Today, flicking through a food magazine, and yesterday, scrolling through Pinterest, I noticed something important. Something which has been bothering me for a while now. It’s this: ‘vegan’ used heavily as an adjective. Vegan dinners, vegan sandwiches, vegan breakfasts: ‘vegan’ bandied around lightly, tacked on to articles and descriptions to give it a little glamour. Veganism is regarded by some as a vogue, a fashion: this is a problem because it implies that it’ll pass, as ponchos and leopard-skin did, when in reality, it’s not so superficial. I’m quite tired of seeing ‘vegan’ as a way to attract consumers on the basis of its contemporary status, as something to make you look on trend: although in the short term it may spark individuals to change their lifestyles for good, it shouldn’t be advertised as ‘cool’. It’s a way of life requiring commitment and serious thought, if you want to do it properly. Yes, it’s great that the current attention veganism has in the media is inspiring larger numbers to adopt a vegan way of life – estimated numbers have increased from 150,000 in 2006 to 542,00 in 2016 in the UK – but once (I’d like to say if) this attention naturally reaches the end of its course, the less dedicated may lose interest. I’m not trying to say that vegans aren’t committed: just that for a small number, this desire to conform to trends may outweigh the desire to live an ethical and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
I suppose that this a fairly negative perspective to take on the trend; in a more optimistic outlook, it’s fantastic that current media attention is inspiring many to change. What I’m trying to get is the worry that veganism is being trivialised, commodified, for the sake of selling. There’s a much more serious message which I feel is a little obscured.
Of course, this is probably hugely hypocritical, from the perspective of a vegetarian. But I am conscious of this hypocrisy every day. Fashion doesn’t hugely interest me, and I prefer to do what makes me comfortable in my own skin, than sacrifice my happiness for the sake of following others. This is why I see problems with recipes in a food magazine described in big letters as ‘vegan’: people ought to make decisions for themselves, rather than be guided by what the media tells them is popular.
Which brings me on to El Piano, a small vegan restaurant in York, part of a family-run trio. It’s been in business since 1997, well before veganism became fashionable. Of veganism, it says: ‘For some it’s a fad, for others an obsession, it can be a way of life, a conviction, a calling.’ This aptly sums up how I feel. I visited with two friends, one of whom is a vegan, and the other who is a determined meat-eater – justifying her choices with fact that she chooses to buy organic, ‘high-quality’ meat only. (She’s adamant that if everyone went vegetarian, farming won’t be able to cope with plant demand. Yes, perhaps if everybody transitioned all at once.)
It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we ate in the enclosed courtyard. Two of us ordered a bottle each of Samuel Smith’s organic cider, which is always difficult to come by in bars and restaurants – organic cider tastes so much cleaner, and so much crisper: it’s not sickly-sweet, and doesn’t leave you feeling parched.
(Take note of the beautiful jug – if it’s true that food and drink tastes better out of pretty dishes, then El Piano have their tableware bang on.)
The staff are friendly, and unusually smiley underneath their turbans (apparently for hygiene purposes, should anyone need to pop in to the kitchen). We ordered a starter to share, of breads and an olive oil for dipping; the sun-coloured bread, which we presumed was cornbread, was warm and satisfying.
The small size of the dinner menu reflects how much is invested in sourcing the ingredients: produce is local and organic whenever possible. An indicator of a good restaurant, for me, is how visually overwhelming the menu is; if it’s double-sided, serving everything with extra sauces and dips, then it’s likely compensation for a lack elsewhere. There’s a choice of platters to share, a veggie burger, or a variety from the set menu of a main dish, a fritter, and a salad. I chose an Indonesian-style tempeh satay skewer, with peppers and pineapple, accompanied by falafel and a salsa; my friend decided to try the daal. I added a side of ‘mathematical chips’ to my order, purely for curiosity’s sake.
The dishes were presented beautifully, in the plates and bowls I longed to sweep into my bag and take home with me. Tempeh – an Indonesian take on tofu – was a new experience for me: it’s flatter in shape, but firmer in texture, and also packs more protein. The satay sauce was delicious, especially with the complimenting flavours of the pineapple and pepper; and the mathematical chips turned out to gain their name only from their precise form.
None of us opted for dessert, feeling heartily full from the main meal (who says that vegan food isn’t satisfying?). I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate (perhaps excluding the bread in the starter – a tad bland!), and I encourage anyone who is sceptical of vegan food to visit: animal products will not be missed. There is no attempt, either, to imitate meat: plant-based food needs no model to match here. In fact, attempting to compete with meat seems to be there grave mistake the veggie movement has made – it will always fall short, and really, it doesn’t need to try. Plants are plants, not meat alternatives, and form a cuisine in their own right.