‘Thurston wouldn’t even put the falafel koftes in his mouth’ … Zoe Williams with some of her vegan meals. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
There has been a lot of experimentation in this area recently, from the London chef who has created “faux gras”, made of lentils, walnuts, shallots and mushrooms, said by some (including him) to be better than the real thing, to the rise of the Impossible Burger, a patty made of plant materials that “bleeds” (the company has reportedly attracted investment of $400m). Vegan food is becoming more readily available in supermarkets: Waitrose last month launched a dedicated vegan section in more than 130 of its stores, while Tesco now employs a “director of plant-based innovation” and Iceland is expanding its vegan offerings due to bumper sales of its meat-free No Bull burgers. Meanwhile, it was reported in May that the biggest way to reduce your environmental impact is to give up meat and dairy products. If everyone stopped eating these, global farmland could be reduced by an area the size of the US, China, the European Union and Australia combined (and everyone would still get fed).
Food fads come and go, but veganism, with its unarguable moral premise, seems quite solid; the number of vegans in the UK tripled between 2006 and 2016.
If you start with ethics (one friend, a vegan and a philosopher, used to say: “I wouldn’t kick a cat to death just because I enjoyed it”), pleasure becomes irrelevant: nothing tastes as good as moral feels. But do you make a vegan diet pleasurable by trying to replicate animal products using plants? Or do you retrain your palate so that it’s no longer on a quest for the meat’n’cheese mouthfeel?
The rise of seitan – a washed-wheat ingredient that can taste uncannily like meat, although not always – has created a new division, between the vegans who miss Nando’s and the ones to whom Nando’s represents the thing they were gladdest to escape. Jackfruit, another “foodie” alternative to meat, is weird: you can find it everywhere, from the Bonnington Cafe, the vegan pilgrimage destination in Vauxhall, south London, to Starbucks, but I have never seen a fresh one – it comes tinned and usually brined. Super-pure vegans complain about the saltiness, but that doesn’t trouble me. My problem is the texture. It starts off crunchy and squishy, then turns jammy, and there’s an aftertaste like tinned artichoke water. Apart from jackfruit, significant recent vegan developments have been in dairy-like foods – nearly everything, it turns out, can be squeezed into a milk – or, rather, a m*lk.
When cooking for children, I did what I always do when I’m trying to make them eat something they won’t like: make everything smaller than usual, so that it’s cute, then shout at them. Tiny pizzas with fake bacon were topped with a vegan mozzarella, which went transparent in the cooking process and shrivelled a bit, so it looked like I had festooned them with condoms. The bacon had an overwhelming fake-maple flavour and a chemical chewiness. It went down like a dead mouse in a quiche. Cicely, 10, would eat the tofu frankfurters, but only in microscopic amounts and to be nice. Thurston, also 10, wouldn’t even put the falafel koftes in his mouth.
I made some peanut butter and jelly bars with vegan egg and an unholy quantity of peanuts. Anything that smells overpoweringly of egg but isn’t an egg makes you think someone has done something terrible to your recipe, spilt chemicals in it or farted. The coconut oil brought an oleaginous clag and an aroma of bodywash. I should never have gone near vegan baking before talking to the chef Nicky Elliott, who counselled against going in on egg replacements. “When I bake, I use flax or chia seed. You can replace three eggs, but no more,” she says. “I wouldn’t use vegan cheese, because it just isn’t great – yet. Kids like to get involved, so often they’ll eat something they had a hand in making that they wouldn’t eat otherwise.”
The final lifestyle experiment was a vegan dinner party, with a cook-off element, in which I tried to replicate meat and dairy dishes from scratch. My husband took on food that was always intended to be vegan: Madhur Jaffrey’s courgette meatballs (for which he used some oat cream) and Colman Andrews’s Catalan paella. I made the aforementioned asparagus with “cheese”, some vegan chorizo that didn’t work because I used the wrong kind of tofu, and some pulled “pork” that was actually mushrooms smothered in black treacle, sugar and soy. We fed it to some young people, since they seem to be more receptive to these shenanigans, plus my husband’s new Momentum friend (he joined without telling me; who does that?), on the basis that she was probably vegan (in fact, she will eat anything and is normal in all kinds of other ways).
Everyone was polite about the vegan cheese, but I wouldn’t repeat it. The pulled mushroom sliders went down well, a kind of in-your-face taste explosion. You couldn’t have picked apart the mushroom from the fiery coleslaw, but it didn’t matter, because it was so sweet and salty that tasting any individual ingredients would have been like trying to hear someone whispering at a rave. The next morning, idly scooping up some mushrooms from the bottom of the pan, I realised what an unnatural thing it was to do, slather black treacle on a mushroom, which is perfectly delicious without.
The courgette meatballs were stupidly good, a beautiful, luxurious texture that wasn’t at all like meat, a sauce that you could live off on its own. The paella was triumphant, too, comfort food in the middle, a bit of crunch at the bottom and top, which is what vegan cooking so often misses – the spectrum of texture that you get from fat and flesh.
I feel guilty even typing those words now: “fat and flesh”. But there are lessons I have learned from attempting to live – and eat well – as a vegan. In future, I would steer clear of replacement animal products and opt for tofu way ahead of shredded seitan; I would start in Asia and work west, rather than starting in McDonald’s and trying to mimic the constituent parts of its products. Even though I don’t intend to go fully vegan, I can’t find a way to pretend that eating creatures is cool. After all, you wouldn’t kick a cat to death just because you enjoyed it.