Beyoncé and Jay-Z do it, so it must be cool. There was a time when the joke went: “How do you know if someone is a vegan? They will tell you.” Now the comedians ask: “How many carnivores does it take to change a light bulb? Zero; they prefer to stay in the dark.”
Evolving puns provide evidence that the perception of veganism has changed. Those who eschew all animal products in favour of an entirely plant-based diet are no longer considered self-righteous, buzzkill weirdos who wear socks with sandals. Rather, they are the insightful, forward-thinking flavour of the month.
Right now, you can’t swing a fennel frond in the food media without hitting something to do with veganism. Trend watchers predict that this is the year in which veganism will go mainstream.
Food fashion aside, people become vegans for many reasons – environmental and animal cruelty concerns, health scares, weight control, religious beliefs or food scandals involving donkey meat in the boerewors and hormones in the milk. All of the above are valid reasons to try out a new way of life. However, for a first-time vegan, giving up all animal products can be daunting.
It’s not just home cooks who struggle. Being a vegan in a restaurant can be particularly painful. Ours is a culinary culture that generally equates animal fat with flavour. South African chefs can just about manage to make a meat-free ricotta and spinach ravioli, a vegetable curry or a mushroom omelette, but ask them to do something without the eggs, ghee/butter, milk and cheese, and they are lost. Many operate under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to invisible ingredients.
Experienced vegans know to always ask if there is fish sauce in the Thai green curry, chicken stock in the butternut soup or anchovy-laden Worcester sauce in the Bloody Mary.
There are some notable exceptions to this sorry state. Vegelicious.co.za provides a list of vegan eateries for patrons in Cape Town. In Durban, the Spice Emporium makes magnificent vegan chaat-style street food. Gauteng’s sweet-toothed types swear by the vegan caramel-chocolate tart at Leafy Greens Café in Muldersdrift, and herbivores in search of home delivery recommend joziuncooked.com, Johannesburg’s premier raw and vegan food company.
All of the above are great, but they ghettoise those who don’t eat animal products. South Africa’s uncrowned king of mainstream veganism is Chef Alex Poltera at The Snooty Fox restaurant at Fern Hill Hotel in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. His menu makes it clear that he is no slouch when it comes to meat-based cuisine – pork belly crackling crunches into tender flesh, lamb shank is melting magnificently – but it is the respect he shows to vegetarian and vegan offerings that sets him apart.
Poltera argues that “vegans and vegetarians often get a bad deal. I think it’s wrong that people should need to phone ahead to organise a dish when it’s just their way of life. We are in the service industry. We should ensure that all of our guests feel welcome and not imply that they are putting us out for requesting vegan food. I mark my dishes on the menu as vegan or vegetarian for ease of use, but I assume that they will be ordered by everyone. They stand and fall as taste combinations. They have all earned their place on merit.”
And so it is. The smoked tomato and rocket soup beautifully balances sweet and peppery notes. The herbed, hummus-topped lavash flat breads are crisp and exquisitely flaky. Lentil and chickpea curry is a rich, complex ginger and cumin delight. For those staying overnight, there is a tofu BLT on the room service menu. Best of all is the vanilla almond milk panna cotta with gelatine-free Turkish delight, rose gel, spiced crumble and berry sorbet. One bite and even the most ardent carnivore will recognise that the vegolution is upon us.
Veganism has left the socks and sandals brigade behind and gone supersexy.