x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Should we all follow Belgium's meat-free day example?

They are going meat-free once a week in the Belgian town of Ghent. Here's what some chefs in the UAE have to say about going vegetarian.

Broccoli beats meat hands down any day.
Broccoli beats meat hands down any day.

It worked pretty well with moules frites. Not quite so well with stoemp. It isn't often that the world follows Belgium's lead when it comes to its eating habits. That is, perhaps, until now. Officials in the Belgian city of Ghent recently announced that they will avoid eating meat for one day each week. In a bid to combat the damaging effects of meat production on the environment, councillors and civil servants in the Flemish city have declared Thursdays "veggie day", and have vowed to step up the campaign to promote the benefits of crossing meat off the menu.

In a country that's renowned for its fish and shellfish restaurants, it's a bold move. Every restaurant in the city will guarantee a vegetarian option on its menu, and many restaurants and school canteens will offer nothing but vegetarian food every Thursday. The initiative aims to educate people about the adverse affects that too much meat can have on personal health, such as obesity, cancer and high cholesterol. But its main objective is to highlight the contribution made by meat eaters to global warming.

According to a study published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the livestock industry is responsible for 18 per cent of the world's anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In a world where acres of rainforest are being swept aside to accommodate livestock farming and water is becoming increasingly scarce, the rate at which we consume meat is simply unsustainable. But for meat eaters, the prospect of giving up steaks, kebabs or shawarmas may be a bitter pill to swallow. We asked chefs at three very different restaurants for their advice on sticking to a vegetarian menu without missing out on flavour.

If you're convinced by Ghent's veggie-for-a-day stance but think you'll struggle to find delicious and nutritious alternatives to meat, think again. Gabrielle Kurz is the chef de cuisine at Magnolia restaurant, one of the few all-vegetarian, five-star-hotel restaurants in the country. A dedicated vegetarian, she is passionate about promoting the importance of a healthy, balanced diet. She says you can change the way you eat and feel without completely transforming your habits.

"You do not have to become a full vegetarian," she says. "Maybe just once or twice a week is enough to start." Eating less meat or fish aids digestion and can help you detox, she says, adding that if enough people reduce their intake, it can reduce the impact on the environment. Of course, the last thing most meat eaters want is to be pressured into giving up meat altogether. So it's encouraging to hear Kurz advocate a slow and steady change.

"I think it's very important that you do not make a big break with meat," she says. "Don't suddenly decide that from now on you will be a vegetarian. That's difficult because your body will be used to meat. Some people fast for one day a week, which helps the system to relax for a day. It's the same with meat fasting. If you did it once a year, it would not have an impact, but done regularly like once a week, it does."

Once meat eaters decide to make a concerted effort to cut down their consumption, the big stumbling block for many is finding a replacement or a substitute for their meat or fish. "Tofu and Quorn are very nice, but if you only have one vegetarian day a week you don't have to bother with these," Kurz says. "If you are going to be vegetarian for the long term, you should balance it out with these. "Many people think that if you are vegetarian, then you only eat about five dishes," she laughs. "They think you are missing something. But not eating meat doesn't mean you have to carefully replace it with another protein. You can balance that out with vegetable proteins from lentils, chickpeas or soya."

To the average omnivore carnivore, lentils, chickpeas and soya don't sound half as good as fillet steak, roast chicken or lamb chops. But for Kurz, it's all in the presentation. "It's important to have a colourful meal, so you should pick from every available vegetable - not just noodles and ketchup. You should eat root vegetables like carrots, beetroot, celeriac and potatoes as well as some leafy foods like salads, parsley and spinach. Add some fruit-vegetables like tomatoes and zucchini so you have all the types of vegetables available for your body."

The temptation to toss a few grilled chicken pieces into a colourful vegetable salad at home might be too great to resist. But there are other ways that part-time vegetarians can brighten up a meal, says Kurz. "One thing that is very tasty on our summer menu is a fresh salad to start your meal," she says. "I like avocado, so for the summer Magnolia does a guacamole cocktail. It's ripe avocados, tomatoes, lime juice and coriander. And we prepare it kind of like a salad so it goes with green leaves and it's seasoned with a mustard dressing. We serve it with crusty quinoa bread that is baked in our bakery.

"For a main course, I would suggest our parsley risotto," she says. "It's made with brown rice with a very nutty flavour. We cook it with parsley purée so it's very green, and we serve it with sautéed broccolini, carrots and wild mushrooms. For dessert we serve something with a local touch. It's camel milk panna cotta with summer berries and cardamom muffins. You would definitely have to come to the restaurant for this because it's a little complicated to make at home. But it's extremely light and extremely nice."

If you're a fan of subcontinental food you'll be positively spoilt for choice for vegetarian options in the UAE. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are awash with Indian restaurants that offer vegetarian food. Most offer both non-vegetarian and vegetarian dishes, but again, the urge to add a couple of boti lamb kebabs and some chicken chaat to your dahl makhani could lead you into dangerous territory - which is where your friendly local pure-vegetarian restaurant will capably step into the breach. If you're going all-out for vegetarian Indian, you might as well go the whole nine curry-littered yards.

Sai Dham is an Indian restaurant that specialises in sattvik food, which according to Ayurvedic teachings is one of three categories that foods fall into. Sattvik represents everything that is pure about food, and endorses calmness, virtue, knowledge and longevity. Rajasik relates to spicy, oily and salty foods, which cause hyperactivity and restlessness. Finally, tamasik food such as meat, fish, onion and garlic, causes laziness, ignorance and dullness of spirit.

At Sai Dham, not only is meat forbidden, but so is onion and garlic, while oil and chilli are kept to a bare minimum. And although that might sound as bland as wilting celery to those who cling to their extra-spicy chicken tikka masala as if their lives depend on it, it really isn't. Lalit S Nagpal is the owner of the independent restaurant in Dubai's Bur Dubai district, but it's only recently that his appetite for meat was stopped in its tracks. "I used to eat non-vegetarian food," he says. "I used to eat more meat than I can imagine today. But when I left non-vegetarian food, I was so happy. Meat was spoiling my health.

"I was working in IT for almost 14 years," he says. "I had a very good position and I was enjoying my career a lot. But I realised things needed to change. For the last three years I have followed a sattvik diet. Before that I used to eat onion and garlic. But when you get up in the morning after eating too much onion and garlic you have a burning sensation in the stomach. Anything too pungent can give you acidity and gastric problems. It can also bring a bad odour to your sweat, especially if you eat meat."

Nagpal loved the new diet so much that he opened a restaurant. "The fundamentals of sattvik food are that it's cooked less, it's spiced less and it tastes better. If you deep fry vegetables, then all the flavour is gone. If you put garlic and onions into food then you will only taste the garlic and the onions. "The ingredients that we use in this kind of food are cashew nuts, raisins, almonds, pistachios, yogurts, full-cream milks and cottage cheese. Then you've got spice blends, which you can't get in the markets. We make them in the restaurant. They are mild, with very little salt and oil, so that when you leave our restaurant you won't feel fatigue, weakness, lethargy or drowsiness. It'll make you feel energetic and full, but you'll feel like you're in the process of digestion already."

The Sai Bhog thali is Sai Dham's signature dish - or should that be dishes? Six little pots are arranged around a gram flour tandoori roti, some papads and a few vegetable pakoras on a broad circular tray. Each one is filled - and refilled as often as you like - with a selection of north and south Indian vegetarian treats, from aloo methi (potatoes and fenugreek leaves in vegetable gravy) to beans fry (French beans cooked with coconut) and sweet semolina pudding. There is no meat, onions or garlic, but the flavours are fresh, vivid and utterly delicious. What's more, it only costs Dh25.

You might leave a pure vegetarian restaurant like Sai Dham feeling very pleased with yourself once a week. But what if you've been dragged to a steakhouse by a less environmentally aware friend? Can you still make good on your promise to go veggie? You can at the Rodeo Grill restaurant at the Beach Rotana hotel in Abu Dhabi, according to the executive chef Ernst Frank. "We have a policy in the Rotana that every menu must include some vegetarian dishes," he says. "We have three now in the steakhouse, and it's really for vegetarians that have been invited to the steakhouse. At the moment we have ravioli with goat's cheese, a carpaccio of marinated beetroot and stuffed aubergine on polenta. We also have grilled vegetable and mesclun salad."

Steakhouses like Rodeo Grill are clearly prepared for a shift in attitudes towards meat. People are waking up to the fact that cattle in particular are the most environmentally unfriendly of all livestock because of methane gas emissions and the amount of rainforest land that's cleared to accommodate such large numbers of animals. But Frank doesn't think such awareness will impact the steak business. "People have a choice to eat what they want if it's healthy," he says. "They have a choice to eat vegetarian meals instead of meat. Many people do that anyway. It's unlikely that everyone is eating red meat every day, so I don't think it would affect a restaurant like Rodeo Grill."

Indeed, Frank believes that many people already eat less meat than they realise. "I eat whatever I want to," he says. "But I eat red meat maybe once or twice a week. It's part of my normal diet. I believe that if you go from one extreme to the other it's rather harmful." Perhaps Ghent's veggie day initiative is a timely reminder that moderation and a balanced diet are key to a healthy body and a healthy planet. We just need to take a little more care over what we're eating.

As Nagpal from Sai Dham says: "Food keeps you alive. It keeps you healthy and it keeps you going every day. If you respect food you are respecting mankind." jbrennan@thenational.ae