Until relatively recently, meat was a dietary indulgence. Lacking effective means of transportation, refrigeration and storage meant that generations survived largely on vegetable-based cookery. Our eating habits have since moved on. Meat is, for many around the world, a near-constant presence at the dinner table. While this Western dietary approach has gone unchallenged for much of the 20th Century, there is a sense that the tide is beginning to turn. A host of different diets are being advocated by voices across the world, many with a heavy focus on fruits and vegetables. Whilst there are clear health benefits to plant-based living, a herbivorous outlook does not have to be an exclusively healthy one. We’re living in the era of rapidly evolving vegan and vegetarian fast food.
There are many reasons for our modern love affair with fast food - speed, price, convenience and, above all, taste. The science behind our obsession is relatively simple. Fast food is rich in the chemicals that set off pleasure responses in our brain, containing high levels of fat, salt and sugar. While such large amounts of these three substances cannot be considered integral to a balanced or healthy diet, the reaction that they provoke is instantaneous and gratifying. The naturally excessive quantities of fat within the meat used in the fast food industry, along with the predominantly oil-based cooking methods, help explain why it is so appealing. When combined with salt and sugar, both naturally and as additives, it becomes easy to understand why, up until now, meat has dominated the scene.
Beyond the science, there is also something more sentimental behind our complex. Fast food organically elicits a warm response: it is uncomplicated and comforting food, often based around easy-to-prepare, carb and protein-heavy family recipes. Pizza, fried chicken and burgers can all trace their origins to the dining room table. As food has evolved to be about something more than fuel, so too has our love of the more indulgent ingredients. Together with the science, this less tangible factor helps explain why fast food has exploded in Western culture.
Vegetables, on the other hand, have a somewhat mixed reputation as comfort food. For some cultures, they are absolutely integral, forming, for example, the basis of many of the world’s greatest curries. However, in a modern Western world where “indulgence” is synonymous with “fried”, they have often been maligned. Again, science can help explain this divide. Vegetables are clearly not as salty, fatty or sugary as meaty alternatives. They also lack the more naturally stringy, chewable texture of flesh, which makes for a totally different eating experience.
It is not just the difference in taste and texture that vegetarian options must overcome. Despite how essential vegetable dishes have been throughout history, and still remain for many people around the world, there is a new, modern and peculiarly Western attitude to vegetarianism and veganism. Today, they are often unfairly labelled as elitist, pious and even pretentious lifestyle choices. This is not what people want from their comfort food. All in all, vegetarian fast food has faced an uphill campaign to win hearts and minds, challenge common misconceptions and overcome an inconvenient scientific reality.
Perhaps the earliest attempt at Westernised vegetarian fast food was the veggie burger. Though the DNA of the modern veggie burger can be traced back millennia to various Eurasian cuisines, it was not until the 1980s that what many of us would consider as the archetypal example was created. The patty has many forms, and can be made from beans, mushrooms, legumes or grains. When the first version was created in London, the invention quickly took over to become the staple vegetarian option of fast food.
Though the veggie burger was undoubtedly a game-changer, it still lacked something - the intangible and unique texture of “meatiness”. Somewhere between sinewy and soft, this quality is impossible to replicate through a “traditional” vegetarian approach. Unaltered fruit and vegetables simply do not have this consistency. Hence, much of modern vegetarian fast food innovation has been dedicated to trying to replicate the “feel” of meat. In recent years, this has given rise to a new batch of meat alternatives.
Arguably the most successful modern meat surrogate is seitan. Though seitan and other wheat gluten products have actually been around since the 6th Century, their use in Western fast food is a relatively new phenomenon. Seitan provides both the chewy consistency and the structure to handle cooking techniques such as deep frying. These attributes have helped the western fast food industry embrace the product with open arms. In London, restaurants like Temple of Seitan, go to show the popularity and potential of the meat substitute. It would be fair to say that products such as seitan have helped veggie fast food to become a truly legitimate presence on fast food menus everywhere.
Vegetarian fast food has come a long way, and has helped challenge our perceptions of what junk food has to be. Today, there are a host of companies constantly innovating and developing new ways to take the veggie options to the next level. With global concerns about the amount of meat we’re eating, meat supplements could be on the cusp of taking over the food industry. With such success already, it seems unlikely that we will be able to taste the difference.