anything? ”
I’ve been a few times since that first visit, so I play it a lot cooler these days. And everything I’ve tried is delicious. I always throw in a side of citrus and mushroom zucchini risotto balls and load up on special mayo and eggplant sauce. But the tastiest thing I’ve tried so far is the CHorizo burger. Smoky cHorizo, deep-fried risotto burger patty, cheese, crispy onions, chilli sauce, mayo. And yes, it’s all vegan.
The burger itself is a straight-up knockout. Pure vegan fried decadence. Crispy and gooey in all the right places. The special mayo. The spicy kick of sriracha. The crunch. Oh man, the crunch. And the blissful, sticky juiciness of it all. I was literally licking my fingers and scooping up every last crumb. Wishing I had more risotto balls to dunk in my last drop of special mayo.
The rapidly evolving world of vegan pizza is a gamut of good, bad and fugly. Some pizza makers think all you have to do to is remove the cheese and throw in a bunch of random roasted vegetables. Or falafel.
But luckily, times are a-changin’. Fast. And Camden and Brighton-based Purezza is one of the most-exciting new-age pioneers leading the plant-based pizza revolution.
Purezza’s mission is simple; to make their plant-based food superior to similar non-vegan alternatives. To do this, head chef Filippo Rosato spent more than two years in his “lab,” working with Italian brown rice to create cheese “tastier than traditional mozzarella.”
Ridiculous, right? Bet it didn’t seem so ridiculous in 2018, when Rosato’s Parmigiana Party creation (red tomato base, smoked mozzarella, aubergine parmigiana, crumbled soya sausage and a dusting of nutritional yeast) won National Pizza of the Year at the National Pizza Awards.
On top of its signature mozzarella, the multi-award winning, all-vegan Italian restaurant also offers raw cashew, ricotta style and creamy coconut cheese. And apparently, they all take ages to make.
We got to the Camden branch of Purezza late after a gig. Ten minutes before closing. So my bandmate Daryn and I quickly ordered a sourdough Parmigiana Party to share and sat down. Needless to say. This panicked decision is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
Because, believe me when I tell you that the fabled Parmigiana Party literally melts in your mouth. Even now, I’m salivating just thinking about it. The textures. The flavours. How they complement each other perfectly, blending into one gooey, heavenly, Neapolitan-style bite after another. Until it’s all gone. Way too fast. And the shop’s closed. And you have to go home. And you live miles away in south east London. And you wish you could go back in time, order one each, some Courgetti Spaghetti and a Cheesesteak Calzone.
Disappointment at my own lack of foresight aside, Purezza more than lived up to the hype. In fact, the Parmigiana Party blew my mind. The crumbly, ‘nduja-like texture of the sausage. The fluffy, freshly singed crust. The rich, cheese-soaked centre. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best pizza I’ve ever tasted and I can’t wait to go back and try them all. According to Daryn, who’s pescaterian – for transparency’s sake – it was as good as the pizzas he had at Strarita and Sorbillo in Naples.
Excitingly, for vegan pizza’s improved credibility’s sake, Purezza is competing in the 2019 World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy from April 9-11. They’ll take on more than 6,500 pizzerias from all over the world. Aiming to showcase that “not only can [vegan pizza] be done, but that it can be done really, really well.” Damn, I hope they win…