I know quite a handful of vegetarians back in America and a good number on this study abroad trip as well. And from eating out with them in restaurants, I have made a really unique discovery about British food culture. Although its history shows a meat-rich diet (remember King Henry VIII), today, in the city of London, vegetarian options are just as prevalent. Restaurants take much effort to ensure that they include plenty of meat-free (as well as gluten-free) options that are well labeled and advertised. There are probably many reasons why but the vast numbers of cultures residing in this one city along with the universal rise of the vegetarian lifestyle are some. Also, to make up for the lack of the naturally occurring flavors that meat brings, chefs in London have worked hard to combine the flavors of vegetarian-friendly foods in new ways. Although missing meat, the food presents excitement for the palette, is full of flavor and is totally satisfying. There are three vegetarian restaurants I have found in my food travels that I definitely recommend to any meat or meat-free eaters visiting this city.
The first is this teeny tiny place around Soho, the rather hippie, bohemian, music/art part of town, called Food for Thought. In fact, it was the first vegetarian restaurant in all of London. The building is in no way special and, if one didn’t have an insider’s tip on the awesomeness of the food, the place may be overlooked due to the slight grubbiness of its exterior. It has remained in the same place since it opened in the 70s, refusing to lose its charm by moving to a bigger venue.
The menu changes every day to offer as much variety as possible and everything is so cheap, especially the takeaway, which is a good option since there is barely room to stand in this place. So situated inside the cramped front area, I ordered, trying to yell over the sound on the banging pots and pans coming from the open kitchen behind the counter, and finally walked away and rushed home in the rain, ready to enjoy my hot meal. I ordered an astounding baked gnocchi dish that included gnocchi, aubergine, cauliflower, fennel, and olives in a delicious tomato sauce and coated with a thick layer of melting cheddar and mozzarella cheese. And for fifty pence, I added a giant chunk of pumpkin sesame bread to soak up every bit of the sauce. The food was amazing but the portion so huge that, much to my disliking, I couldn’t finish it all.
Another partially vegetarian restaurant is called Ottolenghi, a café/restaurant started by renowned chef and The Guardian vegetarian food column writer Yotam Ottolenghi. Although his has a Mediterranean background, he learned his culinary skills in London so he has blessed this city with his foreign flavors and passion for high-quality, fresh, and healthy food. He himself is not a vegetarian, but has a very extreme respect for that lifestyle. He creates unique dishes that present new and exciting flavor combinations and ingredients that are so substantial and wholesome that they still somehow have the satisfying quality of meat.
His café’s (there are four) are famous for their huge counter of “salads”. These are not ordinary lettuce salads either, but gourmet concoctions of fresh vegetable with complementing yet unique seasonings and flavors. Ottolenghi also offers a few quality meats to place on top of the salads and a huge variety of baked goods and breads. I chose a combination of three salads with a small piece of delicious salmon; it looked so good, I couldn’t resist. I had a green bean and mangetout salad with oil dressing, orange zest and hazelnuts, roasted spears of sweet potatoes with a creamy dressing, chilies, and sesame seeds, and delicious roasted aubergine slices topped with a red pepper tahini sauce.
And the salmon, sitting atop the numerous salads, was accompanied by a pineapple chili sauce. The portions were huge, lasting through that day’s lunch and dinner, everything was so crisp and fresh, and I discovered combinations of flavors that I never even thought of before. It was such an inspiring experience not only to see the potentiality for vegetarian dishes but also to take away tips about food pairing that I can’t wait to try out at home.
Finally, my favorite vegetarian experience was at a place called Mildred’s. It, like Food for Thought, is another one of those really discreet restaurants tucked away on a side street in Soho. From the interior’s look alone, I wouldn’t have expected anything spectacular. The place was small and cramped with a dozen or so mismatched tables crammed in any available space. But despite this, I got a immediate feeling of relaxation and general good, earthy vibes. The waiters, without doubt hippies wearing baggy jeans, white tanks tops, and hemp jewelry, greeted me very enthusiastically as they led me to my table.
I was in a very American food mood that day so I ordered their vegetarian version of the classic burger of the day and fries. The burger, of course had no meat and that day’s version instead contained sweet corn, black olives, and herbs, probably mixed with breadcrumbs, beans, and egg to form the patty. It was placed atop an incredibly moist wholemeal bun, and topped with rocket, tomato, and a sweet chili sauce to add an extra kick. The great part is, I didn't even miss the meat and the texture was so tender and juicy, I almost preferred it to beef burgers. The fries were a little more than ordinary too. I got their special sweet potato fries that arrived in a ginormous stack, steaming hot and amazingly crispy and sweet. They came with this incredible sour cream and basil dipping sauce and, although it was great with the fries, I couldn’t help but smearing a bit on my burger as well. And what is a burger and fries without soda? So instead of Coke, I ordered the “healthy” alternative called Curiosity Cola that is totally organic and made from only natural root extracts, pure cane sugar, and carbonated water. And it was so much better than Coke with this slightly spicy flavor mellowed down vanilla. It was an incredible meal and this alone really filled me up. I got dessert too, which may have put me over the top, but we’ll talk about that particular part of the dish at another time.
It has been amazing to experience this unexpected part of the London food scene and the really down to earth, health conscious people associated with it who really care about their food’s taste and quality. The absolute prevalence of the vegetarian culture in London, although not turning me away from meat entirely, has given me a new perspective on meat-free food and really inspired me to experiment with it on my own. And most importantly, as England is a country with land well suited for almost all great fruits and vegetables, this prevalence of a vegetarian culture is a great way to celebrate the gifts that England’s land has to offer.