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?