Why does that matter? Well, considering almost eight million Brits are set to enjoy a vegan or vegetarian Christmas this year (according to animal welfare charity Humane Society International UK), having the royal couple join the party is almost like a score in the world of dietary choice wars. And it's not just the UK that's embracing plant-based lifestyles. According to Uber Eats research released this month, 2019 will be the year veganism becomes mainstream across the Middle East and Africa. Analysing more than 191 million searches on the app across the MEA region over the last six months, the food delivery platform saw "vegan" make the Top 12 list of most popular food searches in the UAE, and predicts that edible flowers and meat substitutes like seitan and heme will be talking points on restaurant menus in the year to come. It's all in line with the rise in "socially-conscious diners", who are now clearly going "from just a few per cent in each country to a lifestyle choice for millions of individuals", says Jeanette Mellinger, head of Uber Eats user research.
For a long time, co-founder of Dubai Vegan Days Will Rankin grew up with turkey on the table in keeping with traditional Christmas dinners in the West. He ate meat till he was 21, before giving it up after a stint in a meat processing plant where he "saw animals die on a daily basis". It helped that he grew up in a household where both his sisters were vegetarian, because it meant there were always alternatives to meat - options he was open to. "During Christmas, they would have a nut roast or some kind of lentil dish, which always seemed to taste nicer to me than the dry dead bird - no offence to my family's cooking skills!" he recalls.
Will himself turned vegetarian for about 25 years, before making the switch to veganism - and he hasn't looked back since. The only difficulty he faces now? "Confrontational fellow diners!"
For many, the turkey is the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner spread. The idea of festive celebrations without one is, therefore, borderline unimaginable for some - to the point where vegans often testify of how their loved ones, albeit well-intentioned, find it difficult to accept their dietary choices simply because they feel going meat-free is akin to 'missing out'. Will strongly disagrees. "The only part of a Christmas dinner I can't have is the meat. I would still have all the vegetables - just like everyone else - carrots, peas, stuffing, roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, Yorkshire pudding..."
It's not that the popular traditional vegan fare of nut roasts are the only option available to them either. "One of my favourite dishes is a sort of 'Wellington' - an easy-to-make, festive pastry bake. I take lots of cranberry sauce and spread it on readymade pastry, add a massive heap of baby spinach, a layer of store-bough stuffing, followed by chestnut purée, onion, tomato, herbs and whatever else I fancy - roll it up and bake it for half an hour, and that does enough meals for the entire festive period!"
There are a number of vegan 'meat' replacements, Will notes - including vegan turkey. But as an avid home cook, he adds, "There are so many recipes at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet, a range of tools we wouldn't have thought of a decade ago - think spiraliser, dehydrator, juicer - and so many fresh, organic ingredients available to us that what you could create on Christmas Day is really only limited by your imagination."
Contributing to the rise of veganism is its sheer accessibility. Several restaurants across the UAE are offering vegan meals this festive season - like Tub of Butter, which is promoting a three-course vegan set menu that will be available only during Christmas. Tribeca in JBR is another property offering a 'vrunch' option for the first time this year. "After studying our guests' preferences and requests over the past few months, we wondered: why not offer a complete brunch experience to the vegan community with flavourful and inventive dishes?" says operations director Carlos Santos. Enter the 'vurger', jicama tacos, artichoke dip, and vegan cheesecake.
Veganism is definitely here to stay, he says; in fact, it's only going to "grow stronger". So, to anyone wary of trying a vegan Christmas meal this year because they don't think it could possibly replicate the 'same great taste' as its meaty counterparts, Carlos says, "Give it a try - you'd be surprised how, when the dishes are thought through, they can even become the first choice in your diet."
The ever-popular DIY sector hasn't escaped the demand for vegan offerings either. Local e-tailer Kibsons is also offering meat-free Christmas hampers and DIY meal boxes this year. Director of operations Halima Jumani says the reasoning behind the introduction was pretty simple. "Our vegan and vegetarian customers have spoken and we are listening!" While faux meat is not yet on the menu, she says it is high on their list of priorities. "We are currently looking for healthy, tasty meat alternatives that would appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of consumers. We believe it's important that these types of products should embrace and celebrate their own unique properties instead of just trying to replicate real meat as closely as possible."
For many attending parties this season, there still is the awkwardness of having to explain dietary preferences to hosts. Will suggests turning up with your own food. "I took homemade 'sausage' rolls and festive vol-au-vents, stuffed with cranberry, chestnut purée and mushrooms, to a party the other day. There were arguments, unfortunately. One was with someone who simply wouldn't believe the rolls weren't meat, and the other involved people fighting over who'd eat the last ones!"
With 'Veganuary' around the corner - the first month of the year is pegged as a great time to try veganism - many are already considering the switch. Yet others feel Christmas is even better: after all, what better time than a season that encourages compassion - even if it's on dining tables? While he relates to that perspective, Will also offers a word of caution: "I don't think the phrase 'going cold turkey' is appropriate here!" he quips. "I'd advise anyone to do plenty of research before jumping into veganism... maybe join the next Dubai Vegan Days event for a start. We won't bite - you're meat, after all!"
Food for thought?
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