Will going vegan save the planet from global warming? But what about all those mystery ingredients in processed mock meats? How about if it's "grown" in a laboratory instead? If I switch to almond milk, won't that still hurt the bees...?
These days some of our simplest food choices are fraught with ethical dilemmas. And we're not alone. In her new podcast series, A Carnivore's Crisis, cook and food writer Rachel Khoo explores the "mind-boggling" pressures on general consumers to make the right choices.
"Sometimes you have to step back and say, 'Look, I'm just going to do the best I can' and not put so much pressure on [yourself]," Khoo says. "I think there's too much pressure on the individual to be expected to save the world through their diet, and that shouldn't be the case."
In the eight-part Audible series, Khoo and New Zealand-based journalist-turned-farmer Nicola Harvey explore traditional, regenerative and industrial farming systems, hunting and game, Big Meat and Dairy, lab-grown "cultivated meats", plant-based alternatives, vegan "moral absolutism", Michelin-starred veg and more.
So will the French-trained cook behind the Little Paris Kitchen be giving up butter any time soon? Not so fast. "I love butter! I have no qualms in saying that. Maybe I just eat a little less nowadays."
Khoo has made some "comfortable" tweaks to her eating habits, such as swapping full cream milk for oat milk, and using olive oil spread on her toast (butter is mostly reserved for baking; cheese for pasta).
She identifies with the flexitarian approach to food – that is, a mostly plant-based diet with meat treated as a treat, or a "garnish" to meals. "I don't eat a lot of meat but when I do I buy the best I can. I try and source it locally, organic, and that's my approach."
The weekly Sunday roasts of her "meat and two veg" childhood are not so regular at her family table in Sweden, reserved instead for special occasions. "Maybe once a month I do a roast chicken, and that roast chicken turns into a chicken pie, a chicken soup, so you can transform it, like my Austrian grandma used to do, and my mum. Meat was a special occasion thing and you make it stretch, you make it last."
The recipe developer has brought this plant-first, meat-second flex to her work, shifting the emphasis away from animal proteins. "I want to incorporate more plants, and if there are alternatives I add that in, but I don't make a big deal out of it – it just so happens to be plant-based."
Throughout the podcast, Khoo and her collaborators compare various burgers, rattling off the ingredients for a "hyper-processed" plant-based patty versus a simple beef burger from London restaurant, Elliot's. It is clear Khoo advocates a back-to-basics approach to home cooking and food.
"The best thing you can do for yourself, for your family, for your friends, is to buy the rawest product possible, so nothing processed. Because then you take control, you cut out the companies who will process the product for you, so you're taking control of your diet. It's also cheaper, it's more economical. And you're deciding: this is how I want my food, and I am the person who's going to make it."
So if you've already implemented "Meat-free Mondays", the next addition to your meal roster might be "Start-from-scratch Sunday". (If you'd like to flex your vegetarian muscle, below is a vegan-friendly recipe to try.)
Will going vegan save the planet? It's not so black and white. What it boils down to is doing what's right for you, whatever your food situation. "Be considerate, do the best you can and don't beat yourself up about it," says Khoo.
A Carnivore's Crisis is an Audible Original podcast and is available from July 28.
Spinach and yellow pea dhal
Dhal is comforting, warming and gives you all round feel-good factor. It's really hard to beat a bowl of it. This one uses Swedish yellow peas which are a similar size and shape as a chickpea (it's what a split yellow pea looks like before it's split). In my true waste-not-want-not spirit I threw a rather sad looking bag of spinach in at the end. This recipe is more about convenience than recreating an authentic dhal experience.
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 brown onion, peeled and chopped
- 1-2 tbsp curry powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 250g pre-cooked yellow peas (or tinned chickpeas)
- 1 litre hot vegetable stock
- 1 tsp sugar
- 240g spinach, washed and roughly chopped
- 4-6 heaped tablespoons of plain yoghurt (dairy or plant-based)
- a handful of coriander leaves (optional)
- thick slices of sourdough or flatbreads
- Heat the oil and sweat the onion over a medium to low heat for 10 minutes, until soft. Add the curry powder and toast for 2 minutes. Followed by the yellow peas (or chickpeas), salt, sugar and stock. Stir until the salt and sugar has dissolved.
- Bring the stock to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook uncovered for 20 minutes, or until most of the stock has evaporated to make a thick sauce.
- Add the spinach and cover for another 2 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. Stir and taste for seasoning. Add more salt if required. Serve with yoghurt, coriander (if using) and bread.
Note: The dhal can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen.