I take profound issue with the idea that cutting meat and fish, or indeed all animal products, from your diet means that you have to be healthy. I basically didn’t eat vegetables for most of my life, but have lived a happy and fulfilled vegetarian existence for the past four or so years, alternating between nutritionally balanced lentil curries and entirely beige dinners of chips and garlic bread.
The idea that veganism can be unhealthy—and sometimes, deliciously so—isn't new, further proven by the increase in vegan fast food places as the popularity of plant-based diets grows. Vegan restaurants serving fake cheese on fries or seitan fried "chicken" are now prolific in cities across the UK, but their approach hasn’t yet been replicated by mainstream fast food chains. Until now.
This Veganuary has seen an unprecedented influx of new vegan menu items, many of them from carnivorous fast food chains. Greggs’ vegan sausage roll launched last week, bolstering the company’s position at a time when high street outlets are struggling. (The bakery has already released revised profit forecasts for 2019, confirming that the roll has been an early success.) McDonald’s introduced a spicy veggie wrap to its menu and Happy Meals, and Pizza Hut has a new jackfruit pizza with vegan cheese. Even Frankie and Benny’s, a restaurant chain you’d be forgiven for thinking went out of business with Woolworths, has introduced a suspicious-looking “‘I Ain't No Chicken' Parmigiana” to its menu. Veganuary doesn't just push food brands to expand their non-meat options, it offers an opportunity for near-obsolete restaurants to become relevant again.
But exactly how good are these new vegan fast food offerings? We tried a selection of them to guide your gentle souls to morally righteous gluttony.
The Greggs sausage roll, released early last week to a frankly hysterical online crowd of enthusiasts needs little introduction. Bar pointless outrage from Piers Morgan, it has been universally accepted as good. The roll has a satisfying umami flavour, and the texture of the fake meat is alarmingly similar to genuine hint-of-sausage sausage products. However, credit where credit’s due: this innovation in the sausage roll department (not a euphemism) is actually nothing new—bakeries such as Pound Bakery and the Proper Pasty Co. have been selling vegan sausage rolls for a while now.
Something slightly more adventurous this January is Pizza Hut’s "Vegan Jack 'n' Ch**se" pizza, which, at the time of writing, has been purchased 4,671 times. For a company that could have simply edited its various vegetarian pizza options, I’m impressed by the ambitious, high-tier vegan ingredients included in this pizza: Violife vegan cheese and jackfruit, two things I don’t suggest you fuck with unless you know what to do with vegan food.
Trying to acquire this elusive jackfruit pizza was incredibly tough. Despite the website instructing me to head to my nearest Pizza Hut to source the new dish, the pizza is only sold in 253 of its restaurants, none of which the company lists online. It was only after reaching out to the Pizza Hut customer service team for what turned out to be incorrect advice, and then ringing two different branches, that I eventually find its mysterious source: Pizza Hut Surrey Quays!
Gleeful, I give my vegan order to the manager over the phone. He listens, pauses, and softly tells me that it is “a very lovely pizza,” as if I have just shown him a picture of my first born child.
It is a very OK pizza. The base is bland, and the toppings are so indiscriminately flavoured (red onion, vegan cheese, tomato sauce, barbecue jackfruit, peppers, and barbecue sauce) that you’re left with a sticky, sweet, homogenous carpet of indistinguishable gloop. Even for a satisfyingly trashy pizza, it’s not worth the absurd price of £20.75.
Next on my journey towards ethical heart failure is McDonalds’ new “Spicy Veggie Wrap.” The vegan item consists of red pepper and pesto goujons, which already sounds like the overworked idea of a non-vegan marketing team trying to be “kooky.” It is, however, cheap if you get it on a Monday (£1.99!), and extremely easy to consume on the go, like a Twix or Frube. The texture is great, the spicy relish is delicious, and there’s a subtle taste of cumin.
Ultimately, it was Frankie and Benny’s Veganuary menu that I was most excited to try. The “American Italian” restaurant that could also be TGI Friday’s in a certain light, is a real non-place—found in overcrowded central London locations or concrete “leisure complexes” on the side of motorways, with no distinguishable dish or USP. When I mention to a colleague that I am visiting the restaurant, he tells me that as a child, he once vomited at the Frankie and Benny’s in Leicester after eating too many banana pancakes. This, I believe, is an accurate Frankie and Benny’s mood.
And yet, F&B’s’ new vegan menu is quite impressive. There’s vegan mac ‘n’ cheese, a vegan burger, vegan nuggs (!), and, most interestingly for a person who has encountered all of the former: vegan chicken parmigiana. A photo on their website, honestly, makes the dish look terrible, but this only stokes my enthusiasm further. This is true innovation, with its vegan mozzarella and flat slabs of fake breaded chicken covered in tomato sauce. On the side of the plate lies some pasta that does look like it has, indeed, been thrown up by an overzealous eight-year-old.
I cut into one of the fake chicken slabs cautiously. But you know what? It’s fine—good, even—for a chain that really is just doing its bloody best to stay current. The fake mozzarella is probably the best vegan cheese I’ve tried so far in terms of consistency, and the sweet tomato sauce cuts through the breaded “chicken” nicely. The pasta lies untouched on my plate. Also, the nuggets, covered in what seems to be a vegan hot sauce, are great. Overall, the dish tastes as all fast food from these kinds of chain restaurants does: a little bland, unchallenging, but nonetheless comforting.
It may seem antithetical that traditionally meat-focused fast food companies are now branching out into the vegan market. But at a time when even much-loved restaurants are struggling, it makes sense to invest in new meat-free revenue.
And if this means we end up with more vegan nuggets in the world … well, that can only be a good thing.