It’s never been a better time to become a Vegan. Neuroscientists in the U.S. are reverse-engineering synthetic meat to trick our carnivorous senses, Simon Amstell made Veganism funny with ‘Carnage’, and even Vegan grime artist JME has worked hard to help the anti-exploitation ethos exude coolness.

And this year has seen the arrival of a Vegan fried ‘chicken’ shop and a doner kebab pop-up to cater for the discerning Vegans of Hackney.

Vegan fast food is on the march, but where do meat eaters fit into this trend? Are outlets like Temple of Hackney and What The Pitta? in competition with their meat-based counterparts? Should they be? More pointedly, does the search for ever-closer imitations of animal flesh help or hinder the Vegan cause?

…In search of answers, I invited five friends – including a Vegan, a vegetarian, and four open-minded omnivores – to sample three of Vegan Hackney’s hottest offerings.

Early afternoon and our first stop: the What The Pitta? stand in the Pump food court.

We were lucky to eat there at all; earlier in the week, the owners announced on Twitter that they were relocating after that weekend as Pump’s owners decided to redevelop the site. A shame, as it is a charming little spot, bustling with diverse street food options.

Nestled beside a ‘real’ kebab stand, W.T.P., was satisfyingly simple: their kebabs looked and tasted like the real deal. Succulent chunks of soya that flaked convincingly and melted in the mouth, ensconced in humous, salad, pickles and chilli sauce. These Vegan kebabs delivered on heat too, with only a fraction of the excess oil.

Dan was sold.

“If Vegan ‘meat’ was easily available, not so pricey, and always this tasty, I’d have no problem choosing it.”

Next up: Temple of Hackney at peak time on a Friday evening. Disconcertingly, Lola and Jimmy – the Queen and King of fried chicken, respectively – were running late. Had she suffered a crisis of conscience during the night? Had the Colonel spoken to her in a dream?

But arrive they did, apprehensive smiles and all.

Temple of Hackney is a world apart from a street food shack. This is Vegan fast food mainstreamed: not haute cuisine, of course, but already possessed of the authentic feel of mass production. The Temple is a sleek job: black and white, with a little gold lettering (‘for the animals and you’). Its strip lighting is designed, presumably, to recreate that bleary-eyed, post-pub experience. Whilst Vegan fast food doesn’t come cheap, it does come across as simple and honest. 

We shared a seitan burger, strips, popcorn nuggets and a mac’n’cheese (with convincing ‘facon’). Lola still seems unconvinced.

“When you invited me, I thought, ‘what the hell? Why would I want to try that?’”

She nibbles politely. This is not the Lola I know. Minus points for seitan. “I thought Vegans were meant to be healthy?” she asks.

Adam, our resident Vegan, rallies to its defence.

“You can definitely taste the difference but it’s not meant to be healthy. Most Vegans I know eat a lot of fast food. It’s other people who have this image of us as health nuts.”

Adam became a Vegan for the perceived health benefits. Foods like tofu and seitan filled a meat-shaped void “for the first month” before he came to value them as foods in their own right. For him, Veganism is “an attempt to live in a way that causes minimal harm to animals.”

Can you be an ethical omnivore, I ask, as Adam scoops up Lola’s unloved strips.

“Not if you’re informed about the meat industry.”

If we had a flawless meat substitute, would the meat-eaters still stand by their ham? “I don’t want to come across as heartless but…I don’t think about any of that when I’m eating,” Lola replies, a little hesitantly. “Also [seitan] has an aftertaste.”

As we head over to the ‘100% Vegan’ Black Cat Cafe, I ponder the purpose of the Temple. On the one hand, such eateries do appear to help people who have already made a conscious choice to give up animal products. But to skeptics like Lola, it can look a little like trying to have your cake and eat it. Could it be that, to some people, these attempts to imitate meat actually weaken the moral commitment of Veganism?

A ten minute walk from the pristine Temple, everything about the Black Cat Cafe harks back to a more conventional image of Veganism. From the poster promoting the ‘11th Balkan Anarchist Bookfair’ (has it been 11 years already?) to the shelves of plants and cardboard boxes, the place emanates a cosy, handwritten, bring-your-own bottle atmosphere.

While our seitan strips had some of the fibrousness of real chicken, the ‘beef-style burgers’ we shared at the cafe refused to stoop to our level, having a mashed-up and paltry consistency. Yet Ollie, who recently returned to the vegetarian fold (after 15 years), and who still waxes lyrical about the texture of a Nando’s thigh, “liked everything about the burger except its flavour.” Our appetite for meat substitutes has dried up- seitan is surprisingly filling- so we peck at our burgers and order some Vegan desserts. My chocolate and peanut butter slice is salty-sweet and fudgy, while Dan’s blueberry sponge is a treat for the eyes with its caviar-like globule of blueberry jam perched on top. Both are, contrary to my prejudices about Vegan baking, moist.

I wonder if Ollie, Jimmy and Dan will be able to bridge the fundamental divide between Lola and Adam. All three say they want to reduce their meat intake, so how have they fared?

“It depends,” says Ollie. “Often I cook meals with meat without thinking, and then find it adds nothing. But if you go somewhere like Nando’s, then the meat IS the meal.”

Adam dissents: “Without the sauce, Nando’s would be nothing.” He dutifully rescues the half-eaten burger from our end of the table.

The meat-eaters disagree. They stake their claim not only on the inimitable texture of meat but on its talent for absorbing and suffusing the other flavours in a dish. “It’s a myth that you have to put more effort into cooking without meat,” insists Adam. “I’m just using the same herbs and spices as before.”

At this point I feel the need to remind him of people like me, who don’t regularly cook, either with herbs or with spices. “Adam, what about your children?” asks Lola. He’d let them choose but he tells us that disagreements about Veganism have caused him difficulties with relationships in the past. “What if your partner was Vegan for other reasons but had no ethical commitment to it?” asks Dan.

“It would still matter. It’s about compassion. I’d find it hard to understand someone who is fully informed about it, who had read everything I’ve read, and still has no opinion either way.”

“It’s about your values,” says Lola, and I can see that she’s found some common ground with Adam. “Like I have my religious beliefs; it’s important to have some shared values.”

As our evening ends, there is still a little scepticism about the merits of Veganism in general, and a little more about the merits of some meat substitutes in particular. Dan and I stand by our Vegan kebabs but most of us are a little queasy from our fried seitan feast. Perhaps a reaction to seitan, but more likely the word ‘Vegan’ tricked us into thinking we could eat more junk food than we normally would. Maybe we can just be Vegan for dessert?

“I could live with that,” says Dan. The others nod.

So we’re halfway there then.

Words and images by Sam Burt