Vegan food takes Croydon by the taste buds

By - Tuesday 13th June, 2017

These days, it’s easy for vegans to eat well in our town

Photo author’s own.

The figures speak for themselves. Statistics from Google Trends show that the number of people in the UK following a vegan lifestyle has grown by 350% in a decade, with vegan food sales rocketing by 1,500% in 2016. And it seems that this is happening right here in Croydon, too.

First – those astonishing numbers. Online supermarket Ocado reports staggering increases in sales of vegan products: some up by over 2,000% in 2016. Sainsbury’s admits to underestimating demand for its new vegan cheese by 300%. Pizza and pasta chain Zizzi underestimated likely sales of its vegan pizza by 300%, then saw sales of vegan menu items rise by a further 150% in one month alone.

Even JD Wetherspoon has vegan options these days. Marks & Spencer, Boots, Sainsbury’s and WHSmith have all launched vegan sandwiches. Tesco, Co-op and Caffè Nero had already climbed on board. Pret A Manger launched a 100% veggie branch in Soho, central London, last year – and its top-selling items were all vegan. Pret then opened another veggie branch in Shoreditch, and is rolling out favourite vegan options globally in all its stores.

There are millions of potential vegans – if only they can find products that are tasty enough

Quorn, the company behind the meat substitute (and owned by a Korean vegan), is gradually removing the egg from its ranges and creating new vegan options. Quorn’s sales team revealed recently that 75% of its sales are to ‘meat reducers’: people trying to cut down on meat. It seems that the food industry has finally worked out that many millions are potentially vegan – if they can only find products that are convenient, good value, easily available and tasty enough.

So how do vegan diners in Croydon fare? Which destinations welcome them and feed them well? Which struggle to meet their needs? We asked the Green Party’s Tracey Hague to wander the streets of our town and sniff out meat-free/egg-free/dairy-free/animal-free vegan delicacies.

The news seems good. As Tracey says, “The problem now is not whether to, but where to eat out as a vegan – there’s so much choice these days!” True, there are few exclusively vegetarian or vegan places in Croydon. Examples of this rare beast are CookDaily (fab vegan food and a wide choice) and Vegan Doner by What The Pitta (more yummy vegan food), both located in Boxpark. There are, however, many outlets that are what I would term ‘vegan-friendly’.

A vegan lunch at The Oval has become precious grown-up time while the kids are at school

For pizza, it has to be Zizzi with its vegan mozzarella, or Pizza Express with its Pianta pizza (sadly, there’s no vegan Bambinoccino on the Piccolo children’s menu… yet!). For Japanese, it’s Wagamama, and for Chinese/south-east Asian, it’s Miso by East Croydon station – both tasty, good value and quick, with plenty of choice.

For a tasty, home-cooked lunch somewhere quiet, it’s The Oval Tavern on Oval Road, or Byte Cafe at the TMRW hub in High Street – I just wish the latter was open at weekends, but that said, lunch there has become precious grown-up time while the children are at school! The Oval is also somewhere dogs are welcome; Boxpark is a no-go for dog owners.

For brunch, Smoothbean! in Dingwall Road is reasonably priced. We thought its portions looked small, but found them surprisingly filling – and loved its relaxed ambience; several more mature vegans favour it over Boxpark because it’s quieter. And for Caribbean, it’s Caribsoul (George Street), especially if you like spicy food.

People will travel a very long way for vegan cake

Special mention goes to the Asian market stall (from Surrey Street but currently in North End) for the best-value tofu; and TFC in West Croydon for the best-value houmous, plus vegan naan bread. And then there is Saravanaa Bhavan, a new place on George Street, which does delicious food – but no vegan puddings.

Since Buttercream Dreams (in Project B) closed, there have been few places that offer vegan desserts. Shakeaway (in the Whitgift Centre) has loads of choice (too much sometimes!), but is something of a treat. Since Parklife opened in Lloyd Park, there’s somewhere that offers not only a yummy vegan burger (always a winner!) and vegan coffee (who doesn’t, these days?), but now vegan cake: anywhere whose menu proudly states ‘we cater for vegetarians and vegans’ gets a thumbs up from me. After all, people will travel quite some distance for vegan cake, and having vegans in a group sets the tone for the meal.

It’s a mistake to assume only vegans will go for the vegan option

In nearly 20 years as a vegan, I’ve had some shocking meals (as the song goes, ‘I could write a book’ – or maybe another article for the Croydon Citizen!) but only two flat-out refusals to cater for my vegan family; they both lost our custom. Any Asian restaurant can easily cater for vegans with no advanced notice, so there’s plenty of choice locally, but two places stand out – Gurkha Spice (South Croydon) and The Windmill Pub (St James’s Road). Both cook to order from fresh ingredients – and boy, can you tell by the flavours having a party on your tongue!

A chef’s mistake can be to assume that only vegans will choose the vegan option, but Croydon’s fine-dining restaurants certainly don’t fall into it. It’s worth asking fine-dining destinations such as Albert’s Table in South Croydon what they can do for vegans. Sometimes a good chef will surprise and delight once set the challenge to come up with something innovative and creative for diners who want to try something out of the ordinary.

Bagatti’s vegan offer. Screenshot author’s own.

And celebrated Italian restaurant Bagatti’s recently went a step further, tweeting a full list of all the vegan items on its menus: these include a selection of starters, pastas, risotto, soups and salads.

Because… veganism is now mainstream. It’s been mentioned on virtually every soap opera going, including The Archers. It’s hardly surprising that the Croydon Vegetarians and Vegans Facebook group is thriving, but it is still surprising when you see the proliferation of vegan groups on social media. And it’s worth noting that IKEA chose its Croydon branch to trial its vegan meatballs (a dish that holds the Vegan Trademark) for the product’s debut in April 2015.

Us vegans love food – and tend to be pretty good cooks

There are many reasons to go vegan – for animals, for the planet, for human health. And vegans love food. So most of us end up pretty good at cooking, and when we eat out, it has to be something different to what we cook at home. Vegan food is also good value (the ingredients are cheaper), tasty and nutritious

A fruit salad dessert is such a cliché and, frankly, shows laziness or a poor imagination. It’s so easy to add a shot of Grand Marnier or Amaretto; buy or make vegan ice cream; or get creative with dark chocolate and creamed coconut or cashew nuts. If you’re a foodie too, going vegan will open up your taste buds to a whole new range of flavours, textures and experiences.

We’ve come a long way from Hockney’s Restaurant by the Croydon flyover in the ’80s – and the future for vegans is looking bright.

Tony Bishop-Weston

Tony Bishop-Weston

Tony Bishop-Weston is executive consultant chef, author, presenter and food critic with Foods for Life Health and Nutrition Consultancy. He has won numerous awards, most recently that of VegfestUK's Best Vegan Cookbook for a book which he wrote along with leading London nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston.

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