Vegetables are muscling out meatier options on the plate as diners recognise their health benefits, and restaurants make eating them fun. This requires creativity and an attention to what is seasonal.
The classic picture of the Western meal is meat and potatoes, with vegetables lurking on the side. Whether it’s a slab of steak, a piece of chicken, some fish or a rich stew, chances are that meat is the main element.
That’s changing. Not that vegetarian food is pushing meat off the plate altogether. Instead, innovative vegetable dishes are taking centre stage, part of a worldwide shift that places vegetables at the forefront of dining, according to food consultants Baum and Whiteman.
Several factors have come together: rising beef prices, fear of chemicals in meat, farmers’ markets selling more exciting vegetables, growing interest in seasonal food, and more people being ‘flexitarian’ –vegetarians some days, but not others.
More restaurants, such as Al’s Place in San Francisco (named best new restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine in 2015) serve vegetable-centric dishes with an innovative twist. Their menus have meat under ‘side dishes’.
To balance this, they make vegetables more inventive, such as broccamole (guacamole made with broccoli), turnip-kale stem pesto, and sunchoke curry, made with a delicate tuber that tastes like artichoke but belongs to the sunflower family.
The spiralising fashion is at the heart of this trend of enlivening vegetable dishes, and kitchens are creating spaghetti alternatives from zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes and beets. Houlihan’s restaurant and bar chain in the US has launched an ‘inspiralised’ menu with a butternut squash and sausage lasagna and Thai noodle salad with the noodles made from zucchini, mango and peppers.
This trend of moving meat to the side is more of a feature in Western cuisine, while Asian food has a long tradition of using smaller amounts of meat as highlights in dishes that mainly comprise of vegetables. Meat has more often been used as a flavouring than a focus and, as the New York Times put it, cooks “save fish and meat for moments when extra depth or intensity are needed”.
So this trend is showing itself in Asia through more creative vegetable dishes. Vegetarian grocer-café The Real Food Grocer, which has three branches in Singapore and one each in Malaysia’s Penang and Kuala Lumpur, has inventive vegetarian options such as chickpea and sweet potato cakes, and burger patties made from beet, carrot, millet, onions and zucchini.
According to the Vice President of the Singapore Chef Association, Chef Eric Neo, this creative approach to preparing vegetables has made them more appealing to diners. “Healthier dining has always been around,” he says.
“But chefs being creative have made vegetarian dishes more colourful and tastier. I think the trend will grow to include a larger audience.”
And diners love vegetables even more if they are organic. According to F&B product experts Innova Database, sales of organic products climbed from 5.9% to 9.3% from 2013 to 2015, while vegetarian products climbed from 7.8% to 10.5% in the same period. Couple that with the rising cost of meat (beef prices are set to rise between 12% and 15% in 2016) and the World Health Organisation’s link between processed food and cancer, the time is right for vegetables to take centre stage – or at least centre plate.