No meat, milk or leather please... I'm a vegan
We all know about vegetarianism but what if you go one step further? Gerry Boland has lived without animal products for nearly 20 years and here he tells of the ups and downs of life as a vegan.
It isn't that long ago that the term vegetarian conjured up an image of lentils and brown rice eaten by sandal-wearing wimps. It was a ridiculous portrayal, yet it persevered right through into the mid-1990s. Thankfully, vegetarianism is now seen as a mainstream choice.
In the UK, there are an estimated three million vegetarians and almost 2,000 people visited the 11th Annual World Vegetarian Day Fair in St Andrew's Community Centre on Dublin's Pearse Street last Sunday, evidence that the vegetarian movement is flourishing in Ireland. There are no figures for the number of vegetarians here, but anecdotal evidence combined with a modest percentage comparison with Britain would suggest that there are well in excess of 100,000.
But the world never stands still. As soon as you get the hang of the vegetarian diet, along comes the vegan diet to confuse you all over again, and although the UK Vegan Society was founded way back in 1944, the notion of eating plant-based food only had been followed by a very small minority in Ireland until recently. The establishment of Ireland's first Vegan Society earlier this year is evidence that the movement is growing.
Let's get the definition out of the way first. A vegan is someone who seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. In dietary terms, veganism refers to the practice of dispensing with all animal produce, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. A strict vegan will also avoid honey. In terms of clothing, the most obvious exclusions are leather and wool.
Time for you to ask the obvious question: why on Earth would anyone wish to become vegan? Indeed, it is a question I could easily have asked myself back in 1985. I had been eating meat for 30 years and for most of those years I never questioned what I was doing. Then a number of things happened that seemed to turn on a light.
Quite by chance, I got to know some vegetarians. Over many conversations, a previously invisible world was revealed to me. I watched a video recording of a Channel 4 documentary that had been broadcast a year or so before. The documentary was compelling and deeply disturbing and I then began to read books about animal rights, most notably Peter Singer's influential Animal Liberation.
By the end of that year, there was no turning away from what had become an inevitable lifestyle choice.
Within weeks of giving up meat, I knew I would never eat it again. Something I grew up with and that was, literally, a part of me, was gone for ever. I never missed it once; not the taste, not the smell, not the ritual of eating it. Whether it was psychological or real, the feeling of relief was undeniable. I felt I had divested myself of something pungent, heavy and unsavoury.
Of course, it wasn't all plain sailing. I was not a good cook, and for most of my first year as a vegetarian I ate adequately though hardly excitingly. Slowly, though, I developed an understanding of ingredients and how to cook them. I bought some cookbooks and attended a couple of vegetarian cookery classes.
Soon, I was experimenting, and little by little I developed a taste for different foods, trying out Indian dishes, casseroles, nut roasts, miso soups, tofu-based dishes. A whole new culinary world began to open up to me.
My animal-rights activism led me into the world of veganism. Everything I read, combined with my vegetarian lifestyle, convinced me that becoming vegan was an obvious - the obvious - route to take. After all, the end game for every farm animal, be it a dairy cow or a free-range hen, is the slaughterhouse. That's the thanks they get for a lifetime of relentless production.
I believe, as all vegetarians and vegans believe, that animals are not on this Earth for our use, and that even if they were, we have turned them into production machines, milking them for every last ounce or drop.
So what's it like being a vegan today? It's certainly easier than it was 12 years ago, when I first became one. Most restaurateurs in 1992 were not familiar with the term vegan and were genuinely puzzled and confused when asked could they prepare a meal without meat, eggs, butter, milk or cheese.
Today, it's a good deal better, though the quality of meals is still generally poor and lacking in imagination. Most chefs cannot get their heads around veganism, yet there are thousands of fabulous recipes in cookbooks and on the internet.
I have relied on one Dublin catering establishment more than any other. It's called Blazing Salads and for a long time it was one of the city's most popular vegetarian restaurants. It's a take-away vegetarian and vegan deli. All their salads are vegan, as are their fine breads. They have a select range of vegetarian and vegan savouries, such as samosas and rice balls, and they even do vegan pizzas (tofu replacing the mozzarella cheese). It's also one of the very few places where you can get a soya-based latte and cappuccino.
New health-food stores - where you will find the largest selection of vegan products - are springing up all over the country. As a vegan, you'll also need to avoid any cosmetics or toiletries tested on animals, and most health-food stores will stock only cruelty-free products.
The things most people take for granted are very often the things that cause vegans problems. If I need a belt, it's not always easy to find a nice, non-leather one. The same goes for footwear. The only non-leather shoes available 15 years ago were of the environmentally-unfriendly, sweat-inducing, shiny synthetic variety. Nowadays, there are companies that specialise in the manufacture of high-quality, non-leather footwear and accessories, though none of these are based in Ireland. The only way to get hold of them is by mail order. That said, I have come across from time to time some good quality non-leather shoes in the most unlikely of shoe shops in Dublin.
My favourite place to shop in Dublin is the Dublin Food Co-op, an organic market that takes place every Saturday in St Andrew's Community Centre on Pearse Street. The Co-op sells a huge range of vegan produce, as well as a very impressive range of fresh organic fruit and vegetables. The recently established Irish Vegan Group regularly has an information stall at the market.
I can see a time, and it is approaching fast, when vegans will be catered for widely and well, and being vegan will be seen to be what it is already today - a modern, healthy and compassionate alternative to the mainstream meat-based diet.
Recipe for Vegan success
The grain I use most is organic brown rice. Cooked properly, it is hard to beat as a complete whole food and it goes with anything. I also find quinoa, buckwheat, millet, couscous, bulgar and brown and white basmati rice are great. My favourite pulses (there are many more varieties available in health-food stores) are aduki, butterbean, chickpea, kidney and blackeye. I use seeds a lot, both in cooking and with cereals, especially sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and linseed. My other preferred ingredients are seaweed, miso (a fermented soya-bean paste) and tofu.
My typical breakfast is a juice, organic porridge with soya milk, tea (usually green tea) and bread and tahini (a creamy spread made from crushed sesame seeds).
As for lunches and dinners, my favourite dish is quite a plain one. A mixture of vegetables, sliced thinly along the diagonal (carrots, turnip, parsnip, beetroot, courgette, peppers, broccoli), fried with plenty of fresh, chopped ginger, onion and pumpkin seeds. When the vegetables are al dente, add cooked aduki beans and heat through, and then add shoyu or tamari (soya sauces) to taste. Served on a bed of organic brown rice, this is a simple, tasty and nutritious meal. If it's a little dry, add one or two chopped tomatoes before the beans. I'd be happy eating this meal twice a week for the rest of my life, varying it each time with different vegetables.
ORGANISATIONS AND WEBSITES
The Irish Vegan Group: (http://homepage.eircom.
net/~veganirish/the vegan society of ireland.htm)
Vegetarian Society of Ireland, PO Box 3010, Dublin 4 (www.vegetarian.ie)