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Veganism: a worldwide quest for plant-based perfection

All over the world, the plant-based lifestyle is growing increasingly commonplace, with more and more chefs putting vegan dishes at the heart of their menus — and the UK is leading the charge

By Liz Dodd
Published 13 May 2019, 16:48 BST
Salad at Dirty Candy
Salad at Dirty Candy
Photograph by Evan Snug

Veganism once had an image problem — this much is irrefutable, yet with every passing week it becomes harder to believe. These days it’s an aspirational trend; in 2019 you are what you don’t eat. What’s more, the plant-based revolution is no longer the preserve of the beaches of southern California. Listings website Happy Cow ranks London as the city with the highest number of vegan restaurants, followed closely by New York City, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo and Sao Paolo.  

According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, from 150,000 to 600,000. And in 2018, UK companies launched more vegan products than those of any other nation. When bakery chain Greggs launched a plant-based sausage roll at the beginning of 2019, its overall sales rose by 14% in the first seven weeks of the year. 

Almost half of the UK’s vegans made the change in 2018. So what’s behind the boom? Social media influencers and prominent celebrities have played a role. Everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch to Beyoncé has given plant-based eating a go, and Instagram currently has more than 75 million posts tagged #vegan. Google searches for the term have increased steadily over the past decade.

Nowhere is this rebrand more tangible than in vegan restaurant culture, a phrase that’s only recently come to mean something other than lentil salad bars or psy-trance cafes. Responding to the rise of plant-based fine dining, this year’s edition of The Good Food Guide was the first to list restaurants with a dedicated vegan menu. French chef Alexis Gauthier was at the vanguard of this movement; under his watch, Gauthier Soho, which already has a vegan tasting menu, aims to ditch all animal products by 2020. Elsewhere in the capital, fine dining restaurants Texture, The Ritz and La Chapelle have all added vegan tasting menus. 

The greasy yin to haute cuisine’s yang, ‘dirty veganism’, is on the rise too, with dishes such as ‘bleeding’ beetroot burgers and buffalo chick’n wings made from seitan (wheat gluten) becoming ever more popular. London’s Temple of Seitan has gained a devoted following for its popcorn chick’n and, in Edinburgh, the doughnuts at Considerit are renowned. 

Burgers at Flower Burgers
Photograph by Lagarty photo

This is, however, an international movement. In New York City, Michelin-starred Nix puts a local spin on Southeast Asian ingredients for its menu of plant-based dishes, while Rasoterra, in Barcelona, grows the vegetables that form the basis of its tapas menu.

So what next? In the past, travelling as a vegan often meant relying on word-of-mouth recommendations or the ubiquitous Indian buffet. But vegan gastro-tourism has become a market of its own, with many tour operators now offering vegan options. More generally, with studies suggesting a plant-based diet is better for the planet, veganism is a trend that looks here to stay. If the past decade was when veganism went mainstream, the next could be when the mainstream goes vegan.


Il volto della natura at Joia, Milan
Photograph by Lucio Elio

Our pick of the world’s vegan hotspots, and what to order when you get there

Milan, Italy

Joia: In 1996, Joia became the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star. Raw food is king here, with a focus on foods like kombucha and kimchi. 
Try it: ‘Il volto della natura’: a cluster of root vegetables with cannellini beans and wasabi.
City watch: Flower Burger is renowned for its colour-coordinated baps and fillings — think a yellow roll with chickpea patty and vegan cheese. Alternatively, try the apricot jam croissants at Pave or sample the vegan panino at Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce.  

Photograph by Gatherings

Christchurch, New Zealand 

Gatherings: Award-winning Gatherings is all about sustainable, local, seasonal food and natural wines. From fermented chilli pesto to sage, shallot and tomato tartare, the food here is light and creative. Meat and fish come as optional extras on the tasting menu.
Try it: Aubergine tataki, galsed with honeydew and vinegar, served with grated radish and wasabi.
City watch: The city has an array of organic, vegan-friendly spots, plus dozens of community gardens in which produce is grown. Old-school hippies will love herbal medicine dispensary and cafe The Herb Centre, while gourmands should try wine bar Not Without You for local pinot and platters of vegan cheese and soy chorizo. 

Vegan sushi at Youmiko, Warsaw
Photograph by Karolina Wydryszek

Warsaw, Poland

YoumikoThis popular restaurant blends Japanese traditions with Polish influences: slivers of marinated tomato and beetroot replace the tuna on nigiri; shiitake mushrooms are served crunchy, like soft-shell crab; and seaweed pearls take the place of caviar. Equally impressive is the price — the 18-piece tasting menu comes in at around £14.  
Try it: Gunkan maki with corn (see recipe, right).
City watch: For more Japanese flavours, try the Vegan Ramen Shop or, for something more Polish, Lokal Vegan Bistro for punk and politics with your pierogi.  

Read Youmiko's gukan maki with corn recipe

Vienna, Austria

Tian: Formal yet friendly Tian counts a Michelin star and three Gault & Millau toques among its accolades, and offers a seasonal menu revolving around creative Asian cooking using Austrian ingredients. Its sister bistro, a 30-minute walk away, offers similarly smart vegan food in a more relaxed setting. 
Try it: ‘Sunny Side Up’, a mango and IPA dessert that looks disconcertingly like fried eggs. 
City watch: The popular Anker bakery chain offers a range of sweet treats, including a vegan twist on the classic apple strudel. Vienna also hosts two ‘Veganmania’ festivals during the summer: one in the city centre (7-10 June) and one on the Donauinsel island (24-25 August).  

New York City, US

Candle 79: This chic vegan restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side first opened in 2003 and also has two sister restaurants: a bistro/bar on Broadway and a cafe on 3rd Avenue. It’s notable for its raw recipes — such as the homemade cheese platter, featuring almond, pepper-macadamia and herb-cashew cheeses — and creative menu, which is smart but not fussy; seaweed salads and wild mushroom crepes are offered alongside cheeseburgers and burritos.
Try it: The legendary seitan piccata.
City watch: Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side is worth a trip for the portobello mousse with cherries and truffle toast, while all-vegan Champs Diner in Williamsburg is famous for waffles topped with chick’n and maple butter. 

Trio of tacos
Photograph by Charly's Vegan Tacos

Tulum, Mexico

The Real CoconutEverything tastes better when eaten in paradise — and this little strip of sand, yoga studios and jungle on Mexico’s Caribbean coast is just that. Treat yourself to lunch on The Real Coconut’s sea-view terrace; the nacho bowl, made from local greens, coconut flour tortillas, melted chipotle coconut cheese and pico, are particularly decadent. 
Try it: Avocado tempura — pieces of avocado coated in a light coconut flour batter.
City watch: Tulum is renowned for its creative (if pricey) cooking: even Noma has hosted a pop-up here. Head to Raw Love for enormous smoothie bowls and ‘living’ pizzas (made with sprouted seed crusts) or, if you’re craving something a bit greasier, venture up the beach to Charly’s Vegan Tacos for ‘porkless crackling’ tacos in hot chilli sauce.  

Plant-based cheese board at Alegria
Photograph by Alegria

Tel Aviv, Israel

Alegria: Restaurant/cafe Alegria is famous for its plant-based cheeses (available from the adjoining shop) and Middle Eastern-inspired cooking; options include charred aubergine with pesto and tahini, and tofu kebabs in a beetroot marinade. The seating area gets busy quickly, particularly around brunch, so get there early. 
Try it: Sourdough focaccia stuffed with tofu, seaweed, herbs, tahini and lemon harissa.
City guide: Trendy bar Bana offers minimalist plates with a punch — think burnt beetroot with persimmon in orange syrup and cashew cream, or papaya and avocado salad with cacao nibs. Shawarma restaurant Sultana, meanwhile, serves mushroom kebabs with tahini dressing and a tangy mango pickle. Green Wave, Israel’s first vegan supermarket, has around 4,000 products lining its shelves. 

Published in Issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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