Around 350,000 people worldwide have almost completed Veganuary, switching to a vegan diet in January and following in the footsteps of stars such as Ariana Grande, Joaquin Phoenix and Chris Packham. Linda Stewart asks three Northern Ireland people why they’ve decided to abstain from animal produce.
Civil engineer Geoff Garrett (54), from Saintfield, has been vegan for just over two years. He is married to Lesley.
Growing up, Geoff says, his diet was pretty standard Northern Irish fare, with meat and two veg almost every night, and he never really thought much about the way food is produced.
While his diet has gradually changed over the years, it was only two years ago that he and Lesley decided to switch to veganism.
"A number of years ago we cut down on our meat consumption and we cut it out eventually. We educated ourselves in what is involved in producing meat and we wanted no more part in it," he says.
"We didn't want to create a demand for animal agriculture and the way animals are exploited to put meat on our plates."
Geoff says they didn't get much stick from friends and family when they made the change.
"I suppose a few people would have raised eyebrows but there was nothing like that at all - generally the opposite happened. People said 'fair play, respect to make that kind of lifestyle change'," he says.
"Veganism is rising quite a lot in the younger generation and they seem to be the ones that are changing things. We've had no negative comments from anybody at all."
Geoff says he hasn't felt tempted to return to his previous diet. "I think once you make the decision and understand the reasons why, there is no going back," he says.
But he admits it did take a good few months to adjust to the transition and the new ways of cooking.
"It's all doable. It took a bit of time to get used to things, but it's all worked out and it's second nature now," he admits.
"I've come to realise that food is all about flavourings and the flesh of animals doesn't add much to it. If you take a curry, for example, it's as easy to make it vegan as make it with meat. It's the flavourings and spices that make the food tasty."
He says the couple love vegan chilli, bolognese, curries and vegan burgers.
"It's definitely been a positive experience and I hope the veganism trend continues. It seems to be on the rise," Geoff adds.
WHAT YOU'LL NEED
(choose your own quantities)
Oven roast your desired amount of cherry tomatoes with roughly sliced garlic and olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of smoked paprika. This will take 35-45 minutes.
In a pan, sweat onions, red peppers, garlic, mixed herbs and cinnamon. When softened, add a small amount of water and vegetable stock cubes and cook down a bit more until peppers are soft. Add mushrooms and simmer until cooked. Add at least half a tube of tomato puree, and more water if needed, then simmer for a bit.
Add half a jar of vegan sundried tomato paste. Add your roasted cherry tomatoes from the oven complete with juice and garlic. Add cans of tomatoes if required. Add dried red lentils and simmer until cooked. You can add a bit more water or stock if needed. Season as needed and add a handful of rough chopped fresh basil right at the end of cooking.
Leave to cool for a while before serving or, even better, leave it overnight and use the next day. You can make it in industrial size batches, bag it up and it freezes very well.
Counselling and psychology student Tuesday Goti (32), from Lisburn, works for PETA and has been a vegan for 17 years. She is married to Andrew and the couple are expecting a baby.
Tuesday says she was vegetarian for much of her life.
“I just knew that from a very early age, eating animals just felt wrong,” she says. “I never would have drunk milk or eaten eggs. It just didn’t feel right.
“My mum made sure we had good dinners — our diet did include meat, but it would have been something like homemade shepherd’s pie, a lot of veg and mashed potatoes.
“I always shunned the meat. One time there was a big slice of gammon on my plate and I remember physically retching.
“In the school canteen I would only eat chips because everything had meat or fish, so my mum began sending me to school with a lot of fruit in my bag to make sure I wasn’t eating chips every day.”
Tuesday made the switch to veganism when she was around 16.
“I didn’t know what veganism was, but I would have been fruitarian without realising what it meant,” she admits. “All I ate was raw fruit — I didn’t want anything with meat or dairy so it was easier to eat raw fruit.
“I was extremely healthy then — a lot healthier than I am now!” she says.
“Shortly afterwards I started educating myself in the library and I decided to go fully vegan. But back then it was different — it was more difficult.
“I was young, I was a student, I was poor, so I couldn’t afford fancy vegan cheeses. I mainly ate fruit and vegetables. If I went out to dinner I just left the meat off the plate.”
Tuesday says it’s much easier to live on a vegan diet these days as there are so many more options. “Every single restaurant has a vegan option — there are actually vegan restaurants in Belfast. Every supermarket has its own full range of vegan options. Tesco especially has brought its prices down to match the price of the non-vegan options.”
She admits she loves vegan junk food, particularly vegan pizza and Tesco’s Plant Chef coleslaw — “it’s amazing!”.
“I love the Sainsbury’s Free From sausages and burgers, and M&S vegan chicken kievs with garlic butter — they are so good,” she says. “I love Eat Street, the vegan restaurant on the Lisburn Road — their food is the best ever. You can get a massive bacon cheeseburger with cheesy chips and it’s lovely!”
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
(choose your own quantities)
Press and drain firm tofu and cut into chunks or thick slices. Wrap in a Nori sheet.
Make batter using soya milk, flour and seasoning. Just mix together until it’s a nice consistency.
Dip the tofu into batter and deep fry. It tastes like battered fish!
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
(choose your own quantities)
Chop carrots and bring to the boil and simmer until soft.
Heat some seasoned oil in a pan and fry off onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes and a cruelty free vegan mince or brown lentils. (If using lentils, boil to soften first). Drain the carrots and add to the same pot. Add in tomato passata and mix.
For the white sauce, soften dairy-free butter in a pan and add flour until it’s thick, then pour in soya milk and stir until it’s creamy. I add nutritional yeast and vegan cheese too.
Use a deep dish to layer the mince, white sauce and pasta sheets before topping with lots of vegan cheese and oven baking for about 30 minutes.
Dance and drama tutor Sheena Bleakley (51), from Belfast, has been vegan for six years and has started her own vegan food business, Truffleupagus Vegan Yums. She is engaged to Sean Allen and has one son.
She says: “I actually went vegetarian when I was 13 or 14. Prior to that I would have had a very standard working class diet — meat and two veg kind of thing, fries and roast chicken dinners, not very healthy food.
“I don’t think I’d ever heard of a pepper until I was about 15. But I remember very clearly not enjoying meat.
“I’m not even sure I made a connection about it being animals, but by the time I was 15 the connection was quite easily made, and I decided to stop eating them because I know they were sentient beings.”
Sheena and her twin sister both went vegetarian at around the same time, but she doesn’t remember getting too much criticism about it.
“I was quite a strong character in school and I was involved in the debating society.
“I’m sure I did get teased but I didn’t sway my view in any shape or form,” she says. “I probably liked being a bit different. Me and my twin were punks as well so I wouldn’t have been bothered about being vegetarian.”
Sheena switched to vegan for a couple of years when she was 19 and founded the trailblazing vegetarian cafe at Giro’s in Belfast city centre.
“I was vegan all through my pregnancy, but I did go back to being a vegetarian when I was about 21. There wasn’t as much information then as there is now. I carried on being vegetarian and brought my son up as vegetarian. I went vegan six years ago.”
Sheena says it is much easier to be a vegan now than it was then.
“I’m very lucky because I have a massive interest in food and I have the food business. With any lifestyle you have to do some planning, but it’s so much easier now.
“So many places have vegan snacks and vegan foods, and it’s easier to go shopping and to make delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners — you can have something different every day.
“I started the food business around the same time I became vegan.
“I just started off making chocolate and now I do a whole range of savoury things, sweet things, pies, cakes, outside catering for weddings, Christmas hampers — I did over 100 hampers last Christmas.
“I adore cooking and experimenting with all the different flavours. I’m a real fan of spicy food, curries and vegan pizza. I love seitan which is a mock meat used in Asian cuisine, and I’ve been making beef seitan which I use in my beef and Guinness pie. I just want to show that food can be delicious and healthy and cruelty-free.”
As an activist, Sheena is keen to see more people switching to vegan.
“Most people you talk to really have no idea, but a lot of them are open to trying something new,” she says.
“People’s biggest fear is that they’re going to have to give up the things they love, but now they don’t have to. It would be lovely if people would consider animals’ feelings in their choices.”
Truffleupagus Vegan Yums can be found on Facebook
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Place the biscuits in the blender and blitz until fine crumbs. Melt the margarine, stir well into the biscuits and press into an eight-inch springform pan or high sided cake tin. Place in the fridge to firm up.
Meanwhile, break up the chocolate into small pieces and add to the coconut milk in a saucepan.
Heat very slowly over a low flame and stir gently until the chocolate has melted and the liquid is smooth and creamy. Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla and maple syrup.
Pour mixture over the biscuit base and top with roasted hazelnuts.
Leave to cool, then place in the fridge for two to three hours until firm to the touch.
Slice and serve with whipped coconut cream, or vegan ice cream.