When I went vegan three years ago, I was under the impression it would somehow make me a good cook. But instead of whipping up chickpea-water pavlovas from scratch and saving my carrot tops for pesto, I spent the first few weeks living off bagels and Skittles. I was in a constant state of anemic bewilderment, squinting at ingredient labels in Tesco and then infuriated when my meals were disappointing at best, horrifying at worst.
And then, one day, as I scowled at mushrooms being pulverised in a Nutribullet, I realised I was overcomplicating things. I didn’t need aquafaba and banana blossom — I needed shortcuts. Seasoning. Sauces. Snacks. A series of hacks to trick myself and those around me into thinking I can cook (because if I wasn’t a great vegetarian cook, how would I automatically become a good vegan one?). So allow me to share my pantry essentials with you, and may we never eat a dinner of Oatly and Oreos again.
My first quest was to find a decent cheese substitute. I’d tried Violife (off-puttingly coconutty), Sheese (which bore an unfortunate resemblance to coital fluids), Applewood (too smoky for many dishes), a bunch of indie brands (usually gluey), M&S (oddly musky), Sainsbury’s (which refused to actually melt), and Tesco brand (which melted instantly into near liquid). Without fail, when melted, they added nothing but misery to mealtimes. But one day, while eating the wonderful vegan pizza in Whole Foods (Piccadilly Circus branch) and marveling at how the cheese melted, I decided to … just ask the chef. She told me Follow Your Heart’s Mozzarella Shreds are Whole Foods’ go-to pizza cheese because of their satisfying stretch capabilities.
Follow Your Heart is a Californian brand that started out as a soup shop but now sells vegan dressings, dips, and beyond (you can get it in Whole Foods stores and online at the Vegan Kind and GreenBay). Its main ingredient is coconut oil, which means that it stretches. However, it doesn’t taste overtly like coconut oil, assisting in the realistic cheese experience. Neither does it immediately adhere to the roof of your mouth, and the shreds even go down a treat raw and sprinkled into a salad (a true test of any vegan cheese).
I first discovered this in the cupboard of a catering chef and, after splooshing it into my bean chili, became a convert, sequestering it on my own condiments shelf. From sauteed green veggies to grilled corn on the cob, casseroles to beans on toast, this complexifies everything I cook. Apparently, you can soak thinly sliced carrot in it overnight with rice vinegar for fake salmon. But if you, like me, simply can’t be arsed, drop it into a pan of fake meat (I like THIS isn’t Chicken) and enjoy the smugness that comes with serving people ‘smoked’ dishes.
My upstairs neighbour is the sort of vegan who knocks up faux-fish canapés and balsamic pearl blinis for impromptu drinks. She introduced me to this stuff when I confessed to missing egg-salad sandwiches — she recommends mashing it into silken tofu and pepper. When she made me some for the first time, I’m not ashamed to say I ate the whole bowl in 30 seconds with a teaspoon. Bluntly speaking, it smells like flatulence, but it’s my go-to flavour saviour. I mostly use it on Saturday mornings for fake scrambled eggs, adding paprika, nutritional yeast, turmeric, and a dash of oat milk. It’s available in most South Asian supermarkets, plus Ocado and health-food shops, and I store it in an airtight Mason jar for olfactory reasons.
Kinder Buenos were previously my chocolate of choice. I continued to eye them in corner shops, and to limited avail, I tried everything in pursuit of a replacement, from sampling hazelnut-based-chocolate bars like Vego (inaccurate) to spooning hazelnut butter and chocolate directly into my mouth (impractical) and begging chef friends to attempt extensive mock-Bueno recipes. Serendipitously, my partner spotted Love Raw’s unbelievably convincing fake Buenos at her local East London corner shop, and I’ve never looked back or craved the real deal since. They’re a carbon copy.
One crutch I leaned heavily on in my early vegan days was Indian cuisine. That phase lasted approximately four months — around the length of time it took for my (also vegan) sister to break it to me that many seemingly vegan curries contain a very non-vegan ingredient called ghee (a clarified butter with a high melting point, usually made from cow’s milk). Fortunately, in the same breath she recommended this nutty little replica, made by Bonsan (whose parent company, Windmill Organics, produces vegan cult brand Biona as well). I buy it in Whole Foods, but you’ll also spot it in Selfridges, on Ocado, on Amazon, and at other smaller shops. My rule of thumb is to use it instead of vegetable oil in curry recipes (I love it in Maunika Gowardha’s Punjabi dal fry). Works great with Marmite on toast too — a welcome change from margarine.
There are tons of things you can cut costs with in vegan-food shopping. But vegan condiments are not, I’m afraid, on that list. I’ve winced through some of the worst. That said, vegan mayo is almost always made from the same ingredients (oil, lemon, vinegar, and, in all likelihood, a thickening agent). Yet affordable options without silly vegan markups are oddly scant. Since I took a risk on this inexpensive litre-bottle, I’ve never had to drop £3 on a tiny jar of boujie stuff again. Beware: This huge cylinder of mayo is an eyesore on a dinner table. But I began decanting it into ramekins for guests — sometimes mixing in sriracha, mustard, smoked paprika, etc., and soon realised it was a bottomless base ingredient for endless improvisations. It’s the perfect consistency for a banging potato salad (I add chives, capers, white wine vinegar, and seasoning).
You know that game where you curate your last meal on earth? This would feature on mine. M&S’s Plant Kitchen developers have nailed a holy trifecta of believable chicken, breadcrumb, and the most generous dose of molten garlic sauce on the market. It also goes the most golden and crispy, where its competitors err on the side of soggy. It’s the best indulgent freezer staple I’ve found yet. Plus its vegan status is practically undetectable to the untrained taste bud, meaning fewer grumbles from my carnivore co-diners.
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