The British Vegan
... and where to find foodThis post is to set out some helpful advice for being vegan in the UK. Tips on where to buy products what to look out for and what we can and can't have on a vegan diet.
A lot of the advice about veganism online is on US websites. Whilst a lot of what is posted on US vegan sites is perfectly valid it is worth keeping in mind that we have a different food culture in the UK.
That's not to disparage or look down on US food culture or veganism, but simply to say that some of the things that we see as "normal" are going to be different. This can range from the names of products to what type of shops we have available and what our supermarkets commonly sell. There do appear to be some broad ideological differences between US and UK veganism, but that's the subject of another blog post and is a much broader issue. I'll be touching on it a little here but largely I will be avoiding any moral, cultural or ethical judgements.
Off-limit foods and strange ingredients
SugarMany US recipes will call for some sort of sugar substitute such as palm sugar, unrefined or raw sugar or even agave nectar. Now each of these may be used because they have a distinct taste and property (agave nectar is a thin syrup for example), but the reason these sugar alternatives show up so frequently in American vegan recipes is due to how sugar is made.
One of the methods of refining sugar involves the use of bone char. The use of an animal product in its production means it is not vegan and so substitutes are needed.
In the UK most refined sugar, that includes granulated, brown sugar, demerara, caster and icing sugar as well as golden syrup, is not refined using bone char and so is vegan.
If a recipe calls for some unusual sugar, where a non-vegan recipe would just use ordinary sugar, you don't need to go hunting down a special and possibly expensive product. Feel free to use the sugar you can buy from the local shop.
Cooking Oil and Coconut OilMany recipes call for coconut oil as their fat. In some cases, for example baking, this is as an alternative to butter. It can be a good butter substitute due to the temperature at which it melts being similar to butter but it isn't an absolute must. Also, in America, coconut oil is often sold as a liquid, where as here in the UK it is often a solid. One of the reasons coconut oil may be so popular in American blogs could be availability of other non-animal oils and fats. However in the UK there are several brands of non-dairy margarine available including Vitalite and Flora non-dairy which are available in most supermarkets. These work perfectly well in cakes, biscuits and pastry.
A lot of blogs will also specify rapeseed oil for frying. Rapeseed oil is commonly referred to as vegetable oil in the UK. You probably have a bottle in the kitchen already. The standard vegetable or sunflower oil found in any supermarket will work perfectly well.
Of course if you want to try a speciality rapseed or other oil you can, but don't feel you need to.
Liquid Amino AcidsThese add a lot of umami or savoury flavour to a dish as well as being an excellent non-animal source of amino acids and B vitamins. They aren't readily available in the UK except for in some health food and specialist shops or online. You may want to purchase a bottle to keep in cupboard for recipes that call for it but, if you don't have any or it isn't available for you you may want to try Marmite.
Marmite is far thicker and stickier than liquid aminos but a small dollop in a stew or sauce will quickly mix in or you can dilute it with a drop of hot water. Your meal won't taste of Marmite so don't worry if you aren't a fan of the taste normally. It just blends in with other flavours.
Being a source of B12 Marmite is a good one to have in your cupboard.
Nutritional YeastThis is an item I sadly can't find any real alternative for for the savoury slightly cheesy flavour. I'm not sure it is particularly an American thing so much as a Vegan thing. It's not generally available in supermarkets so you have to look in health food shops or online for it. I highly recommend getting a tub or two to sprinkle on top of dishes or mix in as well as for using in recipes. Get the variety fortified with B12 for a good source of the essential vitamin.
Coconut milk and other non-dairy milksMany recipes will specify a type of milk to use for example coconut soy, almond etc. Read the recipe carefully to ascertain why this type of milk has been specified - there are some instances when a particualr milk type is preferable, but often they are interchangeable.
Coconut milk is often asked for when a recipe needs something with a thick consistency or high fat content. In these cases a tinned coconut milk is usually best (personally I find the cheaper brands work best). These are often found on the shelves near other Asian or Indian food stuffs in your typical supermarket. Cartons of coconut milk often have a lower fat content and are a thinner more pourable consistency (good for tea and on cereal). Keep in mind that brands differ on how coconutty they taste.
Recipes for cakes and other baked goods often call for the milk to be mixed with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. This curdles the milk (producing something similar to buttermilk) and helps produce CO2 which makes your cake or batter raise or light and fluffy. I have found that almond and soy milk are best for this technique. Coconut (from a carton) works but needs more vinegar/lemon juice. Rice milk won't work for this technique. This gives you more flexibility and allows you to use the non-dairy milk you have to hand.
Kosher SaltThis isn't restricted to vegan recipes but still often causes confusion. Though the term kosher specifically refers to things which are in accordance with Jewish regulations in the US "kosher salt" has become the common name for coarse salt. It has no special properties. Yo can use any coarse salt, such as a sea salt or salt flakes.
VinegarApple Cider Vinegar has become hugely popular in recent years and is a common feature in a number of recipes. A large part of its popularity is to do with its supposed health benefits. The validity of these claims is dubious at best but, due to the large crossover between healthy blogs and vegan blogs it is a common feature in recipes. It may also be more commonly available in the US than in the UK.
Generally, when used in small quantities Apple Cider Vinegar can be substituted with any other non-malt vinegar, though even white malt vinegar will work if that's what you have available. The function is usually to add acidity to a dish or, as described in the section on milks, to help produce CO2. Because such a small amount is used, flavour isn't a big concern.
When flavour does come in to it, for example in a marinade or dressing, then white wine vinegar is a good alternative or even lemon juice. The aim is for a slightly sweet, tangy acidic flavour.
Where to buy ingredients?Your usual supermarket will be able to cater to a vast portion of your diet, especially if you have access to online shopping or a large supermarket.
It is worth keeping in mind that a product doesn't have to be labelled "vegan" to be vegan. You don't have to be limited to free-from sections in the supermarket. Be sure to check the ingredients for hidden animal products such as whey, lactose, and honey (a common alternative sweetener to sugar). Conveniently, many budget brands and shops own-brand products can be vegan as they don't contain the "real butter" and "real cream" and other ingredients that go in to luxury brands.
Below is a sample list of the vegan suitable things you can buy in a supermarket. Items in bold are of particular interest to a vegan diet as sources of protein or B12.
Fresh fruit and veg
Brown rice (1)(2)
Tinned chickpeas, beans and pulses
Dried chickpeas, beans and pulses (1)(2)
Non-dairy milk (UHT and chilled)
Soy Sauce (2)
A variety of breakfast cereals
A variety of breads and bread products
Dried fruit (1)
Flours and baking ingredients
Frozen or refrigerated meat free sausages, patties, burgers and so on
Some cruelty free toiletries (1)
Non-dairy ice-cream (becoming more common)
Wines and beers (check the labels or check online first)
This is of course, not an exhaustive list but you can see how many options are open to you even in a normal supermarket. Smaller supermarkets and "express" type stores will have a smaller range which can be a limiting factor, but do consider online shopping if you don't have a large store nearby. However, if you are restricted to a smaller shop, you may have some other options available.
(1) You may be able to find these products at better value, in larger quantities or more varieties in a health food shop.
(2) You may be able to find these products at better value, in larger quantities or more varieties in an Asian supermarket.
The Asian or Indian SupermarketMany larger towns and cities will have at least one, if not multiple Asian supermarket. These are an excellent resource for vegans even if you aren't cooking Chinese, Thai or Korean food. They often have items in bulk which means savings if you can get the larger products home and have the storage.
Tofu (multiple varieties normally available)
Semolina (especially in Indian or Pakistani shops)
Gram flour (chickpea flour) (especially in Indian or Pakistani shops)
a variety of dried and fresh mushrooms
Nori and seaweed
Tinned ready made seitan such as mock duck, mock pork etc
Coconut milk (tinned)
Mochi (I just really like mochi)
The specialist health food or whole shopThese shops are often found in city and town centres. You usually wouldn't be able to find a full load of groceries there but you can get many specialist items. The prices can vary a lot with some items being more expensive than your supermarket whilst others are better value.
Pulses and grains (especially less usual grains like bulgar wheat)
Biscuits, cakes, sweets
Tofu and tofu products such as sausages
Meat free patties
Seitan (steaks, sausages etc)
Seitan powder / wheat gluten
Peanut and other nut butters
Nuts and seeds
Cruelty free toiletries and household items
Wines and beers
Other placesOf course you aren't restricted to these shops. Nearly anywhere that sells food will have some vegan items.
Eastern European shops are often good places to find good value pulses, rice and oats, as well as nutritionally dense breads alongside other groceries.
Budget food shops that specialise in stock clearance often have vegan suitable snack bars and non-dairy milk at very good prices.
Your local market. Many towns have an indoor market. There is often a dried goods stall which will sell grains, pulses, nuts and dried fruits by weight and can be excellent value.
Online shopping, other than supermarkets, allows us to access food items that may not be available locally or at a better price. I especially buy nutritional yeast and seitan online.