Chapter 18 – First
Steps for Virgin Veggies
So you’ve decided to go veggie or vegan – now
what do you do? Panic? No way! There are now so many
of us that you’re no longer considered a weirdo
who does strange things in private! These days, even
most burger bars offer a meat-free alternative to minced
A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat any dead
animals or bits taken from them. That means no meat;
no poultry – chicken, turkey, etc; no fish or other
water animals like prawns or crab; and no slaughterhouse
products such as gelatine and animal fat. A vegan is
someone who doesn’t eat any animal products at
all, including eggs or dairy produce such as milk, cheese
Perhaps the most obscure-sounding of all things to look
out for is gelatine. In fact, it’s in a lot of
food we generally don’t think of as having anything
to do with meat. Gelatine is a form of edible glue and
is used to stick together sweets like some fruit gums,
mints and liquorice all-sorts. It’s also used in
some yoghurts and ice creams, as well as jellies.
Gelatine is made by boiling the ligaments, tendons,
bones, hooves and horns of pigs, cows and horses. In
most European countries, manufacturers have to list all
the ingredients of a product on the label so check on
the packaging if you want to avoid gelatine. (As cows
are used in the manufacture of gelatine, it’s doubly
important if you’re worried about BSE.) You may
find checking the labels a pain at first, but you soon
get to know which products use gelatine and which don’t.
If you see the words ‘guar gum’ or ‘agar
agar’ in the list of ingredients, don’t worry.
These are the veggie alternatives to gelatine, which
more and more manufacturers are using.
Animal fat is just that – fat from the bodies
of dead animals. It’s boiled off the skin and used
in some biscuits, margarine, cake, soups and other things.
Suet is the fat taken from an animal’s kidneys.
Fortunately, animal fat and suet are increasingly recognised
as unhealthy, and loads of products now only use vegetable
fats – again, just look at the list of ingredients
on the package.
Label reading can be a drag as I’ve said, but
there are ways of making it easier. Once you know a product
is animal-free, you don’t have to read the label
again. There are also manufacturers who only produce
vegetarian products, so once you discover who these are,
you’ll be able to buy their goods without worry.
These brands are still mostly stocked by health food
shops but increasingly they’re in a lot of supermarkets
In fact, most of the foods we eat don’t have bits
of dead animals in them. Most kitchens usually have plenty
to much on which is veggie, including tins of beans,
cereals, pasta and pasta dishes, vegetables, fruit, bread,
veggie soups and veggie spreads, including yeast extracts
like Marmite, Vegemite, Vecon and Promite, to name a
few. So before your hunger pangs turn to panic, have
a rake around in the cupboards at home and see what you
find – you could be in for a pleasant surprise!
If you don’t come up with much, it’s time
to visit the shops where you’ll find a choice so
wide you won’t know where to start. Supermarkets,
especially, have been quick to cash in on the growing
veggie boom and nowadays sell most of the ingredients
you’ll need for a complete veggie meal.
Some supermarkets even have a ‘special’ vegetarian
section, but this is really a bit pointless because vegetarian
products are on virtually every shelf. In the tinned-food
section, there is every imaginable fruit and vegetable.
There are loads of pulses too – red kidney beans,
black-eyed beans, canellini, borlotti beans and chick
peas to name a few – all great for salads or to
use instead of meat in casseroles, lasagne, bakes or
pies. Tinned baked beans or curried baked beans, baked
beans with veggie sausages in them, spaghetti hoops and
vegetable bolognese in cans are also easy to find and
cook. (Just pop them in a pot and heat them up.) There
are plenty of tinned soups, too.
In the dried-foods section, you’ll find all the
different pastas as well as the jars of veggie sauces
to go with them. Noodles are also good and easy to cook.
There’s every kind of rice, dried potatoes and
even some products you may never have heard of before – bulgar
wheat, cous cous and polenta. You can even get pizza
bases in packs!
Now whiz your trolley round to the frozen-food cabinets
and feast your eyes. Here are the veggie sausages, burgers
and ‘beef-like’ pies, veggie-steaks and nuggets,
imitation chicken and toad-in-the-hole, as well as ready-to-eat
pasta dishes such as veggie lasagne and cannelloni. The
cooking instructions are dead simple. If the rest of
your family is having meat and two veg, you can just
heat up one of these to eat instead of the meat.
What often gives these frozen foods their ‘meaty’ feel
is wheat protein (gluten) as well as textured vegetable
protein (TVP) from soya beans. You can also buy TVP on
its own dried mince or in frozen chunks and make up your
own dishes, using it in the same way you would meat to
cook savoury ‘mince’, chilli, casseroles,
shepherd’s pie, curries and the like. If anyone
asks, TVP is healthier than meat. It’s high in
protein and vitamins, and low in fat. (And no one’s
ever died from food poisoning or mad cow disease from
As well as finding TVP sausages in the supermarket freezer,
you’ll probably find a whole range of non-meat
bangers made from vegetables and tofu. Most of these
taste spookily meaty. There’s also a range of dry
sausage mixes to which you add water, shape and then
You can’t get away from burgers even as a veggie,
and again there are lots of different types. Some are
made from chopped-up vegetables held together in a burger
shape while others mimic meat. These days the veggie
burger’s in such big demand that most supermarkets
have produced their own brands. I’ve even discovered
a ‘chargrilled burger’ which I guarantee
even the most blinkered carnivore couldn’t tell
from meat. (Once you become a more confident veggie cook,
you may even want to make your own burgers with roast
peanuts of TVP.)
Most of the big supermarkets also do their own range
of ready-made vegetarian foods, from curries to mushroom
stroganoff, cheese-and-spinach rolls to lasagne, cheese
crowns to veggie cottage pies – all usually kept
in the chiller cabinet. You don’t have to be a
whiz in the kitchen to get by. However, if you do want
to get more involved in cooking, there are some good
vegetarian cook books to help you get started, like The
L-Plate Vegetarian, see page 189.
Be careful when buying cheeses because not all of them
are vegetarian. To make a lot of cheeses, including Cheddar
and Cheshire, a product called rennet is added to the
milk to make it curdle. Most rennet comes from the stomachs
of slaughtered calves but there is a vegetable variety
and it’s this that’s used in veggie cheeses,
including veggie Cheddar and Cheshire. So look for ‘vegetarian
cheese’ or ‘suitable for vegetarians’ on
the label. A lot of soft cheeses like Brie don’t
use rennet at all. However, if you’re not sure
or if the label isn’t clear, don’t be afraid
Ice creams too, believe it or not, aren’t necessarily
vegetarian either. Pure dairy ice creams obviously are,
but others are made from ‘non-dairy’ fat,
which can either mean vegetable or animal fat, and it
doesn’t always say which on the label. Yes, you’ve
guessed it – cold piggy cream in a tub!
There’s often a big temptation when people first
go veggie to overdose on cheese and other dairy products.
Watch it! It isn’t good to overboard on these foods
because at the end of the day you’re still eating
a type of animal fat.
If you’ve decided to skip dairy products as well
as well as meat, then the humble and amazingly versatile
soya bean comes to the rescue again. Replace cow’s
milk with soya milk. It’s available from almost
all supermarkets and certainly all health-food shops.
Different brands of soya milk taste very different from
one another, so if you don’t like one, try another.
One of the most popular is the type that’s sweetened
slightly with apple juice and had calcium added to it.
You can use it on your cereals, in tea, coffee and milk
shakes, just as you would cow’s milk.
I used to be a mega chocoholic and I still am! Only
now I crave for plain, not milk chocolate. Again there’s
a reasonable choice available in most shops and supermarkets
but, until you learn which brands are milk-free and which
aren’t, you’re probably better off in a health-food
Cheese is usually the first thing people miss when they
go vegan. However, you can buy some brilliant vegan cheeses,
although they’re not sold in supermarkets – yet.
Ask your health-food shop to stock them if it doesn’t
have them already. One of the best is a soft cream cheese
which tastes exactly as if it were made from cow’s
milk. You can even buy vegan hard cheeses, including
Cheddar, Cheshire, Edam, Gouda, Mozzarella and even Stilton!
For pizzas, try putting some extra tomato puree on the
base and missing out on the cheese – it tastes
There are also several makes of vegan ice cream now
available and although some are sold in supermarkets,
the best place to look is still the health-food shop.
Replacing butter on the other hand is dead easy as practically
all the supermarkets sell an own-brand vegan margarine.
Basically, there are vegan alternatives for everything
these days! (A brilliant book which lists them is the
Animal Free Shopper by the Vegan Society – see
p. 184.) Whatever it is you’re looking for, the
trick is not to rely just on the supermarket. Definitely
check out your local health-food shop. It can be a bit
daunting going in for the first time and you can feel
embarrassed because you don’t recognise half the
foods in the place! That was my experience, at any rate.
But the staff are usually really helpful and if you can’t
find what you want, they often order it in.
There are now millions of young vegetarians in Britain
and around the world. Despite this, there is a chance
you may feel a bit isolated from your meat-eating friends
to begin with. There may also be a whole host more questions
you want to ask. If this is the case, then there are
a number of veggie or environmental groups around which
may be able to help you. Most of these are listed in
the resource section at the back of this book – just
get in touch with the one you think will be most useful
to you. You don’t necessarily have to become a
member as most are happy to provide help and advice.
Never forget that you are a consumer and, as an individual,
you have power. Don’t be afraid to exercise it.
You can choose what you do and don’t buy, where
you do and don’t shop and which cafes you hang
out in. We’re always being told about choice, so
where you have choice, use it!
If there are things that upset you, write to the organisations
or people responsible. Don’t be fobbed off. If
you don’t get the response you want, take it higher.
If it’s a company, writing to the managing director
may be more successful than writing to a department manager.
And bear in mind that acting with other people as a group
will have added effect. So if you’re complaining
about a product, perhaps because it doesn’t list
its ingredients clearly, don’t hesitate to let
people know that you won’t be buying it in future
and that you’ll also be telling all your friends
to do the same.
By deciding to go veggie or vegan, you have changed
your way of thinking. This simple fact will probably
have an effect on lots of things – friends, the
kind of places you go and the things you do – you’re
unlikely to become a supporter of fox hunting for a start!
You’ll almost certainly get into debates, even
arguments, and whether you realise it or not, you’re
going to start influencing other people simply by having
made a stand on something important to you. That is one
of the strongest things anyone can do! And you should
As a virgin veggie, you’ve started down the road
of change. The end may be a long way off, but we’re