Northern Ireland may be overwhelmingly carnivorous but vegetarians do exist here. They don't make a fuss like vegetarians do in the rest of the west, rather keeping a low profile. This is because they don't like people taking the mick. We are hard on vegetarians here. When they go out, they feel isolated, patronised and relegated to eating at tables next to the toilets. I know people who are for ever trying to bounce their veggie friends and family members back to meat by constantly frying bacon in their presence and offering them pulled pork sandwiches.
But seeing as it's World Vegetarian day on Tuesday, now's as good a time as any to see what choices veggies actually have in Belfast. Last week's hunt got off to a shaky start as there is not a single vegetarian restaurant in the entire north. It is a challenging life style choice for plant eaters living here.
When I tweeted last week that I wanted to find some good veggie dishes, the response was impressive. That's the thing about veggies, you give them the slightest pretext to tell us all about it, and sure enough, hundreds of passionate devotees of roots, leaves, tubers and fruit appear from nowhere in support of their favourite restaurants.
Top of the vegetarian popularity charts are, in no particular order Archana, Black Bear Café, Home, Molly's Yard and Safa. I went to three of them and, to be frank, while the offer was not uniformly brilliant it was mildly impressive.
Take Home in Wellington Place. Its veggie menu features ten dishes, some which you can have as a starter or a main. A big rustic earthenware bowl of hummus covered in chopped olives and nuts and accompanied by a few leaves, carrot sticks and some toast was full of flavours, a bit heavy on the garlic, but just the right consistency. Hummus is such a personal thing – this was how I'd like to make mine but haven't figured out how to yet.
Tofu – my first time – is, according to veggies, the magic pillar of vegetarianism, offering as it does an alternative to meat thanks to its rich protein value. But better still is the fact that it assumes the flavour of what ever it's cooked in: in this case cubed and deep-fried in breadcrumbs on a bed of coarse chopped salad, or, as Home calls it, a slaw.
Home is wonderful because it has this menu but lots of meaty ones too and the service is pretty much flawless.
Archana had been hailed by many tweeting veggies as the best in Ireland. It won a Best Indian Restaurant earlier this year in a Love Belfast concours. This tiny restaurant in Dublin Road is well known and almost 30 years old yet I had never been. Its dove-grey interior, framed Hindu beauties and pleasant lighting gives it a certain upmarket quality but the vegetarian menu is the biggest draw. Here you will find dozens of starters and mains featuring the subcontinent's favourites, okra and aubergine.
I order the Super Thali, an extravaganza featuring five sample dishes, pilau rice and naan. I ask for the okra dish to be one of the five but am told by an indifferent server it's at the chef's discretion what I get.
A large aluminium TV tray with compartments for all the different curries arrives. But there's no sign of any okra nor of aubergine. It's bad enough having to eat vegetarian, I weep to the adviser, but having to keep to potatoes, spinach, carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes and green beans is a bit of a purgatory. Having said that, the potatoes and spinach are out of this world, humming with that iron flavour and heated by curry spices. (The 12-year's-old's unusual chicken in garlic and chilli is seriously good, smokey and hot).
Another top favourite among the greenies was Molly's Yard and again, an entire A4 page dedicated to the non-meat eater proved they are paying more than lip service to the veggie cause.
A delicate starter of puff pastry with sun-dried tomato and mozzarella comes with balsamic and rocket leaves: simple and beautifully executed. The puff pastry blows apart like weightless, brittle petals to reveal a sweet and sour pile of tomato within tempered by the soft and smooth flavours of the mozzarella.
Mushrooms grilled beneath some melted blue cheese and crushed walnuts provide a robust main course accompanied by a beetroot and ginger remoulade and some of the best Combers I've had this year, this time, perked up with pesto.
The vegetarian offer doesn't stop at these. I recently brought a business acquaintance to the Fourth Wall in St Anne's Square only to discover that she was vegan. Could chef possibly put anything vegan together? Without missing a beat, the server reeled off a choice of four vegan dishes.
Give it a go. Three days with no meat is easy. But don't forget to come back. Northern Ireland's breeders and producers need you.
Super Thali £14.95
Three-course lunch £15.50
22 Wellington Place, Belfast.
Tel: 028 9023 4946
53 Dublin Road, Belfast
Tel: 029 9032 3713
1 College Green Mews, Botanic Avenue, Belfast
Tel: 028 9032 2600