Veg your bets

Feature Now vegetarian cooking has moved from being a fringe activity, what will discerning non-meat eaters bite into this year?

Vegetarian diners who prefer to eat their food raw for maximum nutrition still find their restaurant choices limited, but that may start to change in 2009.
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Remember when vegetarianism was considered a crackpot fad for people who liked food as dull as it was worthy? Just how far away those days are is signalled by the prominent billing given to the highly-regarded "vegetable magician" Alain Passard at next week's Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival. While the triple Michelin-starred chef serves meat and fish at his Paris restaurant L'Arpège, Passard was nonetheless groundbreaking when he placed vegetables - many of them grown specially in his large organic vegetable garden south-west of the city - at the centre of his exquisite cooking. While this seemed a bold step at the beginning of the millennium, nowadays Passard's emphasis on fresh local produce has become something of a fashionable mantra for chefs worldwide.

Likewise, vegetarian cooking has moved from being a fringe activity which smug meat eaters enjoyed sniggering at to an ever-growing, well-catered-to mass movement. But vegetarians are no less fickle than any other consumers, and when it comes to meat-free trends, this year's hot tip is likely to become next year's cliché. What were once novel salad leaves like 1980s lollo rosso and 1990s rocket, for example, are now found so widely as to have lost much of their charm. Likewise, formerly intriguing choices like the meat substitute Quorn have started to seem dull and rather synthetic to many. So what are discerning vegetarian eaters going to be getting into in 2009? Here's a round-up of some main contenders.

Alternatives to tofu When tofu first started appearing in western markets, many vegetarians were delighted. At last, here was a high-protein food with neither the saturated fat of dairy products nor the ponderously intense fibre of pulses. Now that the East Asian soya preparation is found ubiquitously in anything from burgers to vegan smoothies, however, jaded vegetarians are looking for less familiar alternatives.

Luckily, East Asia has plenty of other high protein vegetarian foods just waiting to come out of their niches and hit the mainstream. First up is seitan, a product made from wheat gluten that has a bland, slightly nutty flavour and a dense meat-like texture. Firmer and heartier than tofu, seitan has a spongy bite to it that vaguely recalls poultry, making it especially popular in China (under the name mian jin) as the chief ingredient of mock duck. Typically bought in a block, its texture makes it ideal for vegetarians who still miss eating chicken.

Less familiar but arguably even more promising is the Javanese product tempeh. Made by adding cultivated mould to soya beans, this Indonesian equivalent to tofu has 40 per cent protein, valuable unsaturated oils and a generous dosage of vitamins and minerals, but is free of both cholesterol and starch. Typically marinated with garlic and deep fried, tempeh is extremely versatile and is even made into something resembling cheese (much as milk cheese can seem challenging to East Asian consumers, westerners often find this something of an acquired taste). Though it is still rarely used outside Indonesia, tempeh looks set to become a fixture on health food shelves due to its extremely nutritious, protein-heavy nature.

Raw food restaurants There was a time when vegetarians wanting to eat out had to make do with boring hefty bean casseroles and wholemeal quiches with pastry as heavy as lead roofing. Nowadays, vegetarian choices in restaurants are hugely improved - but diners who prefer to eat their food raw for maximum nutrition often get, well, a raw deal. This may change in the near future, as more and more people are realising the health benefits of eating food in as close to its natural state as possible. The raw food guru Chad Sarno finally catered to this trend in 2008, when he opened Saf, a chain of high quality vegan restaurants serving mainly raw and partially dehydrated food. The chain now has branches in London, Munich and Istanbul. Judging by the roaring success of these restaurants - serving such unusual offerings as raw lasagne and cashew milk cheese - the public have been pleased to discover that eating raw and eating interestingly are not mutually exclusive.

Now that the trend has been successfully tested on the market, expect to find gourmet raw food turning up at a restaurant near you in 2009. Dehydrator trays While Sarno has helped popularise raw food recently, the true pioneer of uncooked haute cuisine has to be Chicago's Charlie Trotter, also appearing at Gourmet Abu Dhabi. His 2003 recipe book Raw Trotter introduced the non-specialist public to the food dehydrator, a machine that develops crispness and flavour in food in a way similar to an oven without exposing it to temperatures high enough to reduce its enzyme content. In other words, a dehydrator helps food becomes more easily digestible (and often more flavoursome) without actually cooking it. While at first glance that might not sound like the stuff gourmet's dreams are made on, Trotter has certainly proved a convincing advocate for the technique, creating vegetarian recipes that were groundbreaking in their delicacy and complexity.

Outside the restaurant kitchen, food dehydrators were initially just a fad for the gadget-obsessed wealthy, but as they have become more popular, prices have gone down considerably. With a host of affordable models now on the market, 2009 looks to be the year when these machines start to become a standard part of the health-conscious cook's batterie de cuisine. That said, as dehydrators generally need anything between a few hours and several days to prepare food to the right level, they're unlikely to be taking over from microwaves just yet.

Tarragon Despite its use in the classic French garnish mixture fines herbes, tarragon has until recently remained a relatively obscure, underused herb outside France. Now, however, its peppery aniseed flavour is due for a revival as people look for alternatives to coriander and parsley to liven up salads. Tarragon isn't a herb that maintains its flavour when dried, so you really need to find it fresh to appreciate its flavour. Typically used as a garnish for fish, it works very well as a last-minute addition to bean soups and tastes absolutely wonderful sprinkled raw over roast cherry tomatoes or added on the stem to a bottle of white wine vinegar.

Cheese and yoghurt With people across the world sheltering from the economic downturn by staying at home and making things for themselves that they would have previously bought, home cooking and entertaining is going to be a major trend for both vegetarians and omnivores this year. Cheese and yoghurt, mainstays of many vegetarian diets, will be prime examples of this new fondness for DIY domesticity. While few (if any) households are set up for making anything as complicated and slow-maturing as Camembert, preparing your own ricotta is surprisingly simple, requiring little more investment than milk, lemon juice, cheesecloth and a colander. As people get more exacting about how their food is made and where it comes from, scrupulous consumers are increasingly likely to seek out time to make kitchen staples like these for themselves.

Buckwheat There was a lot of fuss in the vegetarian world about the South American grain quinoa a few years back. Not only was it pleasantly nutty, it was also high in protein and omega oils. A lot of people went off the stuff, however, when they discovered that the only way it didn't cause flatulence was when it was boiled to a mush. Far easier to prepare well is 2009's most fashionable grain, buckwheat. It is the seed of a bush rather than a grass and will be familiar to eastern Europeans and many Americans as kasha. With 18 per cent protein and plenty of amino acids, iron, zinc and selenium, buckwheat is an excellent food for non-meat eaters. While it can be ground into flour to make pancakes (it's the flour the French use to make savoury crepes), it's most typically boiled and eaten dressed with butter, as it has a pleasant nutty flavour that tastes good on its own and makes for a welcome, more nutritious alternative to rice or couscous.

Foods with live bacteria In recent years, the suspicion of eating foods that have live organisms in them has abated as people have learnt how bacteria such as the lactobacillus acidophilus present in yoghurt can improve digestion and possibly boost immune response. Following the success of probiotic drinks and supplements, some more vegetarian products are going to be turning up in health conscious fridges this year. Skyr is a traditional Icelandic dairy product that sits somewhere between yoghurt and cheese. It's made from culturing milk with bacteria and then straining the resulting curds, and is usually served sweetened and with fruit. With a delicate sweet and sour flavour, it keeps well without refrigeration and is supposedly excellent for digestion.

Radically different in flavour though similar in its effects is Korean kimchi, pickled, fermented cabbage flavoured with chilli and garlic. It is an essential part of Korean cuisine, and many households in the country have a special kimchi fridge to keep the stuff fermenting at the optimum temperature. Sharp, tangy, spicy and intense, this delicious food is also high in healthy live bacteria. Look to see it moving out of ethnic stores and into supermarkets as its health benefits become better known.