In a land known for its bangers and mash, fish and chips and “nose-to-tail” eating, it may come as a surprise to hear that London possesses a vibrant vegetarian scene. Yet, on a recent trip to the English capital, I experienced firsthand this refreshing change. From cozy, casual cafes to elegant, upscale restaurants, London serves up a bounty of creative, meatless cooking.
According to Su Taylor of the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom, the range and prevalence of new dining options can be traced, in part, to the rise in “meat reducers.” Think of friends or family members who have stopped eating meat but continue to consume dairy, poultry and/or seafood and you’ve got this group. Around 5 percent of the U.K.’s population falls into the “partly vegetarian” category while an additional 3 percent calls itself “strictly vegetarian.”
The reasons British diners have reduced their meat intake are myriad. “We see a lot in the media encouraging people to eat less meat and dairy, which is less scary than going straight from meat-eater to vegan, though many young people these days do do that, particularly for ecological reasons,” says Alex Bourke, author of “Vegetarian London and of VegetarianGuides.com. Many of those “partial” vegetarians cite environmental as well as animal welfare concerns as reasons for changing their eating habits. Food costs, health problems and the desire to eat more healthfully also play prominent roles in this decision.
No matter the cause, the choice to eat less meat has positively impacted the country’s vegetarian community, resulting in more and better dining opportunities. London now has 160 vegetarian restaurants. Of these, 25 are vegan while another 30 can be considered high-end dining spots, Bourke says. He points out that, since 2007, the latter has doubled in number. Diehard meat-lovers may scoff at the existence of 30 — much less 15 — upscale veg restaurants. After all, vegetarian food has had the unfortunate reputation of being bland and uninspired. Yet, in London, I found the complete opposite to be true.
While there, I, along with vegetarian friends, savored couscous fritters, wild mushroom rotolo — thinly sliced potatoes filled with a duxelle of wild mushrooms atop a bed of spinach and morel mushrooms — and beet root cannelloni served over arugula at meat-free restaurants such as the Gate in Hammersmith. Mouthwateringly delicious, these stunning dishes would win over the most skeptical of carnivores. The Gate showcases Mediterranean-Asian fare, but the city’s high-end, vegetarian restaurants represent an array of global cuisines. There is fresh Italian at Amico Bio and Zilli Green, raw-vegan at Saf, international at Manna and contemporary cuisine at the Michelin Guide-recommended Vanilla Black.
The diversity of cuisines extends to more casual dining too. Loving Hut specializes in Chinese, Itadaki Zen in Japanese and Vasanta Bhavan in Southern Indian. Crave a quick bite of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food? You’re in luck — London is a hotbed of vegetarian-friendly falafel and hummus shops. Eco-minded, vegetarian chain restaurants are also cropping up. Otarian, which has two establishments in central London and two in New York, includes the carbon footprint of every dish on the menu. For example, by choosing its slow-roasted tomato sandwich over a comparable meat-based sandwich, you save 0.49 kilograms in carbon emissions. Talk about food for thought.
Spinach-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the mushrooms smooth-side down in a baking dish.
- Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, basil, salt and pepper. Pour equal amounts of dressing over the mushrooms. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes. The mushrooms will appear soft and slightly browned when finished baking. Turn off the oven and remove the baking dish.
- Preheat the oven broiler on medium.
- Spoon equal portions of spinach followed by tomatoes onto each mushroom and then lay the strips of Fontina cheese on top of the tomatoes. Return the mushrooms to the oven, placing them on the top rack, directly under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is soft and melting, about 1 minute. Remove the baking dish from the oven, sprinkle freshly ground black pepper over the melted cheese and serve immediately.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: Kathy Hunt’s spinach-stuffed portobello mushrooms. Credit: Kathy Hunt