By Stef Oakley
After watching the harrowing documentary ‘Get Vegucated’ (not the comedy we thought it would be), my boyfriend and I both decided to do a month’s vegan challenge. During my first week as a vegan I felt a real sense of suffering at the loss of daily dairy comfort. “Where is the cheeeeeeeese?!”, I cried in my sleep; my body contained camembert-shaped holes. I watched resentfully at a birthday party while everyone tucked into a towering water-slide shaped sponge cake. Worst of all were the impromptu visits to cafes and pubs around Brixton, where I feasted on… errr… hummous and pitta, or chips, or even chips and beans. Or best of all, green salad (with no mayonnaise, thanks).
Cooking vegan food at home seemed the only way to get a decent meal. We made vegan quiche, pizza, pasta bakes, chocolate cakes, curries, stir-fries, Sunday roasts, burritos, soups, fruit crumbles, and risottos. It was suddenly a healthy, feel-good eating adventure! The same could not be said of eating out. I continued to find that a frustrating and rather boring experience, so here I am now, having sifted through some of the blank, confused or dismissive faces of Brixton restaurant staff, to tell you where to find a vegan culinary gems.
In Brixton Village, try the buckwheat gallettes at Senzala; they actually have a proper vegan section to their menu. I had my wonderfully crispy gallette stuffed with courgette, butternut squash, tomato chutney, red pepper confit, almonds and parsley. It had a good range of textures, and a nice flavour contrast between the tangy, sharp tomato and pepper and the buttery squash and almonds. Or ask the warm, helpful staff at Elephant for one of their vegan naan breads – they’ll make one especially for you to scoop up the spicy cauliflower or chickpeas from your vegetable thali. A word of warning: you may need to be quite emphatic about your diet to ensure they understand.
It’s easy at Mama Lan, all the dishes marked ‘vegetarian’ are actually vegan. This is a really popular place with quirky, deep flavours. I especially love the smoky and earthy wood ear mushroom dumplings. If you fancy Mexican and don’t mind explaining veganism to whoever serves you, Jalisco staff were more than happy to talk me through every ingredient of every dish. Make sure you ask them to leave out cheese and sour cream and you too could enjoy a perfect burrito with mushrooms or black beans, guacamole, rice and salad. There are several other options but again, you need to make it clear you don’t eat eggs or dairy.
For something sweet (other than the divine Ms Cupcake), try Lab-G for homemade, fabulous dairy-free ice creams. They currently have two vegan options: chocolate orange, and Sicilian lemon sorbet. The chocolate orange is rich and chocolatey and orangey! And the sorbet is smooth and sherbety. They’re missing a trick by not labelling these flavours as vegan; I had to have quite a conversation with the ice-cream maker before I found out.
Up the hill and away from the trendiest place on earth, the colourful Caribbean restaurant Negril is only slightly less fashionable than the Village, and has plenty of vegan food to choose from thanks to their catering to Rastafarian diets with ital food. There’s a lot to choose from but the pumpkin curry and homemade bean burgers are my favourites. Check with staff which sides you can order – I love the plantain wedges and rice and peas. This place is rather pricey, but the food is reliably great.
At Pullens (opposite Herne Hill rail station), the affable chef helped me to choose a breakfast of marmite toast with sweet and spicy tomatoes, coriander and chillies, and another toast piled up with creamy avocado, black pepper and lemon. On another lunchtime visit I had the Poor boy lentil burger with fries and salad, which lacked kick but was comforting and filling. Soya milk was available for my coffee, and they also had a vegan smoothie.
I have learned that even apparently vegan-clueless places can serve you up a vegan feast, as long as you can do a little prodding – a useful skill for any vegan diner. I think I’m starting to get quite a kick out of all these conversations about food, a perk of dining out the vegan way.
Editor’s note: We love hearing about new places or recommendations for vegan dining in Brixton, so if you have any tips, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.