Updated: Mar 4, 2022
The arguments around veganism are often emotion-laden and polarising. I won't rank the arguments in order of importance, but one of the more polarising and simultaneously most trivial is over the creation of imitation, or 'fake' meats. Whilst many vegans have embraced this phenomenon wholeheartedly, they're roundly condemned by omnivores who think that turning your back on meat should mean you refuse to eat meat-like products. Many vegans also pour scorn on the products which they think are over-processed and unhealthy.
In cases of such polarised opinion, I feel it's my duty as a vegan chef and restauranteur to completely muddy the waters. Restaurants, both vegan and non-vegan use these products, some to attract vegans, some to attract non-vegans, and some certainly as a result of a lack of imagination on the part of non-vegan chefs who simply can't move out of the meat 'n' veg mindset.
As an omnivore back in the 70s and early 80s, the meat on the plate was often the least exciting part of an already unappetising dish. School dinner steak and kidney pies, spag bol, liver and onion (Urgh!), grey mince and (greyer) peas, were being challenged by new arrivals at home including 'exotic' fruits and veg (kiwi fruit, aubergines, bell peppers!), exciting pasta shapes (often in tins of sugary sauce), and from the new supermarkets: Frozen pizzas, burgers, and ice cream desserts! At the same time the growth of Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants and takeaways began to erode the 'meat-and-two-veg' status quo. Unsurprising then, that going meat-free at that time meant either embracing world cuisines and foreign veg, or using soya (textured vegetable protein) mince-type products that were equally as boring as the real thing. Restaurants of all stripes have embraced an ingredients resurgence in the intervening decades, but many have steered into the street food and fast food revolution, this has majored on high protein, fat and sugar in cheap and convenient formats. Frankly, what's not to like here? A burger packed with all the chemical cues that light up your brain's pleasure circuits, smothered in sweet and spicy sauces with oozing fatty cheeses? Typical fare in restaurants, pubs, at street food vans, festivals and holiday locations up and down the country. You can't blame vegans for still wanting these hits, nor restaurants for selling them. No one at all has been surprised by companies springing up with vegan imitations of your meat patties, steaks, fish fillets and sausages, nor at the supermarkets who have jumped full-heartedly on the same band-wagon.
The thing is, it was ever thus... There have always been imitation meats and vegetable products that stood in the place of, or were analogous to meat in a dish. A simple example is the humble mushroom; Packed with umami flavour and a chewy texture, vegetarians and vegans alike have used them in place of meat, but in many peasant omni dishes, or those of a humble origin, they're used to pack out expensive meat in sauces and pies, because of course, meat-eating has always been an function of privilege and social depravation. The use of lentils and oats in stews and puddings is almost certainly derived from a lack of availability of quality meat.
A little aside here... If you want evidence of how meat-eating has always been a class marker, it's fossilised in the English language: The words we use for the animals on the fields are those of the Anglo Saxon serfs who kept the beasts: Cow, sheep, swine. But the words for the meat derived from them, are those of the Norman-French aristocracy who could afford to eat it: Beef, Mutton, Pork.
But here's the rub. Sausages, even pork sausages, are not meat. Meat has been processed into a product, originally designed to make an affordable filling meal from very little meat, packed out with cheap brans, cereals, fats and offal. And whilst meat sausages (and others) have barely moved on from this state, now here come the vegan upstarts that give the same, and often better flavours, textures and fatty, sugary hits, with no more, often less, processing.
The ability to process food outside of the body, is what gave early homanids the chance to evolve smaller, less expensive guts, and develop larger more resource-hungry brains. Processing food is not a bad thing per se. Here's another side note: The scientists that tell us these things must be men, because they always talk about the ability to light fires and cook food. You can imagine them standing around a barbecue, channelling their inner caveman to come up with the notion. But as every chef, and more importantly, almost every mother on the planet knows, there are lots of processes that food can and does go through before anyone need light a fire. Many of the hardest won calories on Earth are gained through hours of pounding of unyielding grains and tubers in querns and mortars in the poorest kitchens the world over.
So, I'm not against artifice when it comes to product: Burgers and sausages etc. Nor am I adverse to analogues, and have had fun with jackfruit and banana blossom when it was new and exciting. But I'd rather the product was a home-made one, and was honest about its' plant-based origins. We're actively looking for analogues much closer to home than a plant that's grown half-way round the world which is attached to stories of exploitation of land and farmers. There is always Seitan which is pure plant derived protein, and has been used by the Chinese to make mock meats of all kinds for many years now, and latterly processed into new, more western style 'cuts' by vegan 'butchers.' However, as seitan is 100% gluten, it is unsuitable fare to have in a kitchen that caters for so many coeliacs and gluten avoiders. In fact, if I were looking for gluten free food, I would definitely avoid any kitchen that uses seitan routinely (or makes pizza, bread and pastry on site.) Seitan is used to make steaks, but I would suggest it's still the processed product that has the most draw. If it were a case only of imitating meat for meat's sake, then someone would have made fake liver by now. Surely it's the easiest texture to reproduce, and, as it tastes foul, there's no requirement to create a great flavour either.
As far as dairy products are concerned, milk is very much a cultural as well as a cultured product. two thirds of the planet's population find it indigestible, the rest can't drink tea without it. Its culinary uses are varied, but are far from indispensable, and plant versions can usually replace it with obviously less impact environmentally. It is often not required at all. Cheese on the other hand is a whole other story. When people say: "If it didn't exist you'd have to invent it!" The phrase must have been coined about cheese. It just does not happen in nature. There is no place where excess milk is left to pool by the animals that produce it, so that other animals can eat it after it has gone off, congealed and gone mouldy. It's right up there along with the wheel, beer, and all the stuff the Romans ever did for us as one of early civilisations greatest inventions! If someone wants to recreate a Wensleydale in vegan version, I'll say "Well done lad!" (In a Peter Sallis voice, of course.)
Love it, or hate it, there's a time and a place for imitation meats. The time is definitely now, just not at my place. There is no rule book in the kitchen any more, anything goes, sometimes it looks familiar, sometimes it looks like nothing you've had before. Personally I prefer the latter, but won't condemn the former.