Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the humble avocado toast. It used to be my go-to breakfast circa 2016. Crusty sourdough, copious amounts of mashed avocado, a generous squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper, and my favourite touch – wafer-thin slices of red onion.
But as an unapologetic food enthusiast – and a vegan of more than 12 years – I’m frankly disheartened by the relentless recurrence of a tired, uninspiring repertoire of plant-based offerings on restaurant menus.
We’re stuck in a culinary loop where the ever-reliable avo toast, the ubiquitous acai bowl, the dependable Beyond Meat burger and the predictable penne arrabiata play the same old tune.
Where is the spark of culinary creativity and innovation? Why is it that an omnivore can stroll up to a trendy breakfast spot in Abu Dhabi or Dubai and order any number of delectable choices, while plant-based eaters are stuck out of luck unless they frequent a vegan establishment?
I have a few theories.
First, most restaurateurs and chefs don’t believe demand is high enough in the region, so they only include a few token plant-based items to tick a box. “There aren’t as many vegans out there as you think,” an industry professional in the UAE once told me with unfounded confidence.
While I can’t accurately state the number of vegans in the country, either, I do know that many people who eat plant-based are not even vegan or vegetarian. More people are now choosing to skip out on meat, poultry or dairy for several reasons.
Maybe they’ve switched skimmed milk for oat milk to avoid dairy-induced skin breakouts. Perhaps they’ve pledged to go meatless a few times a week in the name of the environment. Maybe their best friend or partner is vegan and so they opt for plant-based dishes from time to time. The possibilities are endless because, and excuse me for stating the obvious here, vegan food is also just food.
Whenever I’m faced with someone who is vehemently anti-vegan, I often can’t help but laugh as I remind them that some of their favourite foods are accidentally vegan. Hummus. Oreos. PB&Js. Fries.
An innovative and delectable plant-based dish is a win for anyone with taste buds, not just those who choose to usurp animal products for health, environmental or ethical reasons.
My second theory stems from the first; because restaurant owners think there’s limited demand for vegan options, they don’t think they’re missing out on a substantial customer base. This line of thinking is false for precisely one reason: The veto vote.
The veto vote occurs when one person in a dining party who is vegan, vegetarian or has food allergies, decides where the group will dine.
Someone will suggest a swanky Italian restaurant for dinner – the outdoor seating is fantastic, it’s Michelin-recommended, and the tiramisu is to die for. Enter Nada.
A thorough audit of the restaurant’s online menu, Instagram feed and Google reviews tells me it does little in the way of catering to plant-based diners. I offer up the pan-Asian restaurant in the neighbouring hotel as an alternative. Plant-based starters and mains aside, it even has a dairy-free dessert that isn’t sorbet or fruit salad. Everyone agrees, a reservation is made, and a table of 10 takes its custom elsewhere for the night.
Lastly, I think risk adversity plays a huge factor in deciding what plant-based options make it to a menu. Why introduce a tofu Benedict when we know that countless restaurants have been serving up the old, reliable avo toast for years with overwhelming success? There is no need to add new ingredients to our supply chain or increase the margin of error by training staff on a new food preparation method.
While I understand that practicality is an essential factor for restaurants, the playing-it-safe approach is becoming tired, overdone and utterly uninspired. There are infinite ways to develop exciting plant-based dishes using ingredients available in most restaurant pantries. Having spent 12 weeks in London this summer, arguably one of Europe’s most vegan-friendly cities, I know this for a fact.
What I would love to see chefs in the UAE do more of is celebrate plant-based ingredients by making vegetables the star of their dishes. Instead of a Buddha bowl, why not serve grilled butternut squash with pickled pineapple, toasted cashews, and a sweet and sour sauce? Or a tandoori-spiced roasted cauliflower atop butter bean puree with mint chutney?
Sure, alternative meats are great, but nothing beats a house-made veggie patty. Load it up with umami-filled slow-roasted mushrooms, smoked paprika and toasted cumin, and hearty black beans with a crispy panko coating, and you have yourself a winner.
Another measure this vegan wishes restaurants would take is to test their menus with real-life plant-based eaters to give their honest feedback. Oftentimes, I see dishes that are trying too hard to push the boundaries of culinary innovation, but fall short on flavour or execution.
In closing, this World Vegan Day, I am officially boycotting avocado toast. I will no longer vote with my proverbial dirham by ordering it (and similar overdone options) when dining out.
Eating is one of life’s simplest and most divine pleasures and, frankly, my taste buds deserve better. If you’re still not convinced, riddle me this: Imagine if every time you dined out, you ended up ordering a meal that either lacked creativity, was prepared haphazardly upon request, or consisted mainly of side dishes. Would you consider that a positive dining experience?
I didn’t think so.
Nada Elbarshoumi is plant-based culinary consultant and food blogger