Why is Israel the most vegan country in the developed world? And which nation tops our list as the hands-down most vegetarian populace on the planet?
Find out below, as leading food critic Guy Dimond ranks the top ten countries where finding a meat-free meal is both easy and a pleasure (explaining what you can expect to find along the way)…
Judaism has long had a proscription to keep meat and dairy products apart, so many observant Jews have found life simpler by just going vegetarian. But in the country that was founded to provide a haven for the Jewish people, some people – many of them non-religious – have taken it one further.
Out of a population of eight million people, hundreds of thousands claim to be vegan, making Israel the world’s most vegan developed country. This is reflected in a thriving café and restaurant scene, particularly in Tel Aviv, where almost everywhere has good veggie or vegan choices on the menu. It’s not just falafel either – think of the east-west, experimental cooking created by Jerusalem-born chef and cookery writer Yotam Ottolenghi and you start to get a sense of what new-style Israeli cooking is about.
Rastafarians are a small but highly visible minority in Jamaica, and their beliefs advise against the consumption of meat. Their diet – called ‘ital’ (from the world ‘vital’) – is also as natural as they can make it, which usually means organic and cooked without salt. Although some Rastas eat fish, many do not, and a considerable number are vegan.
The result is that Jamaica has a flourishing vegetarian café scene, and tasty veggie options are widely available – perhaps made using coconuts, plantains, cassava, peppers, rice, legumes and the leafy greens used to make the dish called callaloo. It’s only in Jamaica you find significant numbers of Rastafarians though; travel to other countries in the West Indies, such as Trinidad and Tobago, and you’ll find fish and meats are snuck into many dishes.
The city-state in South-East Asia has a population of less than six million, but it’s a city built on immigration. The result is an ethnically and culturally diverse place with one of the highest standards of living in the world – and lots of terrific restaurants, cafes and food stalls catering for the city’s obsession with eating out. Both the Tamil and some of the Chinese populations observe meat-free days for festivals, so this makes it easy to dip and dive between cuisines without getting bored. The south Indian restaurants and many of the hawker stall markets serves impressively complex and flavoursome veggie options, but look out too for vegetarian Chinese, Korean and Japanese cafés – there are more than 200 places across town that are strictly veg.
7. United States
The US is the world’s largest consumer of red meat, and there are places in the cattle country where you could be be bullwhipped for requesting the vegetarian option. But California doesn’t get called ‘the land of fruits and nuts’ just because it grows tree crops: San Francisco’s alternative culture is reflected in its food scene, which gives a group hug to Mexican, Korean and Chinese vegetarian food. Further north, Portland, Oregon is so renowned for its dairy-free lattes and ice creams that its vegan culture is a staple of the parody TV show Portlandia.
Manhattan is also a great place to eat meat-free, as long as your therapist and life-manager approve. Other cities of note for veggies include Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; Seattle; Boulder, Colorado; and Chicago, where the meatpacking district was graphically described in Upton Sinclair’s disturbing 1906 novel, The Jungle.
6. United Kingdom
The dilemma of the UK is that although there is no strong tradition of vegetarianism, there have been a slowly growing number of ‘ethical’ vegetarians around, even before George Bernard Shaw started to popularise the trend in the early 20th century. Currently, when surveyed, around 12 per cent of the British population claim to be vegetarian – though as many ‘real’ vegetarians know, a fair number of these people are telling porky pies (‘lies’, for anyone not acquainted with Cockney rhyming slang), and occasionally succumb to the ways of the flesh.
However, that’s a still a lot of people rejecting the cultural norm, even in the least likely places, such as Glasgow. Scotland’s largest city has many more vegan cafés and restaurants than you’d expect, and some of them are excellent. British veggies tend to look to other cuisines for inspiration: Italian, Indian, Middle Eastern.
The former centre of the Ottoman Empire and, before that, the Byzantine Empire has had millennia to develop a sophisticated courtly cuisine. Pair this with Anatolia having the richest biodiversity of tree and field crops anywhere on the planet, and you’ll soon be feasting on dishes flavoured with ground nuts, stews flavoured with a cornucopia of spices, breads baked in wood-fired ovens, and vegetables grilled over charcoal.
Turkish chefs can cook aubergines in a hundred different ways, and you’ll never be bored with them whether they’re stuffed, smoked, baked or grilled. Be warned though that in Turkey, restaurants tend to specialise by style of cooking, so a grilled meat or fish joint won’t be your smartest choice for good vegetarian food; instead seek out a ‘restoran’ or more casual ‘lokanta’ that serves a variety of dishes, listed on a printed menu.
It started with the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began; then the Phoenicians, who were great traders; next came the Ottomans, who were great cooks. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Christian communities flourished, as did their meat-free fasting days. For many Christians in the Middle East this means Wednesdays and Fridays, plus the six Lenten weeks prior to Easter.
Lebanese food is consequently rich in vibrant vegetarian dishes, and in Lebanese restaurants anywhere in the world, you’ll find marvellous meze that make you glad you’re forfeiting the flesh. There’s hummus and falafel of course, but also order the grilled aubergine dip, the fatayer (nut-filled pastries), fuul (mashed beans), and herby tabbouleh: a feast not just for the faithful.
Nearly half of Ethiopia’s population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and observe meat-free days on Wednesdays, Fridays, and the whole of Lent (the six weeks leading up to Easter). As a result, a highly evolved vegetarian cuisine has developed over centuries, featuring many vegan dishes. Most meals are centred on injera bread, a crumpet-like spongy crêpe with a slightly sour, fermented taste.
This is often used like a huge plate, with portions of several spicy stews (called wats) served on top of it; strips of injera are torn off and used to scoop up the well-spiced wats, which contain legumes and vegetables, often with variations of berbere spice mix. Ethiopia’s smaller neighbour to the north, Eritrea, has a similar cuisine, and also has many enticing vegetarian dishes.
There is no particular taboo attached to meat-eating in Italy, it’s just that Italians do meat-free food really, really well. It’s rare that you find a menu without an excellent vegetarian option, and with around 7-9 per cent of Italians claiming to be vegetarian, there is rarely a raised eyebrow when you say “Lo sono vegetarian” (“I’m vegetarian,” if you’re a chap), or “Lo sono vegetarian” (if you’re a woman). Of course there’s pizza and pasta, but there’s also risotto, lots of grilled or sautéed vegetable dishes, and most of the wonderful desserts are veggie too. As a general rule, you’ll fare slightly better in the south than the north; the south was historically poorer and so meat was rarer, which fuelled the creation of enticing meat-free dishes.
India has one of the lowest consumptions, per capita, of meat in the world – around 32kg, which is around one-fifth of consumption in the US. This makes sense when you remember that more than one Indian religion proscribes meat-eating. Once you add up the observant Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, something between 20 to 40 per cent of a population of 1.3 billion are vegetarian (the exact number is impossible to calculate) – and a significant percentage of the vegetarians are also near- or wholly-vegan.
Restaurants and cafes invariably have veg and non-veg options clearly marked – and in India, eggs are considered non-veg. In south India in particular, entire populations in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been vegetarian for many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of years, which has given them plenty of time to develop nourishing, beautifully spiced and incredibly delicious dishes. If you’ve not tried proper south Indian food yet, it’s high-time you did.