This year, I saw in the New Year with just a couple of friends and our young children. I drained my last glass of gin, danced around the living room as the clock struck twelve, sang the wrong words to Auld Lang Syne and cuddled and kissed everyone in sight. I went to bed, knowing that that would be my last gin for a while, my last ham pie, so as hedonism went, it was going to be as wild as it gets for a while.
I woke up on the 1st, resolving to go sober, vegan and take up running. I have been cooking vegan recipes for a long time, long before the release of my first cookbook, as in the rubbish old days of scraping around on mismanaged, delayed and suspended benefits, meat and dairy products were often just too expensive in comparison to their kinder counterparts. I cooked with beans and lentils for protein, always obsessively researching, and got my calcium and iron from bags of frozen spinach and yellow-stickered broccoli.
When I was a child, I once announced to my parents that I wanted to be a vegetarian. I was a sensitive child, quirky, bookish, and was met with ‘don’t be silly and finish your roast dinner.’ So, out of respect for my parents, who worked hard to put that dinner on the table, I did. I have tried to give up meat several times over the last few years, yet like a junkie, I always caved in. Packets of cooking bacon in the supermarket, cans of sardines, the odd roast chicken. I have written recipes for this very newspaper, songs of praise for blutwurst and a macabre ‘bunny bucco’ for Easter weekend. I look back, and try not to regret. I am, after all, the sum product of all of my decisions and experiences so far. I am not going to indulge in righteous self-flagellation for fulfilling the brief of my recipe column; I was doing my job, as it were.
A few weeks ago, I was reading my old copy of ‘50 Great Curries Of India’ by Camellia Panjabi, like a novel, as I so often do with cookery books. The introduction on the Indian philosophy of food made for fascinating reading. Regular readers will know that curries are my most favourite thing, and I wanted to go back to the start and really research the history and philosophy of Indian cuisine, rather than just toasting spices, slow-cooking onions, I was hungry to understand this food that I love so much. Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu wisdom on health, is described by Panjabi as the single greatest influence on Indian cuisine. I delved in. “Flesh has the force of violence in it, and the negative emotions of fear and hatred…it has no place in the Satvic diet.” And there, with no gory videos, no statistics, no shock-jock tactics, Panjabi quietly drew my line in the sand for me. I understood myself, the discomfort, the guilt, the addiction, the naughty thrill of a packet of bacon in the fridge, the promises to myself that it would be the last time. I behaved like an addict, with no thought for those I might have been hurting, just seeking my next high, my next slow-roasted pork belly, chicken skin Caesar salad, slow bone broth. I hung out with friends who would indulge me, encourage me, and I needed to stop.
And I did.
I have found my cooking has taken on a whole new life, a veritable riot of colour and flavour and deliciousness. Deep fried spicy kidney beans sit alongside a mushroom rogan josh, heavy aubergine bhuna, and a black bean tarkari. Mushroom replaces lamb in my samosas, and a sweet potato rosti rolling around in a hot dhansak sauce is a beautiful thing. I am writing my third (and bits of my fourth) cookbook, and although it isn’t strictly vegan as it is half written already, it is an absolute delight. Cans of chickpeas and bags of lentils have been staples of mine for a long time, and I’m genuinely excited to use them as the building blocks for my new adventures in the kitchen.
Scratching meat and dairy products off my shopping list gives me extra in the budget to buy luxury ingredients I haven’t cooked with for years; the odd bag of black rice, or even to tick all of the boxes with red quinoa – yes, I know, a sentence for the Guardian if ever there was one. I manage to shop in half the time, as I can avoid most of the aisles in the supermarket, yet my cupboards have never been more varied and enticing.
When friends invited me for lunch last week, and lunch was chicken, I realised in my keenness to blog and Instagram my vegan journey, I had forgotten to tell the real-life people who mattered. I prioritised a friendship over a chicken that was already baked in a pie, and I learned my lesson about warning people far in advance about my oral proclivities.
“Where do you get your protein from?” people ask. From chickpeas, lentils, mushrooms, peas, beans. Iron from tinned tomatoes, spring greens, nuts, seeds, and beans and pulses. Calcium from spring greens and kale, among other dark green leafy sources. “Don’t you miss eggs?” one Twitter user asked. Not really. I replace them with bananas or applesauce when baking, with a dash of vinegar and cornflour in pancakes. Yes, scrambled eggs are lovely, and I’ve eaten them, and enjoyed them, and that was okay. Now I don’t want to any more, and that’s okay too.
Some vegan friends, and online groups, try to stop their friends from eating animal products by sharing gory photographs and videos online. I’ve had aggressive messages on my own instagram feed for reposting a grapefruit curd recipe from before Veganuary, that had a couple of eggs in it. I made those things. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t, nor flail around deleting all of the carnivorous recipes from my website (though I will eventually have a vegan alternative for most of them, because I cook to live and my website reflects that.) Unless you live under a rock, you know that geese are force-fed copious amounts of grain to fatten their livers for foie gras. You know that baby male chicks are flung alive into a mincer. But I’m not going to gross you out with more gore and science. In my experience, yelling at people that they are wrong and disgusting rarely wins the argument, nor changes point of view. I’m doing my bit to encourage people to try vegan by making vegan food affordable and accessible and absolutely delicious. No hard-to-find ingredients, no complicated recipes, just doing what I’ve always done, but without the cooking bacon.
I won’t be throwing out my new Doctor Marten boots, or my sexy-as-hell biker jacket, or my tight leather pants that were so 2013 – but I won’t be buying any more. Not now. I won’t be posting gory videos on my social media, nor unfollowing the lush Bleecker Burger, but you’ll all be seeing a lot more curry from now on. And a world with more curry in, can only be a very good thing.
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