‘Why and how I became vegetarian…’
Let’s talk about being vegetarian. I can only assume that maybe half – possibly three quarters – of you either said ‘no, let’s not’ or at least rolled your eyes a little. That’s fine. But I do want to clarify before I go any further that this post is neither a preach nor a ‘greener than thou’ post about the wonders of vegetarianism. Eat meat. It’s great. I’m wildly jealous (kind of).
What this post is meant to be is a rationale behind my approach to vegetarianism. A little why, when and how kind of thing. I’ve noticed that during my shift from being the most grotesque meat consumer ever (we’re talking bacon grease on the chin) to being a vegetarian, that many of my friends and family have also opened up their outlooks and evaluated their meat intake. This was not at all my mission – and now I find myself having a lot to answer for.
‘How did you do it?’ and ‘Why did you bother?’ are the main two questions. The third is ‘Why are you so being so ridiculous’ but that’s neither here nor there. But I found myself too often being like “It’s fine, it’s easy, I love it” and leaving people perplexed. So I’ve decided to map it out a little for you.
So we begin in the depths of winter. January 3rd. Picture it. It was a cruel, dark, Wintery night. I promise I won’t carry on writing like this, I’m just scene setting. I’m sat at my breakfast table in my apartment with a beef burger (just mince, cumin, breadcrumbs, eggs, the whole bit) and some chips and coleslaw combo nonsense. And I started to realise that I wasn’t excited.
By excited I mean, I was looking at the burger as sustenance. Filling a hole (giggidy). I never really looked at food – or cooking – in this manner. Cooking was always a cathartic practice of relaxation and eating was always a low-key exercise of pleasure for me. Yet here I was, bap in hand, and I felt nothing. For the first time in a long time, I was eating just plainly because I was hungry.
Now, okay, food isn’t supposed to be a carnival of emotions but my relationship with food was always a healthy one. That’s not to say I ate nothing but organic greens and drank juices, but my relationship with food was healthy in the sense that I ate the right amounts of the right things, I didn’t see any food as ‘sinful’ or full of calories and ‘clean eating’ was always more #instastyle than substance to me. However for the first time in a long time, my relationship with food was questionable and I realised that cooking had become a habit and eating had become a routine.
I have no idea what I did in a past life that was so un-Christian, but my birthday also falls on January 1st (right after Christmas, thanks mother) so I was not particularly at my lightest at this stage so was feeling fairly swollen and doughy anyway so I’m always prone to a change in outlook around this time of year anyway so this realisation of relationship shift came at the perfect time.
I realised that in order to spark my interest in cooking and eating again, I would need to figure out what was missing. What was missing in my eating plan was that the building blocks of putting a recipe together all looked the same to me. Start with a meat. Add a carbohydrate. Add a vegetable. Add seasoning. Add a sauce etc. The formula to how I was putting meals together was a little repetitious.
This repetition would also encourage me to not look at introducing anything new into my diet. I have never been one for omitting anything from my diet and more focused on what I can include, however I noticed that each and every meal always started in the same place and that was “what meat I was going to eat”. I never really approached a meal from any other angle. I always just thought ‘I want chicken or I want beef tonight’. That’s what needed to change.
I figured that by removing the starting point, I would be left with a tonne of broken pieces that I would need to scramble together again to fit a meal together. This excited me. I was also shit scared because I didn’t want to be somebody that just ate cabbage and ketchup. So I decided to give myself some time to really approach this logically and be able to get my head around the fact I was going to be approaching the Kitchen from a brand new angle.
I also was booked in for a birthday meal that Saturday in a really nice Pie shop in Cardiff and had my eye on a Steak & Blue Cheese Pie and decided that would be my final meal. So January 9th I decided would be the day I would start removing meat gradually from my diet in order to juice a little life back into my cooking approach.
I started gradually. I knew if I quit cold-turkey (lol) I would be scratching the walls and eating my own limbs so I decided that I would eat a meatless meal twice/three times a week. This included a Coconut Squash Rings with Egg Fried Cauliflower Rice , some really good Cold Peanut Sriracha Noodles that my partner at the time was absolutely obsessed with and an Aloo Gobi with Coriander Yogurt that was really a turning point for realising the importance of flavour and texture with a meal.
The more I started introducing these delicious recipes in my life, the more I realised I was connecting more with my food. My process started to shift. I wasn’t looking at ingredients as a whole. I was looking at the final dish as a sum of parts. Say for instance the noodle dish I mentioned. I knew that night I wanted something hassle free (as always) but I wanted the soothing tangle of noodles and the throat snapping kick of fiery chilli. I wasn’t thinking ‘I fancy chicken’, I was starting to look at what I wanted the food to taste like.
This would then enable me to look at the meal I wanted from a compartmentalised basis. Basically, in order to achieve that final product, I’d need a mixture of blah, blah and blah. Said blah, blah and blah was never a meat product. It always came down to seasoning, spices and textural foods. It was literally like learning to cook again and I had never been so connected to what I was doing.
I started to jiggle my balance. Whereas I was originally meat free twice/three times a week, I then swapped this for 5 days a week and allowing myself the weekends for meat. Meatends, I called them. It allowed me to have a roast and a bacon sandwich. However as I was approaching mealtimes during the week, I started to feel my body react. I realised that in a month I had dropped just over half a stone and I started to feel that my body was not getting lethargic and gross after each meal, however at the weekend, my body was exhausted. Cooking with meat then started to feel like a force.
The turning point for me was a lovely weekend away in West Wales where I went to an amazing restaurant and ordered a steak (rare, naturally). I was so excited for the steak because I hadn’t had one for so long. It was placed in front of me, in its juicy, bloody, buttery form and I wasn’t excited. For the first time ever, a bloody, dead cow just did not excite me. I ate the damn thing and while it tasted great, I wasn’t impressed. My body felt weird and I think my stomach had a diva fit trying to break down the fibres. That’s when the green light bulb went off in my head and I realised that this vegetarianism thing was now a full time gig.
If a honking slab of rare steak wasn’t going to impress me, no piece of meat was.
I returned to the Kitchen energised, motivated, slightly lighter in body weight and more enthusiastic than I’d ever been to cook. There was something weirdly exciting about putting together meatless dishes. It didn’t feel naughty, but it did feel as though I was trying to get out of the Matrix and challenge what I’d always done naturally. The dishes that I was producing felt a lot more natural to me and for some reason, meat had lost its appeal.
Like I promised, this post has nothing to do with trying to convince you to be vegetarian. I didn’t do it for the animals and I didn’t do it for health – I did it because I love cooking and I love food and I wanted to challenge myself to approach doing what I love differently. And I’ve never been more in love with cooking (and eating). Every meal is like a new reminder that this shift in approach is perfectly right for me.
I won’t go into any health benefits of vegetarianism. I am not a doctor and my body isn’t your body. What works for me won’t work for you. But eating more vegetables is damn near a good thing, right? Any expert should be able to tell you that. Again, I won’t go into how I balance my proteins etc (maybe I’ll do that in another post) but this post is really to answer the questions for those people that asked why and how.
Will I be vegetarian forever? Maybe. It’s how I see myself cooking and eating for the foreseeable future but I am always open to new ways of eating and being in touch with my relationship with food. I’ve learnt to cook as per what my body is telling me feels right and right now I’ve never felt better. If someday in the distant future my body says ‘You know what you need Mikey… you need bacon’, then bacon is what I shall have.
I would never say to somebody ‘you should be vegetarian’. Your food intake is absolutely nothing to do with me. But what I would say is that if you are looking for ways to incorporate vegetables into your life, there are some really cool and delicious ways to do this without just boiling some frozen vegetables to the point of car tire in a hob and serving it alongside your regularly scheduled evening meal. You can get so creative.
I told myself that if I could master one particularly meat free recipe and do it deliciously without a second thought for meat, I knew this would be the life for me. That recipe was tacos. I knew that if I could create a good taco recipe that was meat free but also delicious in its own way that I wouldn’t struggle with anything else. Anybody that reads my blog will know tacos are my favourite things in the world so having to say goodbye to the recipe I knew and loved was a pain.
But I have written a taco recipe specifically for this point. It’s my Cajun Mushroom Tacos with Mango Salsa and Pink Radish Slaw which is such a gorgeous thing to plonk on the table for your friends or family on a weekend. A friend who I once served this to has since requested them twice more. They are so gorgeously addictive and they use Cajun spiced minced mushrooms as the filling with really eye catchingly beautiful accompaniments.
The trick to this recipe is – don’t look at the mushroom mince as a meat mince substitute. The word substitute always frightened me a little bit because I never wanted to look at my vegetarian dishes as being subpar. I never wanted them to feel like they were deprived of something, and trying to catch up. I never wanted them to feel like they were only good DESPITE not having meat. I want my meals to be tasty on their own merit, and enjoyed for what they are as opposed to enjoyed despite what they are not. These tacos are my case in this point.
And this mind-set is crucial. Looking at food this way was key for me in maintaining being vegetarian among a few other important points. So for anybody that is looking to go meat free (whether this be for good or temporarily) or if you just want to get motivated to introduce some new ways of cooking in your life, I’ve highlighted five points below that were really important in my approach to becoming a vegetarian.
- Gradual transition – don’t spook yourself. Not that vegetarianism requires a 12-step-programme or anything but the removal of meat is quite a daunting thing to approach when it’s all you know. People fear the unfamiliar. Break yourself in. Do two meat free nights a week with two REALLY good meals. Allow this process to sink in and then go five days a week.
2. If it’s NOT, then accept that it ISN’T – accepting that a mushroom burger will not taste like a beef burger is key. Too many people have eaten my tacos and said ‘It tastes just like beef mince!’. That is not the purpose. A nut roast won’t taste like a beef joint – nor does it need or want too. It’s like saying that tiger is gorgeous even though it’s not a giraffe. A tiger isn’t supposed to look like a giraffe. Accept it. They are tasty as vegetables on their own, not as substitutes.
3. Pre plan – this is the most important. I think a lot of baaaaaad veggie food (and I’ve seen some truly devastating ones) is usually the product of poor planning. I’ve seen too many ‘Veggie Pasta Bakes’ and ‘Veggie Curries’. Put a little time aside on a weekend. I make notes on my iPhone to make sure I got the whole thing planned. I make little shopping lists underneath each meal so that my shopping stays on track and then what I buy for one meal could easily influence the next one. You’ll save a lot of money this way. If you want to see how I go about something like this, you can see my Food Diary here.
4. Don’t overthink it – says him who’s on his 2,339th word of a blog post on being vegetarian. But still. Don’t overthink eating more vegetables. It’s just vegetables. That whole “Oh, I couldn’t!!’ fake mortification I get from people who say they couldn’t possibly go veggie gets really old after a few months. I used to make fun of vegetarianism too. Annoying, I said. Ridiculous, I said. Embarrassed, I am. Once I realised that being vegetarian made me look at my hobby in a completely different light, I’ve never gone back. It’s like being a singer and suddenly learning how to sing in a particular way and you’re on the stage like ‘wow… I want to sing like this all the time’.
If you want to do it, just do it. It could be the best thing you’ve ever done.