Why are vegan dishes in the UAE disappearing?

Omitting plant-based options from restaurant menus is a short-sighted business decision

A vegan menu is available for Veganuary at Punjab Grill in Dubai and Abu Dhabi until January 31. Photo: Punjab Grill
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Veganuary is in full swing, which means restaurants throughout the UAE, for a limited time, are cashing in on the annual trend by adding a few plant-based options to their menus.

This year, however, I’ve had far fewer press releases about such additions than I have since 2019, when the UAE went positively nuts for veganism.

This follows a wider trend I’ve noticed across the country, as restaurants have seemingly lost interest, vegan spots have shut down (I mourn the loss of Bloom Vegan Kitchen and its stellar cauliflower tacos) and some of my favourite dishes have disappeared from other menus.

I can only assume it wasn’t quite the cash cow restaurateurs expected. But I’m here to argue that not having at least a few vegan options on a menu is losing businesses money.

I’m almost always the only vegan, which means choosing a venue comes down to me, even if I’m with nine omnivores

“The veto vote” is what plant-based food consultant Nada Elbarshoumi calls it. This happens when one person in a dining party who is vegan, vegetarian or has food allergies, decides where the group will dine, she says.

“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 tells me the restaurant 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.”

I’m starting to lose count of the number of times I’ve steered non-vegan diners away from vegan-unfriendly restaurants in the recent past.

I have a total of two vegan friends – they’re a couple, so if we all go out together then my husband will be the token meat-eater in the group, which is fun for a change.

But if they’re not with us, then I’m almost always the only vegan whose "annoying" dietary choices mean choosing a venue comes down to me, even if I’m with nine omnivores.

We need somewhere that can cater for everyone – so, if you don’t, then you’ve lost the group’s custom, not only mine.

The same goes for takeaways. Until recently, I ordered the mezze wrap by Mantoushe once a week, every single week. It’s a giant wrap with hummus, tabbouleh, spicy potato and other mezze classics packed in – hardly a groundbreaking invention, but delicious.

And it’s not on the menu any more. Why? All these items are individually available and they’re cheap. I can’t have been the only person ordering this dish, but I was the only Mantoushe-lover in my family and encouraged the rest of us to order from the restaurant every so often. Now we never do.

I was also a big fan of Zaroob's "not chicken" shawarma, but that's disappeared too. And, again, it was only my love of this dish that would ever bring the family to order from Zaroob over stiff competition from similar spots.

To me, the choice to remove all vegan dishes just doesn’t make any business sense. Having even just two or three options that don’t include any animal products not only makes your venue more inclusive (because vegetarians, flexitarians and people with dairy intolerances and allergies can also enjoy these), but also wins you handy (vegan) brownie points with the herbivores.

For example, the next time a meat-eating friend has a vegan coming to stay and they ask me where to take them, I’ll recommend your restaurant. And if your plant-based options are good, since so many places do them badly, you’ll win loyal vegan customers who are far less fickle than our meat-eating friends (because, let's face it, they have far more options on the table). And we’ll drag those meat-eating friends along.

The profit margins can be higher on vegan dishes, too, since vegetables don’t cost much, and beans and pulses have longer shelf lives than meat and fish. Too many restaurants have turned to meat and dairy substitutes, which are expensive and unnecessary.

Make vegetables the star of the show: create a chickpea-based patty instead of buying in Impossible burgers (which many vegans don’t even like), or try making a cashew-based cheese instead of loading up on Violife. Tofu and seitan are also relatively cheap vegan protein options that are easy to make tasty.

There’s another factor at play here too: modifications. I’ve always hated being that person who asks the chef to omit ingredients from a dish or, worse, make something off-menu, but sometimes I have to be. Add a couple of meat, dairy and egg-free options, and you can worry less about these pesky requests flooding in from vegans and allergy sufferers, leading to smoother service all round. Add in an option that’s vegan and gluten-free, and you’re golden.

We’re not asking for much here – just a few options and something a bit more creative than a green salad and avocado on toast. I promise, we’ll thank you for it in dirhams.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 12:12 PM