Australian chef Skye Gyngell, who won a Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries and now oversees the kitchens at Spring restaurant in London and Heckfield Place in Hampshire, shares a light, taste bud-tantalising, plant-based summer curry, while David Annand rounds up some vegan eateries worth going out for.
Summer Melon Curry by Skye Gyngell
We make this curry in the summer months when Fern Verrow’s beautiful, sun-sweet melons arrive straight from the glasshouse on her biodynamic farm in Herefordshire.
- 1 cup of rapeseed oil, plus 1 tablespoon
- 3 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
- 30g plain flour
- 1kg ripe, orange-fleshed melon
- 100g lemon grass, tough outer leaves removed and thinly sliced
- 1 green chilli, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 6 kefir lime leaves
- 3 cups of coconut milk
- 1 bunch of coriander, chopped
- 1 bunch of basil, chopped
- 1 bunch of mint, leaves only chopped
- 1 small cucumber, cut into chunks
- sea salt
- coconut shavings to garnish, optional juice of 2 limes
Heat one cup of rapeseed oil to 150 degrees. Toss the finely sliced shallots in the flour and season with a little salt. Cook the shallots in the oil until crispy and golden then remove using a slotted spoon. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.
Halve the melons, scoop out the seeds. Chop the flesh into one-inch chunks. Reserve a third.
Heat 1 tablespoon of rapeseed oil in a saucepan – place over a medium heat and when warm add the lemon grass, chilli, ginger, onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring until the onion is translucent. Be careful not to let any of the ingredients take on any colour. Add the lime leaves and melon and season once again with a little salt. Reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the melon has completely fallen apart, approximately 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the coconut milk.
Once cool, remove the lime leaves and blend in a food processor until smooth. Refrigerate until chilled. Serve in a bowl with the reserved melon pieces, the cucumber chunks, the fried shallots and the chopped herbs scattered over, adding coconut shavings for a garnish if you so desire. Finish with the lime juice just before serving.
The Best Vegan Restaurants by David Annand
Thirty years ago, you would never have guessed that it would happen here in lumpy, old England with its greasy spoons and Little Chefs, its grey meat, stodgy suets and boiled veg. And yet for the last three decades or so our restaurant scene has been in a state of permanent revolution, transformed root and branch by an elite corps of taste-bud Trotskyites, freeing us from our false consciousness and opening us up to new flavours, new textures, whole new ways of eating. The latest, and potentially the most transformative of these gastronomic overhauls, has been the ultra-rapid rise of vegan restaurants which have matured from niche concern to mainstream normalcy quicker than you can ripen a young jack fruit.
Of course this has been driven by the huge growth in veganism, which went up fourfold in the UK, from 150,000 to 600,000, in the years 2014 to 2018. For these committed vegans, the restaurant revolution has been life-changing. It wasn’t long ago that the plant-based option in mainstream restaurants was almost always a begrudging afterthought (and almost always a deeply dull mushroom risotto) and the specialist places were often impossibly earnest, the menus dominated by great sludgy stews, about which all you can say is at least they weren’t created with Instagram in mind.
But beyond catering to the converted, the vegan restaurant surge looks like it might help precipitate a wider cultural shift that will see it become totally commonplace to radically reduce the amount of meat and dairy you consume.
For a sense of how this is already happening head to Farmacy, on fancy Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill. The brainchild of Camilla Fayed (daughter of Mohamed), the restaurant is a gorgeous space, all high ceilings and understatedly expensive furniture, a far cry from the homespun vegan cafés of old. But it’s the clientele that most starkly illustrates that something new is afoot: no one is going to mistake them for regulars at Glastonbury’s Green Fields. They are a monied sort, some of them old, some of them young and body beautiful. But in the main, they’re eating there, you suspect, in spite of it being vegan. Sure, some of the younger crowd with the more Pilates-honed physiques will be drawn to the Hemsley sisters-style “cleanness” of the menu – buckwheat pancakes, a chickpea “omelette” – but they’re also there simply because it’s the place to be, because it’s good, and it just happens to be vegan.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that this rash of openings is simply the logical conclusion of this decade’s clean-eating craze and the mania for fasting, the valorising of self-denial. If anything, it’s the opposite. The cluster of restaurants in Shoreditch – currently out there on its own as a Valhalla for vegans – are almost all avowedly dirty. In Boxpark alone there’s Biff’s Jack Shack and its towering jackfruit burgers, What the Pitta! with its seitan doner kebab, and the sauce-slathered steamed bao buns at Eat Chay. But the local kings of plant-based comfort food are surely Alex and Oliver Santoro, the two brothers behind Genesis on cool-as-they-come Commercial Street. With its rose-gold chairs, white marble bar and bubble-gum-pink tiles, Genesis is all about the good times. Here, the lengthy menu takes in street food from around the world: Malaysian char kway teow made with brown rice noodles; bánh mì dogs in sweet-potato brioche buns; soft-serve ice cream made from cashew nuts and coconut.
Incredibly, the revolutionary fervour has even spread to that bastion of old-school, liver-sausage masculinity, the East End pub. On Homerton High Street in Hackney, the glorious Spread Eagle is leading the way with its kitchen run by Meriel Armitage’s Club Mexicana, and a bar stocked only with vegan wines and beer (they even use stiffened chickpea water as a surprisingly effective alternative to egg white in the whisky sours). Its success has come as a shock even to its architects. As Armitage says of co-conspirator publican Luke McLoughlin: “His vision was to make everything vegan – all the drinks, the leather on the seats, the cleaning products, the food, everything. I just thought he was crazy: a vegan pub in Homerton with Mexican food. It’s fitting so many square pegs into so many differently shaped holes, but the pub has completely proved me wrong. We’ve got such an amazing mix of customers: people coming from Homerton hospital after work for a pint, people coming for birthday parties, people coming because they’re vegan. And then there are the regulars who have their own bar stools and have been coming here for years who feel like it’s still their old-school boozer but vegan. We’ve been able to really change people’s perceptions.”
But it’s not all comfort food. From the separate vegan à la carte menus at Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social to the vegan tasting menu at Liverpool’s The Art School restaurant (think braised turtle beans, wild mushrooms, charred leeks and confit tomatoes), there’s now no shortage of plant-based fine dining. Down in Brighton, the stalwart of the country’s high-end scene, Terre à Terre, continues to turn out plates that look and taste impeccably modern, things like aubergine dengaku or Korean fried cauliflower.
Also in Brighton is the supremely imaginative Purezza, pioneers of the vegan pizza. The rice flour “mozzarella” isn’t as good as the real thing but it’s compensated by the other elements being absolutely nailed. The sourdough base is up there with the very best and the toppings are loaded up, giving the pizzas a deeply satisfying depth of flavour. Try the Pesto Manifesto with its delicious pile of roasted courgettes.
Of all the innovations, though, the most exciting might just be the simplest. On Upper Street in Islington, 33-somethings Anthony Eskander, Gijs Dutry Van Haeften and Anthony Cotton have created Slaw, which may represent the start of the second wave of the new vegan revol
“We’re making good food that happens to be plant-based and happens to be sustainable,” says Dutry Van Haeften. “There’s been too much over-processing, trying to recreate meat and a lack of attention on fruit and vegetables which are incredibly vibrant and full of different textures.”
A wrong that it is most definitely righted on Slaw’s short, sharp, brilliant menu, which includes a fabulous beetroot dahl and as fine a treatment of the humble carrot as I’ve ever eaten.
Here, the focus on sustainability goes beyond simply forswearing meat and dairy. They practise what the Americans call “root-to-shoot” cooking, the vegetable equivalent of nose-to-tail. “There are lots of parts of the vegetables that are under-utilised and get chucked away due to a lack of knowledge. We try to use everything. The pesto in our carrot dish is made from carrot tops that would normally be thrown out. In the squash dish we dehydrate and roast the seeds and crisp up the skin. There’s a perception that plant-based dishes are just one texture: the first bite is the same as the last. So we’re creating dishes that have different registers and different pockets of flavour.”
“We don’t want people to think, ‘That wasn’t bad for a plant-based restaurant,’” says Cotton. “We just want them to think, ‘That was a good meal.’”