Today there are seven times more vegans in the UK than two years ago. Rebecca Seal investigates how living on plants went from being seen as a cultish, lefty fad, to the biggest global movement in food.
Can you imagine reading this article three years ago? Even a year ago, you would surely have been surprised to open a newspaper and see a whole article about plant-based eating. Veganism was niche, practiced by a tiny percentage of the population, something for celebrity chefs to rant about; several leagues away from the mainstream. Yet in April this year, even Gordon Ramsay — who once joked he would zap his own children with an electric fence if they went vegetarian — suggested on Twitter that he was going to, “give this vegan thing a try.”
According to the latest research, 3.5 million people in the UK are now vegan — an astonishing leap of 3 million since 2016 — representing 7 percent of the population, while nearly half of all British adults have adopted ‘vegan buying behaviour’ and 7 million are vegetarian. Twenty percent of under-35s have tried veganism, many through the annual veg-fest Veganuary, which aims to tempt people to become vegans, or at least adopt a plant-based lifestyle, by giving it a go for the month of January. The word ‘vegan’ has been hashtagged 59.5 million times on Instagram (#plantbased appears 15 million times). How did chickpeas and jackfruit suddenly get so cool?
Damien Clarkson runs Vevolution, a vegan and ‘conscious living’ media and events company in London offering consultancy to plant-based businesses. “Millennials are claiming veganism as their movement for social change,” he says. “There has been an exciting emergence of a new vanguard of entrepreneurs, many of whom have come from careers in the media, tech, finance, and advertising. These people have used skills that they learned in big businesses and put them to good use in their own plant-based businesses. [These] vegan personalities are very relatable to the average millennial, as they share similar goals and values which makes them and the lifestyle they lead very appealing.”
One person who has done a huge amount to popularise plant-based eating — especially but not only among the millennials of east London — is Sean O’Callaghan, aka the Fat Gay Vegan and author of Fat Gay Vegan: Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give a Sh!t. He is also founder of the Hackney Downs vegan market, which is held every Saturday and where vegans and non-vegans alike visit for their fix of croissants, pie-and-mash, chocolates and vegan ‘fish’ and chips. “People want to do the right thing, or at least better. Buying vegan gives them an opportunity to take an ethical stance with their wallet,” he says. “This rise in awareness of food choices has also coincided with a groundbreaking swell of vegan food innovation. When people start seeing fried ‘chicken’, cultured ‘cheeses’, and high-end restaurant menus done vegan, it makes it more inviting for them to take that leap to give veganism a go.”
It doesn’t hurt that many of the people in the vegan business are excellent and creative cooks. Amongst them is Meriel Armitage, who ditched a career in advertising to launch Club Mexicana, a vegan taco stand, in 2014. Today her food can be found at The Spread Eagle in Homerton, London’s first fully vegan pub. “Back when being vegan was very, very uncool (and not great for your tastebuds either) I decided I wanted to show London that it could be way more exciting than what was on offer at the time. I was sick of people asking if all I ate was lettuce and being laughed at by restaurants, so I took matters into my own hands. Four years on and I feel incredibly proud to have helped catapult veganism into mainstream food culture here.” Her ‘chorizo’ and smoked ‘cheese’ quesadillas, and jackfruit carnitas are so delicious that often diners don’t even realise they are in a vegan venue — quite the feat.
Liz Nguyen started street food stall Eat Chay in 2017, fuelled by the belief that the veganised Vietnamese food she was cooking at home would be popular with punters. “Asian food is pretty good for vegans, but it was all boring tofu. I was particularly frustrated with vegan banh mi [a Vietnamese baguette traditionally filled with pate, butter, mayo, coriander, cucumber, pickles and protein], which were never made with mayo or butter, and were just tofu with some sad coriander. So I made one at home, then decided to try selling them.” Today, the banh mi is so popular that she and her partner, Joseph Tam, can’t take it off the menu. Although at weekends they cook at vegan markets, in the week they can be found at KERB street food markets and events, including KERB King’s Cross on Granary Square, serving anyone and everyone. She thinks their weekday clientele is probably 60:40 omnivores to vegans and vegetarians. “We realised we don’t even have the word vegan on our stall — which was just a mistake, really, we didn’t mean to disguise ourselves!” It’s no longer just the curious who come along to try things like their Korean barbecue seitan bao. “More and more people know what seitan is [a wheat-based meat substitute] and we have lots of repeat customers.”
KERB is the perfect home for Eat Chay. The street food trader collective runs markets and evening events and has seen a huge rise in the numbers of plant-based dishes served by its members. Ollie Hunter is head of KERB community. He says, “We have definitely reacted to the growth in demand for plant-based traders; you can’t ignore it.” Every three months KERB takes on a group of new potential traders, known as InKERBators. “In each of our batches of InKERBators we’ve had at least one plant-based trader, and a lot of the new guys offer vegan options, even if they sell meat as well.” KERB also runs workshops for traders. “We have a huge number of people coming who want to run vegan businesses — the demand means there are tons of gaps in the market to fill. You can take an existing popular dish that’s currently off-limits for vegans and become the person in London doing it plant-based,” says Hunter.
It’s not hard to find good plant-based food around London. The Skip Garden is the home base of education charity Global Generation, and the largest of 26 community and commercial gardens co-created with local businesses, restaurants, schools and young people in King’s Cross. It’s a unique space where food such as apples, pumpkins, and beans grow out of skips. Using these ingredients to supply their cafe, they have catered to vegans and vegetarians since their inception.
“The Skip Garden started as a food enterprise run with local young people,” says Skip Garden’s Gwen Mainwaring. “We mostly grow plants anyway, so it seemed natural for the emphasis to be around seasonal vegetarian food on our daily-changing menus.”
Similarly Caravan, in King’s Cross since 2012, has long celebrated the humble vegetable, if not explicitly veganism. “We have always had a heavy plant-based focus on our menus so to that end we have not had to shift things too far from Caravan’s centre,” says Miles Kirby, one of the founders. “Vegetarianism and veganism are here to stay and I’m excited. Even the die-hard meat eaters are eating less [meat] and have meat-free days in the week.” Caravan is also a coffee roastery. “For years, soya milk was the chief alternative to dairy, but this has its negatives. We’ve experimented with alternatives and now oat and almond milks make up an increasing proportion of our sales, with coconut milk gaining ground as well.”
At Dishoom, which opened in King’s Cross in 2014, vegans have never had more choice — there is even vegan wine on the menu now (alcohol is often clarified using egg, fish or milk products). “A while back we created dairy-allergy and vegan menus,” says executive chef Naved Nasir. “But, to make our vegan offering super attractive, we recently did a refresh of our vegan breakfast menu, which now includes a full English called the Vegan Bombay, with [meat free] sausages and black pudding, grilled field mushrooms, masala baked beans, grilled tomato, home-made buns, and avocado with chilli and lime dressing.” The days of bland vegan food are over. It is easier than ever to be vegan on the UK high street, too. At LEON, 65 percent of the all-day menu is vegetarian, and 31 per cent is vegan. Wagamama, Pret a Manger and Pizza Express have all extended their vegan menus; at the Real Greek you can try gyros wraps or stifado made with jackfruit, which when under-ripe is extraordinarily like chicken. At Carluccio’s you can order cauliflower orecchiette with spinach, chilli, capers, garlic and herbs; Ask Italian has won awards for its vegan blood orange and chocolate tart. Even Toby Carvery is in on it, with a vegan portobello mushroom tart with vegetable suet pastry. Marks & Spencer’s vegan coconut cream liqueur sold out in just four weeks last Christmas; while in January this year Tesco launched a new vegan range, Wicked Kitchen, created with Derek Sarno, former executive chef at Whole Foods.
While everyone involved seems convinced the plant-based movement is here to stay — that it is a change, not a trend — there are some worries. “When anything is commodified and packaged by big business, the downside is that it becomes part of the machine that takes money from independent business and local communities,” says Fat Gay Vegan’s O’Callaghan. “Small vegan traders and independent health food stores (such as VX of King’s Cross) have been flying the vegan flag for years. When you can suddenly buy your vegan cheese in a mainstream supermarket, or you have a choice of a dozen chain restaurants for date night, it has a serious knock-on effect for these independents and means the money traditionally spent in little stores and businesses leaves the community.”
And, of course, veganism itself has detractors — from those who say it offers a nutritionally incomplete diet, to those who argue that there are economic and even environmental advantages when animal husbandry is done humanely.
Clearly, the conversation about plant-based eating has only just begun and it is anyone’s guess where it will go from here. In the meantime, we’ll be following Gordon Ramsay’s lead, and trying a portion of Korean barbecue, a slice of pizza or banh mi — all vegan versions of course — for lunch.
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.