How to make a vegetarian smile, pt I

September 15, 2010

Earlier this year I happened to be travelling for a week in the company of two vegetarians, and was shocked by the severely limited options they had in restaurants.

In South Australia, a state famed for its quality gourmet produce (Maggie Beer and Gay Bilson live there, for godsake!), my companions were constantly given the evil eye by staff in cafes and restaurants for asking for non-meat options. I was stunned. As a meat eater, I realised how little attention I generally pay to whether a restaurant menu has more than one (usually pasta or risotto) vegetarian dish. And on my buddies’ behalf, I grew increasingly angry. For just as meat-eaters generally like to vary their diets with different kinds of protein and carbs, so do vegetarians. But time and again I saw these extremely polite and tolerant people being offered either a boring green salad containing no carbs or protein at all, or a bowl of pasta. And when you’re travelling and staying in hotels, that means eat pasta twice a day or go hungry.

The attitude of restaurant staff was another nasty shock – the suggestion that not everyone eats meat seemed to be taken as a personal insult, with the result that whatever was eventually provided was done so grudgingly, the food hastily shoved on a plate with minimal effort at presentation,  and dumped on the table with a punitive sneer, usually long after everyone else had their meals delivered. Take that, freak. And now pay for it.

Since then, I’ve asked lots of vegetarians what they think are the biggest culinary faux pas they’ve come across, either in restaurants or at friends’ houses for dinner. To a person, they have been keen not to sound critical or fussy, and said that any vego food cooked by friends is always fine, and a bowl of pasta or risotto is perfectly lovely. But their views on restaurants are another matter, as discussed in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald Good Living. I mean, it’s not as if a restaurant doesn’t have lots of great ingredients sitting there in the kitchen, and it is a pretty simple matter to chuck a few chickpeas or lentils in a salad or other dish. But I’m told vegetarians are still routinely offered seafood, things cooked in chicken stock, bacon (“You do eat bacon, right?”) or punished with rock-hard vegetables, vegie burgers dripping in meat juices or even – I kid you not – microwaved instant noodles. The ones in a packet. The ones that look and taste and smell like nuclear waste.

I don’t get it. If you’re a chef, I’d have thought that having some exciting and original meat-free dishes on the menu is all part of the fun of the job. My most stringently vego friend, tells me, for example, that she went wild with joy at the complex and interesting dishes to be found on the menu at our pal Hamish’s gorgeous M On the Bund restaurant in Shanghai.

Another thing I’ve been surprised by is how frightened some people seem to be of cooking for vegetarians at home. I do understand some fear of vegan cooking – without eggs or dairy the options are much more limited – but for your garden-variety vegetarian it’s really pretty easy. The most obvious route is the pasta or risotto option and I’ve done it many a time. But these days, just for interest’s sake, I try to come up with something a little more complex when vegetarians come to dinner, and provide at least a bit of protein (think nuts, the beloved lentil, dried bean or chickpea, or tofu & tempeh if you’re a bit more adventurous), a bit of dairy, some contrasting textures and some complex, kickarse flavours. A while ago, Stonesoup had a fantastic post on how to host a vegetarian feast, in which you’ll find lots of hints on cooking great veg food for guests. Interestingly, Jules’ musing on that topic was prompted by a veg friend bemoaning the ubiquity of vegetarian lasagne in her life, and others tell me that even in otherwise reasonable places, veg food tends to fall into the categories of cheesy stodge or textureless slop – which takes me back to the time I thought I hated lentils because of the flavourless yellow slop passed off as dahl in just-left-home share houses of old. Ugh.

Bah. Enough ranting. In the next post I’ll provide a menu for the last decent vego dinner I made. But in the meantime, I’d love your views. If you don’t eat meat, what makes your eyes light up on a restaurant or dinner party menu? And what makes your blood boil? If you are carnivorous, what are your best recipes for your vego mates?


  1. A year ago a group of us celebrated a friend’s birthday in a private room in a North Carlton restaurant. We were treated to several courses of gorgeous food to share. The lone vegetarian was presented with a steamed cauliflower. That’s it. No sauce, nothing. We were absolutely gob-smacked. And that after our host had rung to ask them if they could accommodate a vegetarian and they’d said yes. Needless to say we have not been back.
    Last vegetarian meal I cooked was Bruschetta with Rosemary and Garlic from the River Cafe Cook book, drizzled with good EVOO and served with rapini stir-fried with garlic and chili (Stephanie), then salad with chargrilled jerusalem artichokes, toasted hazelnuts, roasted red onion and roasted beetroot. And some really gorgeous highly caramelized roast pumpkin. Was yummy. And I just had a gorgeous lunch today – Lentil salad with roasted beet, fennel and cauli, sprinkled with dukkah and fetta and drizzled with thyme oil. Gotta stop, I’m getting hungry again 🙂

    • Wow, Louise – that is a serious statement by some cranky kitchen staff, is it not? Outrageous! I don’t suppose you’d like to name & shame – but beware any vegos heading to North Carlton. Go to Louise’s place instead – that meal sounds DIVINE. I must get into hazelnuts actually – have never used them much. In fact must be high time for a nutty post here soon.

      • Yes, I’ll name and shame. It was Gerald’s in Rathdowne Street. It won Bar of the Year last year or the year before and their food is terrific – if you’re not a vegetarian. And I love nuts, there’s not a salad that can’t be improved by a few nuts IMO.

        • yes, maybe nuts are the bacon of the veg world!

      • Hazelnut oil with raspberry vinegar is the basis of a pretty special salad dressing I had forgotten until this mention of hazelnuts… I’ll see if I can’t find the recipe for you.

        You also used to be able to get a really rich, delicious hazelnut yoghurt when I was a kid (clearly a very WEIRD kid who happily ate lemons at recess and liked brown yoghurt) that I still mourn and thought of only yesterday. Why oh why did it go off the market? Anyway, all to say hazelnuts are a very beautiful nut.

  2. I was just about to type a comment of surprise, at the service and sneering your vegetarian friends have experienced. But then I paused and reflected on how much I limit the restaurants I try out, sticking to tried and true ones, where I know I can get a good vegetarian meal. I rarely move out of that comfort zone, and only then to places I *know* have at least one good vegetarian dish.

    Which means I’m not experiencing the same level of bad manners as your friends, but that’s only because I’m limiting myself and rarely expand my eating-out horizons.

    I am aware of the panic some friends feel at catering for vegetarian friends and I know we’re often left off the invite list, for that exact reason. To be honest though I would prefer to be invited and then either bring something myself, or be given something simple like a salad and some beautiful cheese.

    • I’m glad you haven’t had the horror experience lately Kathryn, though it sounds that’s more due to your good judgment. Can you share your fave veg restaurants?

      The cooking thing is sometimes a little tricky for a large group, I guess. I realise that much of the time when we have a big crowd here it’s because I have a large leg of lamb or huge pot of chicken cacciatore or something. Big group cooking seems easier with meat, but that must be just lazy thinking, I reckon. I do quite like the many-salads-on-the-table-including-a-bowl-of-chicken approach, which suits everyone.

      • I do feel the trickiness of the situation Charlotte. And I always feel somewhat awkward about imposing my food beliefs and ways of eating on others – both the host who has to cook and all the other diners. The only way I justify is that we entertain far, far, faaaar more than the vast majority of our friends. So for everyone one meal they cook, we do about four. But it’s still tricky.

        If you want fine, fine, fine dining, then for me in Sydney you can’t go past Bentley Bar. They have a lot of vegetarian dishes and it’s wondrous, imaginative, amazing food. I also love Glebe Point Diner. More day-to-day local places that have a good vegetarian option are the new-ish Himalayan place in Glebe, Sherpa’s Kitchen in Newtown, Mother Chu’s in town, Ichi Ban Boshi at Galeries Victoria. I’m also an Iku addict.

  3. My boyfriend is a vegetarian, so I am now very careful when I book a restaurant to check that there’s a decent veggo option. I became as bored as him to find the one and only risotto and pasta option!
    Last year we went to France and all my friends&family went into complete panic mode! The caterer of my friends wedding ended up serving him a bowl of steamed rice with a couple of peas on it! We ate very well at people’s place though 🙂 Quenelles, ravioles, salades… miam!

  4. As a matter of fact, Shuckin’, I ordered an entirely vego meal at M on the Bund without remotely realising I was doing it – THAT’S how well Hamish has got the matter in hand!

    In general I would say look to the cuisines and cultures that don’t worship at the butcher’s altar – Indian food is the obvious example, but we also make an eggplant and sweet potato curry (secret killer ingredient: kaffir lime leaves) and a wild mushroom stir-fry that are both Thai and both absolutely fantastic. In fact, I still always look for a super hot, mushroom and lemongrass Thai dish I loved when I was at uni. Artichoke strudel was one alternative I used to make at dinner parties of the same period – Charmaine Solomon’s recipe in The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook, which is GREAT and ably demonstrates that chefs simply have no excuse.

  5. I see your restaurants cater either pasta or risotto for vegetarians and raise you a “I’m gluten free and a vegetarian… no seafood is from fish, an animal, I don’t eat things with faces. No oysters have a face, just not one we recognise… CHICKEN IS AN ANIMAL! Sorry pasta includes wheat- unless you have rice pasta? Yes they make pasta from rice and corn flour now… No gluten intolerance is not an aversion to sugar…” By which stage my omnivorous husband is ready to scream.
    I now have 2 children I’m raising as vegetarians. Nuggets, Bolognase or Hawaiian pizza seems to be the option unless I ask for 2 plates and order an adult meal and split it. I feel sorry for parents in general at restaurants: everything seems to be “& chips.”

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