Photo by Richard Owens
Today is my last day as a vegetarian. I didn’t decide I can’t live without a medium rare steak on my plate nor was it something that my doctor prescribed. I changed neither religions nor countries nor boyfriends.
Most carnivores think vegetarians and vegans are missing out on a lot of foods and flavours, but what if it’s really the other way around? Finding the answer to that question is how I became a vegetarian for 30 days. To see if I was missing something by not being vegetarian, to explore new food and my own food-related needs.
I am Romanian and my great-grandmother was Greek. I come from a family in which the richest dishes, the most sought-after and talked-about, are meat based. My grandfather was a hobby hunter and a proud carnivore, while my grandmother knew how to cook the best hare stew in the entire village. My other grandfather cured the smokiest mutton pastrami, a dish that still makes people talk in the small village where he was born.
At Easter, we always eat lamb roast, a meat pie made of lamb heart, liver and lungs (drob) and hard-boiled eggs. At Christmas we have minced-meat rolls cocooned in cabbage (sarmale), home-made sausages and steak. You could say I am, by tradition and by culture, truly carnivore.
How was I to survive a full month of meat fasting? I was both excited and terrified.
The first time I actually started to understand those people who have decided to say “no” (forever) to pepper-covered fuet, pungent salami, crumbly moussaka, gourmet hamburgers and maple-syrup-and-sage-infused duck, was when I met and then became friends with Jim.
Jim never chose to be vegetarian, he was raised one. He is so immersed in the meat-free lifestyle that when he sees a few beer sausages on a plate, he takes a bite, chews it for a few times and slowly asks: “This is soybean, right?” When you tell him it isn’t, he doesn’t just spit it out in the first 10 seconds; he chews two more times, as though he’s trying to give meat a chance.
In the end, though, it is his vegetarian side that always wins out. He would never order meat in a restaurant or think of buying it at the supermarket; it’s just not one of his options, although if you’re friends with him, he might make a small sacrifice for you, such as eating sushi.
One morning in my first week of vegetarianism, I bought a fuet sandwich. As I was enjoying its crunchy and greasy texture, my friend Maria, who knew about the experiment, asked me what being a new-found vegetarian was like. I said it was going great, I didn’t miss meat at all. I had completely forgotten the (simple) rule of being a vegetarian: no meat. ie. no fuet.
A few days later, I went to one of my favourite restaurants where they had nothing vegetarian on the menu. I ate a sandwich while my lunch mate was having the delicious curry couscous I knew so well. I felt somehow embarrassed to create such a fuss.
Another day, a friend of mine cooked chicken soup; she made a ‘vegetarian’ chicken soup and a carnivore chicken soup. The vegetarian soup was exactly the same as the carnivore version (they were made in the same pot), the only difference being that the chicken pieces were simply extracted from the meat-free version. I ate the ‘vegetarian’ soup, but I knew no true vegetarian would eat it.
Similarly, a true vegetarian wouldn’t just carefully remove the sweet and sour pork pieces in his or her Chinese food, as I did one night when my friends ordered for me before I got to the restaurant we were having dinner in.
It wasn’t like this all the time, though. Little by little my friends and I got used to my vegetarianism. A friend actually tried the same experiment: he wanted to challenge his hedonistic taste buds, see if he could resist meat. He lasted for almost three weeks before he confessed to having sinned with crispy bacon. I told him I had also had sinful thoughts about chocolate and the skewered chicken made in the polleria just a street below my house.
The days passed quickly and before I knew it, the end of my experiment was approaching. Since I felt that I hadn’t missed meat that much, in my last week I decided to become a vegan.
Two minutes later I stumbled on a blog post about Belgian chocolate. It was too late to back out but I was afraid this would be much more difficult than the vegetarian experiment. It was a whole new thing. I couldn’t eat at my favourite restaurants anymore; I had to ask millions of questions about everything on the menu. At the supermarket, I had to read the labels, something I almost never do (there are some scary things in our food, let me tell you). I cursed the ‘traces of milk’ in dark chocolate and other things that looked vegan.
On my first vegan shopping day, I bought so much fruit and vegetables that I barely managed to carry it all home. I baked bread and made a big batch of hummus and mushroom pâté, which I ate for the following day and a half. It was horrid.
Soon, however, I started to wise up. I realised I could have tomato bread with olive oil and coffee with soy milk. I could have salads and mix them with nuts, cereals or legumes. My boyfriend invented a splendid dish with soy milk bechamel, almonds and minced vegetables, all baked inside a yellow pepper. I learned I could make delicious vegan lasagnas and even cakes. I was having a lot of fun.
The last day of my project, maybe to prepare myself for re-introducing meat in my diet, I went to the vegan restaurant Gopal, a place where the daily menu includes delicious ‘hamburgers’, and rather unconvincing ‘chicken’ nuggets, chorizos and sausages, all made of creative mixes of legumes and spices. It’s vegan but might fool many carnivores.
To sum up, I realise I am a fake vegetarian and an untalented vegan. At first, I had no idea what to buy or cook; my brain was set on meat, cheese, milk and eggs. But it got better. It got deliciously better as I learned to explore my food options. I may be back to being a carnivore for now, but I feel as though my exploration of vegetarian and vegan food has only just started.
RESTAURANTS WITH VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN OPTIONS IN BARCELONA CENTRE
El Refugi, Passatge de la Pau
A small place where the owners only cook one or two dishes a day, the food is cheap —around €7 for one dish and a drink—and it tastes like something your friends would cook for you. If you don’t like what they’ve cooked for the day, try the grilled goat cheese and honey sandwich.
La Fonda, Pasaje de los Escudellers 1
Always crowded at night, it’s quite empty at lunchtime (if you get there at 2pm sharp) and much cheaper (around €10 for a lunch menú, instead of a €8-9 per dish at night). La Fonda always has two or three vegetarian options on the menu and, if you eat fish, there is always at least one fish dish you can try.
Maritime Museum restaurant, Drassanes
You’ll find the restaurant in the small garden of the museum. The lunch menu costs around €10 and it’s a good place for fresh fish. There are days on which they don’t have anything vegetarian on the menu, though.
Guixot, Riereta 7
Close to Rambla del Raval, Guixot is one of my favourite restaurants in Barcelona. It has plenty of delicious vegetarian options every day. A two-course menú costs around €10; you can have a vegetarian crêpe, one of their big and inventive salads, soup, parmesan aubergine and many other options, depending on the season and what you like to eat.
Maharajah, Rambla del Raval 14
Most Indian restaurants have a vegetarian option. Maharajah has a vegetarian menu option for €8 and a carnivore one for a little over €9.
Africa Tamarane, Riereta 26
This newly-opened African restaurant has delicious vegetarian and carnivore options for the same €8.50 lunch menu.
Are you a vegetarian or vegan living in Barcelona? How easy do you find it to eat out here? Do you have any other restaurant recommendations? Tell us online at www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/vegetarianbarcelona