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More Australians are rejecting beef, pork and poultry in favor of tofu, ‘mylk’ and lentils. Dietary and ethical reasons are fueling the change, challenging the continent’s meat-heavy culture. Writer Erica Wheadon explains.
Text and photos: Erica Wheadon
Country: Australia

omething has come over more than 2.25 million Australians. They’re not eating meat. In fact, recent findings have revealed that Tasmania is leading the nation with the highest number of vegetarians per capita, and New South Wales is reporting a massive 30 percent increase over a four-year period. Melbourne, city of coffee and hipsters, is taking things a step further, allegedly on its way to being the vegan capital of the world. Its inner-city suburbs are brimming with plant-based menus, from cruelty-free pizza to mylk gelato and Korean temple food.

In fact, a whopping 9.9 million Australians say that they’re consuming fewer animal products every year.

Alas, it hasn’t always been like this.

History

When the First Fleet arrived on the shores of Botany Bay in 1788, its ships carried provisions for convicts and settlers to survive for two years: sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, rabbits and goats, as well as a range of poultry. Australia wasn’t proffered as the bountiful new frontier, but rather an outpost of Britain, with British values, and British food, including a meat-based diet for its inhabitants.

In the next 50 to 70 years, over 2 million people emigrated from Great Britain and Ireland, due to increasing poverty and famine. A vegetarian diet was seen as a signifier of poor social status and in contrast, Australia was seen as the land of plenty where meat was a staple for its inhabitants.

As new cultures immigrated to the country, non-meat eaters were considered dangerous and radical, even un-Christian. Despite this, Melbourne showed the earliest recordings of vegetarianism from as early as 1850. Supporters of the diet were free-thinkers, academics, even booksellers who rampantly promoted vegetarian literature in their stores. Meat-free ideals germinated at the fringes of society and as the country increased in both population and diversity, new beliefs took root.

Vegetarianism in Australia may have been around for almost 170 years, however it became a contentious issue in the mid-to-late 20th century, when vegetarians were wildly misunderstood ‘hippies’ who made up a small percentage of the population, eating nothing but vegetables and a mysterious, foreign substance called ‘tofu’. Their existence was considered a lonely one, given that Australia’s national pastime involved grilling steak or ‘snags’ (sausages) on a barbecue, eating lamb chops with the family, and throwing down a few meat pies at the footy. Salad was considered an accompaniment, not a meal on its own, and for many, the idea of a pallid lentil curry became associated with eastern philosophy, and thus an assault on the Australian ‘Christian’ way of life. Vegetarianism was clearly a form of deprivation, and veganism, considered to be the vegetarian’s weird hippy cousin, was downright unfathomable.

Reasons for Meat-Free Lifestyle

The issue is still guaranteed to divide the nation, but meat-free eating is very much on the rise, and there are many reasons that many Australians have adopted the lifestyle. The predominant reason is dietary, with the majority maintaining that a meat-free diet is essential to their health and wellbeing. The next biggest reason is an ethical one, with environmental sustainability and cruelty-free living becoming a new priority as consumers discover the realities of the so-called ‘barbaric’ and ‘medieval’ meat-export industry, and many investigations turning up less than humane practices.

Celebrity endorsements have had a sizeable impact, with Beyoncé, Jared Leto, Chris Hemsworth and actress-turned- wellness -champion Gwyneth Paltrow leading the way.

But is vegetarianism an all-or-nothing lifestyle? Not necessarily. Many self-proclaimed carnivores are opening themselves up to the possibility of not eating meat every night of the week, and considered ‘flexitarians’, those not quite willing to commit solely to meat-free living, but open to the advantages of it. For some flexitarians, giving up a life-long practice of eating meat takes some time, and they are unable to give it up ‘cold turkey’, so to speak.

Rise in Creative Cuisine

When vegetarians were a very small minority, it was difficult to find adequate culinary offerings outside of the more cosmopolitan cities such as Melbourne or Sydney. Restaurant and catering options included basic mushroom dishes, or sad-looking salads (often a collection of garnishes from the more prominent meat-filled dishes). If you were a vegetarian, you became used to eating at home, or going hungry.

Horizons and taste buds broadened somewhat during the 20th Century as Australia slowly embraced multi-cultural influences, and thanks to an influx of spices and flavours, meat-free dishes have more scope than ever before. Social media has had a large part to play in its popularity with the emergence of wellness coaches on Instagram and Facebook. As a result, supermarkets are now stocking a large proportion of dairy-free milk alternatives (including rice, nut and bran mylks), as well as vegetarian staples such as tofu, seitan, and tempeh.

Plant-based meat products have been tried, with supermarket giant Woolworth’s “plant mince” stirring up a reasonable amount of controversy, due to its placement in the meat department of its stores. Die-hard carnivores in France and America have lobbied their respective governments to restrict words associated with meat (such as steak, mince, etc.). Australian right-wing political representatives are following suit, calling for the removal of the product, claiming that it is misleading to consumers. Major supermarkets have resisted these calls, hesitant to isolate customers and claiming that they have seen a significant growth in the sale of vegetarian products over the past few years. Eating meat, it seems, is still a patriotic act.

Whilst meat, chicken or fish is offered on approximately two-thirds of restaurant menus, token vegetarian options are slowly becoming more creative and filling, to allow catering for diverse groups of diners. Chefs know that vegans in particular are mindful about their choices and what they put into their bodies, so catering for them requires creativity and innovation.

What the Locals Recommend

With the Sunshine State lagging behind its more progressive neighbours, I interviewed several South-East Queensland locals about their favourite plant-based haunts, and it became apparent that what we lack in numbers, we make up for it with ingenuity. Here were the top four.

The Cardamom Pod – Gold Coast

A wide and varied range of both Italian and Indian-inspired meals with an ample (and tasty) range of dishes for those who live without gluten, dairy or meat in their diet. It’s not just the place to go to for a veggie lasagna, kofta or chickpea korma, their breakfast dishes are downright legendary, with offerings such as Nutella pumpkin protein pancakes, chia seed French toast (with roasted peaches and coconut vanilla bean custard) and Snickers smoothie bowls.

If that’s not enough, their cake selection is enough to make any dessert die-hard drool (uh, raw peanut-butter cheesecake or banoffee pie anyone?) and as if you weren’t spoiled enough for choice, their Mylkbar is the place on the coast to go for plant-based ice cream sundaes.

Elixiba – Sunshine & Gold Coast

A newcomer on the plant-based restaurant scene, Elixiba has made a splash with sustainable furniture and minimum- waste packaging, ensuring that their commitment to vegan living goes beyond their menu. Craft beer and herbal cocktails give Elixiba the edge over other vegetarian restaurants. With drink names such as matcha martini, the pink flamingo and a hemp -chocolate Mudslide, it’s not hard to see why!

Other offerings include tea-smoked mushrooms, butter jackfruit curry and hemp burgers. And if you still have room for dessert, you can order a tower of heaven: chocolate cake, raw caramel, salted caramel ice cream, and coconut cream, topped with herbal chocolate. Yum!

Govindas – Brisbane

Govindas is an institution by most people’s standards, serving fresh vegetarian meals to Brisbane residents for over 20 years. Famous for their all-you-can-eat-and-drink “Feast Meal” combos, including a variety of vegetable curries, dahl, koftas, rice, pappadams and halava (semolina fruit pudding), Govindas ensures that Brisbane students are well-fed for less.

Flour of Life Bakery – Gold Coast

Flour of Life are well-known for their naughty but delectable treats, meaning those with intolerances to animal products no longer have to miss out on sponges, gateaus, pavlovas, custard tarts, or the humble Australian Vanilla Slice. Even their savoury treats such as sausage rolls and pies taste ‘suspiciously real.’ Flour of Life have a cult following and patrons drive from all over South East Queensland and from over the border to get their hands on a vegan treat…or five.

Information box

● In 2014 Australia surpassed the US to become the world’s biggest meat eating country, a title they hadn’t held since 1982.

● It’s believed that Australia is the third fastest-growing vegan market in the world (behind United Arab Emirates and China).

● Flexitarians can also be called semi-vegetarians and climatarians (a diet with minimal impact on the environment). Many flexitarians claim that a surge in meat prices have seen them reach for the chickpeas, instead of the chicken.

● Sydney-based restaurant “Soul Burger” boasted the biggest vegan burger in Australia—originally Photoshopped as an April Fool’s gag, and then painstakingly recreated as patrons came from miles around to try the monster creation. It consisted of plant-based sausage, schnitzel, beef-style patty, battered “fish” fillet, field mushroom, falafel patty, roasted peppers, grilled pineapple, plant-based cheese, tomato, lettuce and herbed mayonnaise and sold for $35.




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Move Over, Meat


Australia is known as a meat-eating country, but that is changing. Nowadays over 2.25 million Australians do not eat meat and that number is growing. Tasmania leads the nation with the highest number of vegetarians per capita. And Melbourne is on its way to being the vegan capital of the world!

In fact, a whopping 9.9 million Australians say they consume fewer animal products every year.

But it was not always like that. When the settlers first arrived in Australia, they brought their meat-based diet with them. As new cultures immigrated to the country, non-meat eaters were considered dangerous and radical, even un-Christian. In the mid-to-late 20th century, vegetarians were seen as wildly misunderstood hippies.

Many people still do not understand vegetarianism, or its weird cousin veganism, but meat-free eating is increasing. Many carnivores are trying not to eat meat every night of the week. These people are considered flexitarians and are open to the advantages of a vegetarian diet.

In the past it was difficult to find vegetarian options in Australia, but with the increase of vegetarians and more acceptance, many restaurants and stores now offer a wider variety of foods. Supermarkets now stock a large variety of dairy-free milk alternatives (including rice, nut and bran mylk) as well as vegetarian staples such as tofu, seitan and tempeh.

Although the Sunshine State is lagging behind its more progressive neighbours when it comes to vegetarian options, there are a few creative vegetarian restaurants. The Cardamom Pod has a Mylkbar that offers delicious plant-based ice cream sundaes, Elixiba has great plant-based cocktails, Govinda’s has fabulous all-you-can-eat veggie combos, and The Flour of Life offers amazing vegan treats.

 

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Move Over, Meat

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