One of the consequences of living in a different country to the rest of my family is that I am intimately acquainted with airline food.
A couple of years ago I was reading an article containing tips on how to improve your flying experience, and they suggested ordering a special meal, such as kosher, halaal or vegetarian. So I took the plunge and ordered an ovo-lacto vegetarian meal (excluding meat and fish but including dairy).
Now for me, one of the great pleasures of SAA’s in-flight meals (not words you’d expect to see together in one sentence, I know!) is the little block of Elite cheddar and biscuits that await you at the end of your meal. And seeing as I had specified that I wanted a vegetarian meal that included dairy, I was confident that this little treat would still await me at the end. Hah. Not only was the cheese gone, but the butter had also been replaced with the Devil's own spread – margarine.
What is it about the word vegetarian that makes everybody in the catering industry think "boring, salt-free, fat-free, sandal-wearing, lentil-eating freak"? SAA had clearly decided on my behalf that vegetarian = cheese and butter-free, because God forbid that anybody that eats vegetarian food might have an appetite for unhealthy vegetarian food! I wasn't too bothered – I just made a mental note never to order the vegetarian on SAA again. But it's not quite as easy if your long-term lifestyle choice is to keep vegetarian – or vegan.
I often dine out in South Africa with a dear friend who is vegan. Veganism is the more extreme end of vegetarianism – some vegans will eat only foods that did not result in the death of an animal, others will eat no animal-based products at all – including no cheese, milk, cream, eggs or gelatine. Still, there was always the possibility of a baked potato with baked beans, or pasta with pesto.
And then she was also diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Aside from the total incomprehension she faces from most restaurant staff (some of whom still think fish might be a viable vegetarian option!), there is just a total lack of anything to eat on the menu. Even vegetable soup often uses chicken stock. Although one or two restaurants we’ve been to recently had a standard vegetarian platter, quite a number, when asked about vegan options without bread or pasta, have offered a side order of vegetables and chips. Nothing says “we don’t need your business here” quite like two uninspired side orders, does it?
Evidence is mounting up that our appetite for beefburgers is killing us as well as our planet, and there is massive increase in the diagnosis of coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. Surely it’s time that establishments serving food in SA move with the times? Surely the time has come for all mainstream restaurants to offer a couple of innovative vegan and gluten-free options on their menus? Make them tasty enough and you may even persuade meat and wheat eaters to order them!
Do you think SA restaurants should offer better meat- and wheat-free options?
Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog www.cooksister.com. This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.