Around 20 years ago I backpacked around Europe, travelling on an Interrail Pass from Amsterdam up to Germany and Denmark, back through the Czech Republic and Austria and west via Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and France. I remember the sights, the people I met, the long hours on the train and the feeling of exploring a new city. I still recall what I ate everywhere, too. And that was a lot of bread.
Living in London in the late ‘90s, which had well-established vegetarian and vegan restaurants before the plant-based lifestyle went mainstream, the overwhelmingly meaty and starchy options around Europe meant my dietary choices were often limited to bread.
Globally it’s now estimated more than three million people follow a vegan diet, with this number set to triple in the next 15 years. The rise of veganism (recent Google Trends data show Australia topped worldwide searches for the word ‘vegan’) and the myriad established health, environment and animal welfare benefits associated with adopting a plant-based lifestyle ties in with the increased awareness of our impact on our planet. In fact, Australia aired its first-ever vegan TV ad in October, 2018, spruiking the new vegan cheeseburger from Hungry Jack’s.
As a travel writer, I’m incredibly lucky that being vegan no longer restricts my options but opens up a whole world of choice, from vegetable-first degustation menus in Boston to comfort-food staples such as dim sum in Hong Kong and mac’n’cheese in Portland. Plant-based lifestyle magazine Veg News recently selected its top 10 international vegan cities, and with cities in Europe, Australia, Asia, Central America and the Middle East making the list, travelling as a vegan is now easier than ever.
As the undisputed hipster capital of the world and a vegan hotspot, Portland is a city ripe with plant-based possibilities. Vegans head here to make a pilgrimage to the Vegan Mini Mall – a strip of all-vegan shops including a bakery, grocer and tattooist, plus a plethora of Portland restaurateurs are pivoting their culinary creativity to hero the vegetable – see Holiday, Departure and Tusk, for starters.
With its emphasis on local, Farm Spirit restaurant challenges the notions of what vegans actually eat (tip: it’s not just rabbit food). You’ll need to book and pay ahead for a spot at the 14-seat chef’s counter to sample the wonderfully inventive tasting menu. The nuanced flavours and intricate textures coaxed from the locally sourced produce makes for an elevated dining experience.
Farm Spirit chef-owner Aaron Adams says: “We definitely place ourselves in the fine dining category, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our presentation is modern, detailed and specific, but we also want our guests to have fun. We encourage them to eat with their hands sometimes or even lick a bowl.”
“At its core, Farm Spirit is about shaping the regional identity of Cascadian cuisine in a way that is free of all animal products and focuses purely the bounty of the forest and farm.”
Where to get your fix
> Freewheelin’ food – With more than 700 food carts within the city limits, Portland has your meals on wheels sorted. Several food carts are all-vegan and you can choose from Mexican to Middle-Eastern, sushi to subs. Homegrown Smoker made the transition in July, 2017 from food cart to bricks-and-mortar cafe in St Johns, complete with dog-friendly outdoor seating, and is beloved for its vegan barbecue and Southern comfort food.
> Life of pie – Portland has so many vegan pizza joints, you’ll never notice the curds have gone away. Sizzle Pie is a headbanging pizza chain that pairs heavy metal with a selection of slices topped with cashew or soy cheese as well as hearty salads with dairy-free dressings. The all-vegan Virtuous Pie is a local fave with housemade pizzas topped with artisanal nut cheese and dairy-free ice-creams that earned it Eater Portland’s Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant of the Year 2017. Try The White Pie for a cheese (free) fest.
> Sweet somethings – Doe Donuts is around 10km from downtown Portland, but it’s worth the trek to the Foster-Powell neighbourhood for this local fave. Delectable, homemade vegan donuts come in an array of artisanal and seasonal flavours such apple butterscotch fritter and prickly pear hibiscus. You can also scope out the Portland ice-cream scene with three new vegan ice-creameries set to open: Little Bean, V.O.W. Ice Cream and Be Sweet.
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When I lived in London, veggie sarnies were always available at Marks & Spencer, while in Covent Garden you could eat vegan around the world. If you’re doing it for the ‘gram, Covent Garden now has an avocado-only eatery in Avobar (five types of avocado toast, anyone?) plus there’s Palm Vaults in Hackney, a millennial pink oasis overflowing with potted plants where the pastel decor blends beautifully with the beet, turmeric and spirulina lattes.
Hackney is ground zero for the burgeoning vegan movement with London’s first vegan pub, vegan fish and chip shop and vegan fried ‘chicken’ all based in the northeast borough. The Spread Eagle pub’s ethical ethos even extends to the sustainable sourcing of its fixtures and fittings.
Co-owner Meriel Armitage says the response to flipping the traditional pub grub to plant-based fare has been overwhelmingly positive. “Even the long-standing locals love it. It’s given the pub a new lease of life.”
High-street stalwarts are following suit. London wellness ambassadors and spiraliser sisters Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley opened their Hemsley + Hemsley cafe at Selfridges & Co department store in 2016 (with many vegan options), while Harvey Nichols added two- and three-course vegan menus and a vegan wine list to its Fifth Floor Cafe and OXO Tower Restaurant in January, 2018. For vegan on-the-go, pop into Pret A Manger’s Veggie Pret locations in Carnaby, Shoreditch and Exmouth Market.
“It’s an extremely exciting time at present in London,” Spread Eagle publican and co-owner Luke McLoughlin says. “It feels like we are finally catching up with other vegan hotspots around the world and are overtaking them in some respects.”
Where to get your fix
> Fast food made vegan friendly – Temple of Seitan (yes, pronounced ‘satan’) has two locations in Camden and Hackney serving up vegan fried ‘chicken’ (shaped from seitan, a wheat gluten meat substitute). This is the spot to get your fried food fix that includes ‘beef’ burgers, battered ‘chicken’ and buffalo ‘wings’. For that quintessential British takeaway, fishmongers Sutton and Sons opened a vegan-only venue in Hackney Central alongside its other locations due to popular demand. The ‘fish’ here is fashioned from banana blossoms marinated in seaweed and battered.
> Classic pub grub – The Spread Eagle, Hackney is one of London’s oldest inns and in January, 2018 became the city’s first all-vegan pub. The menu is Mexican street food with vegan cask ales and small-batch wines and even the decor is free from animal products.
> Haute vegetables – Plates restaurant in Hoxton delivers a plant-based, fine-dining experience every Saturday. Helmed by Michelin-trained chef Kirk Haworth, sample artfully arranged dishes include beetroot tartare and wild mushroom risotto.
Meat-free in Melbourne
Australia is now the world’s third-fastest growing vegan market – just behind the UAE and China – and Melbourne is the epicentre for an ethical feed. The city is also no stranger to a punny name. With eateries named Lord of the Fries and Lentil as Anything, who says vegans don’t have a sense of humour?
Flight Centre head of content & creative Luke Wheatley and his partner Beckie Adams are vegan and made a pilgrimage to check out the veg-friendly options in the Victorian capital.
“Melbourne was already a beautiful and exciting city to visit but it’s now a vegan food destination,” Beckie says. “From toasted cheese sandwiches at Smith & Deli to pho from GoodDays or vegan eggs at Matcha Mylkbar, you are not limited to a bowl of fries or a vegetarian pizza without the cheese.”
Brunswick Street in the suburb of Fitzroy is the perfect place to base yourself for a vegan vacay. “Just walking along Brunswick Street, we saw so many options,” Beckie says.
Check out the longstanding Vegie Bar (vegan ice-creamery Girls & Boys is right next door), Yong Green Food for Asian fusion, Trippy Taco for Mexican street food, and stop at all-vegan Merry Cupcakes for a sweet treat.
Where to get your fix
> Veg out – Smith & Daughters is a Fitzroy institution with its offshoot, Smith & Deli, located just a block away. Initially purveying vegan Mexican fare, in June, 2018 owners Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse flipped the Smith & Daughters menu to Italian with the likes of broccoli pesto gnocchi and giant schnitzels. Smith & Deli is a takeout-only spot for delicious sandwiches, baked goods and pantry essentials.
> Matcha in heaven – St Kilda’s Matcha Mylkbar cafe is an ode to the powdered green tea with an extensive menu of plant-based fare. If matcha isn’t your cup of tea, there’s plenty of other items to choose from, including a dedicated menu for under 12s. Head here for the vegan eggs – perfect for brekky or brunch.
> Clean and green – Green Man’s Arms is a cosy Carlton pub decorated with collected treasures. The menu is vegetarian with a Mediterranean influence with heaps of hearty vegan options on offer. Order the popular jackfruit flatbread tacos, white bean burgers and panko-crumbed eggplant schnitzel for a plant-based take on pub grub.
With a sizeable Buddhist population, Thailand is a haven for vegan travellers. In fact, Intrepid Travel is launching eight-day vegan tours in Thailand this year. And Bangkok has established itself as one of the best cities for plant-based fare – Thai or globally inspired. Tip: One of the easiest ways to locate a vegan establishment in Bangkok is to look for the yellow pendant flags with red writing.
Local business Barefood Bangkok has a cult following for its nut-based cheeses and fermented pickles. Located in Sukhumvit, the homemade cheese is the main drawcard at this cafe and shop where you can opt for a nutcheese platter, burgers or pasta.
Living up to its nickname as the ‘Big Mango’, don’t miss the all-you-can-eat fruit buffet at Baiyoke Sky Hotel in the Pratunam area of downtown Bangkok. Thailand’s tallest hotel offers the seasonal fruit buffet daily for 590 baht (around AUD$25) where you can fill up on tropical fruits such as durian, mangosteen, mangoes, rambutan, starfruit and much more in a variety of options, including ice-cream, sorbets, fruit jellies and the raw fruit itself.
Where to get your fix
> Curry favour – If you go to Bangkok and didn’t eat Thai, did you even go? May Kaidee has two Bangkok locations for authentic Thai minus the meat. The Tanao Road location, conveniently situated near Khao San Road, also has an onsite Thai cooking school so you can recreate vegan soups, curries and stir-fries back home.
> Sweet spot – Sate your hankering for sweets at Veganerie, a 100 per cent vegan bakery and cafe with four Bangkok locations. From cinnamon rolls and acai smoothie bowls to dairy-free panacotta and cheesecake, you can have your vegan cake and eat it.
> Light and local – While not exclusively vegan, Suananda vegetarian garden cafe in Silom is part of a wellness centre that pairs Ayurvedic principles and yoga. The homestyle meals include healthy takes on Indian and Thai faves such as filled parathas, millet dosas and curries. Order a set menu and Suananda will also donate a meal to someone who needs it.
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Feature image: Spread Eagle pub (Image: Jade Nina Sarkhel)
This article originally appeared in Travel ideas: Wow List 2019 magazine, available in Flight Centre stores and to read online here.