Australia: A tough country for vegetarians

Chicken saltI’m not vegetarian, but my wife Cat is. She finds it hard going in this country.

She’s not vegetarian for any moral “think of the furry-wurry animals” reason – she just hates the taste (and texture) of meat. The thought of eating meat or its various products makes her sick. So it’s not like she can have chicken “just this once”. It’s no meat, or no food at all.

Trouble is, the Aussie definition of “vegetarian” seems to be “pretends not to like meat, but likes it really”. Cat’s had this conversation in more than one restaurant:

“Here’s our menu, madam.”

“I’m vegetarian. What dishes can you offer for me?”

“You’re vegetarian? Do you eat chicken and fish?”

“Er, no. I’m vegetarian.”

You wouldn’t have thought it a hard concept to grasp.

Quite often we’ll go out for a meal on holiday, to find that only one restaurant in town has anything veggie on the menu. And that will be “stir-fried vegetables” (which Cat is understandably sick of by now). Often restaurants will have a veggie entrée, then the mains will all be meat. (As if vegetarians somehow have smaller stomachs or something.)

It’s pretty short-sighted really. If a group of five people go out for a meal, and one of them’s vegetarian, then these restaurants are going to lose not one customer, but five.

Occasionally we’ll encounter the odd enlightened food establishment that not only has – shock horror – a choice of veggie mains, but even deigns to label them as such with a V symbol. Such places understandably get repeat visits from us. And of course, vegetarian restaurants like Emilia’s – which I’ve banged on about before – are gold dust to Cat. Shame they’re as rare as rocking horse shit in this country.

Takeaway trauma

Takeaway food presents its own challenges. Chips, while hardly exciting, are at least nearly always available, but the chances are they’ve been fried in lard. And the Aussies have another surprise up their sleeve for vegetarians. We noticed that often the chips we bought had a funny yellow tinge to them, and tasted kind of sweet. We asked one chip shop why this was:

“Oh, that’s chicken salt.”

“Excuse me?”

“Chicken salt. It’s salt, with bits of chicken in.”

“You’ve got to be kidding us!”

“No really, it’s pretty common here. Aussies love it!”

Say no more.

Supermarket sheep

Food shopping is hard work too. Whereas in the UK practically everything that doesn’t contain dead animal bits – and that’s most things – has a big green V symbol on the packet, here such a thing is a rarity. A lot of stuff is dead-animal-product free, but the manufacturers don’t see the need to label it as such. (”Not worth the effort for the three vegetarians in Australia,” you can almost hear them saying.)

So shopping trips frequently involve tedious scanning of lengthy ingredient lists, trying to work out if they’ve used gelatin or vegetable gum, or what type of rennet has been used in a cheese component. It’s like stepping back in time to the UK in the seventies.

To make matters worse, food manufacturers shoehorn dead things into practically any foodstuff they can get away with. Pumpkin soup? Contains chicken stock. Cheese? Often uses calf rennet. Biscuits? The cheaper ones contain lard. Yogurt? Ice-cream? Double cream, even? Laced with gelatin. Once we bought some bread and noticed a fishy smell when we toasted it. Sure enough – it contained fish oil. Fish. In bread. Sometimes it’s enough to turn even my carnivorous stomach.

And while I’m ranting about food shopping: The veggie burgers, sausages and so on that they sell in supermarkets here are a joke. Nine times out of ten they’re manufactured as “meat alternatives” – because of course all vegetarians secretly want to eat meat. So they resemble meat in texture, which means Cat hates them. Not to mention the fact that they taste foul. Where are Linda McCartney’s veggie sausages when you need them? Birds Eye veggie quarter pounders and potato waffles? Tesco’s nut cutlets and Mexican bean burgers? Note to Aussie food manufacturers: there’s more to being vegetarian than eating fake-meat burgers and sausages made from soya beans.

To be fair, things have improved a lot even in the five years we’ve lived here. More and more restaurants have a choice of veggie options, and food labelling seems to be improving. Must be due to all these invading veggie Poms. Speaking of which – if you veggie lot back in Blighty think you have it easy, it looks like things are about to take a turn for the worse over there. Enjoy your Mars, Twix and Snickers while you can, you smug buggers.

UPDATE 21 MAY: Thanks to the thousands of vegetarians complaining to Mars (my wife included), they’ve done a U-turn and made Mars, Twix and Snickers vegetarian again. Such is the strength of the vegetarian movement in the UK. If Mars started adding animal rennet to snacks over here, I’d be surprised if anyone batted an eyelid.

24 Responses to “Australia: A tough country for vegetarians”

  1. Emma Says:

    Great article… I whole heartedly agree with you.
    I have just come back from a two month stint in my hometown the “Garden of England” and I ate my self stupid as I felt I had to take advantage of the huge variety on offer over there. M&S goats cheese and cherry tomato tarts are just out of this world!!

  2. Matt Says:

    Mmm, they sound divine – in fact, M&S anything sounds divine! :)

  3. Nicole Says:

    hi, i understand where your coming from but as a matter of fact there is no actual chicken in chicken salt. the flavor comes from herbs, spices and flavor enhansers.

    Australia is not a tough country at all, I have lived there for 19year and for the last 4 years living there i became vegitarian due to it made me feel better as a person.

    there are many great resurants in sydney with a variety of choice.

  4. Matt Says:

    Thanks for your comment!

    Chicken salt in Aus/NZ usually contains chicken:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken_salt

    “Chicken salt, as sold in Australia and New Zealand, generally contains chicken extracts, which are listed as the second ingredient after salt. It is therefore not suitable for strict vegetarians.”

    Sydney and Melbourne restaurants do offer a wide variety of choice for vegetarians, but this isn’t always the case in smaller towns and cities.

    Aus is certainly a lot better for vegetarians now than it used to be; however it’s still way behind the UK in my opinion.

  5. S A Brown Says:

    Firstly, I don’t trust them just saying “suitable for vegetarians” as there is often a lot of confusion of loop hole advantage – unless it’s co-op brand, waitrose brand or vegetarian society approved – but I normally check the ingredients anyway.

    Secondly, (I am a vegetarian by the way) I will still not eat mars bars as they contain battery eggs and even worse – GM RENNET – and if there is one thing I will not eat it’s GM!

  6. Veggie Says:

    It’s even worse in Canada, it’s quite difficult sometimes to figure out which products contain animal products.

    We even have some margarines with gelatin in them and the new trend here is Omega-3’s (from fish oil) it’s in just about everything from soymilk to margarine.

    “So shopping trips frequently involve tedious scanning of lengthy ingredient lists, trying to work out if they’ve used gelatin or vegetable gum, or what type of rennet has been used in a cheese component. It’s like stepping back in time to the UK in the seventies.”

    I can totally relate to this.

  7. Matt Says:

    Wow, I’m surprised to hear that. Somehow I assumed Canada would be good for veggies. Is there an active Vegetarian Society over there?

  8. Kelly Says:

    yes, The Toronto Vegetarian Society is my closest one.
    There’s one (or more) in BC for sure , lots of vegetarians out there and lots of great vegetarian restaurants too. I’m not sure about the rest of Canada.

    Most things have GMO’s in them too. The newest thing is Irridation, they want to start doing that to just about everything. Kind of scary.

  9. Rita Jones Says:

    Wow, I’m glad I’m a vegetarian in the U.S. I just made the switch last month and it’s been fantastic so far.

  10. Matt Says:

    I guess in a country as big as the U.S. you’re always going to have a decent choice, whatever your type of diet. :)

  11. Paul Crinis Says:

    Hi please contact me on +65 90265680 I am in Singapore and would love to purchase Chicken salt in large quantities for my food chain. I am originally for NSW Australia and miss chicken salt I am sure people of Singapore would love it too. Chance to import here too would be interested in taking over Singapore supplying to other consumers and wholesalers supermarkets etc.

    Look forward to hearing from you asap

  12. Lilandra Says:

    my friends in jamaica once told me they ordered a veggie patty/burger
    it had surprise! surprise! some meat derivative in it (i can’t remember if it was minced meat or stock or what)
    they complained to the place and they said, “we didn’t say it was 100% veggie”

    *sigh*

  13. Matt Says:

    @Lilandra: Oh dear! I guess “veggie” is a relative term to many people unfortunately…

  14. Bridgette Says:

    hey there is nothing wrong with loving fuzzy wuzzies!

    ..someone’s got to care for their rights

    I agree with you in regards to veg choices in small towns, it is still very limited

  15. Matt Says:

    @Bridgette: Absolutely! :)

    Yes, I wasn’t too surprised to find that the local pub in the small town we’ve moved to (Robertson) doesn’t have a single vegetarian option on the menu. Though the local cafes aren’t too bad…

  16. * Kymmy * Says:

    AAARGGHH!! I’m a vegetarian Brit planning on staying in Margaret River, closest cities being Albany and Perth, for a few months this year! – other than the processed vegetarian treats we have here in England, I like fruit, crisps, pasta with sauce and savoury snacks – Is eating out there likely to be a problem for me? x

  17. Matt Says:

    @Kymmy: I expect you’ll be fine unless you’re going to really small “country” places. There’s usually at least a cafe or two with one or two veggie options (veggie burgers etc). You probably won’t get a huge amount of choice, but you won’t starve. :)

  18. Lys Says:

    I’ve never lived anywhere but Australia, and the lack of food labelling in the major supermarkets – Coles and Woolworths – really gets tiresome. Aldi, however, as it is European, labels their cheese and pesto (I couldn’t find vegetarian parmesan or products containing parmesan over here for ages) among other items.

    It seems as though few people have an actual grasp on what vegetarian is. When I ask in restaurants/cafés (embarrassed at making a fuss) whether the cheese used is vegetarian, people give me a puzzled look and often the reply is, “It -is- made from cow’s milk.” This is often the case when buying cheese from delis aswell.

    I am constantly asking whether the felafels (the vegetarian option) at lebanese and kebab places is cooked in lard – often the case. or whether the soup has chicken/beef stock. Recently, i found out the tofu burger at a local café is cooked along with the bacon and beef patties on the same bbq plate, which meant there were essentially no cooked vegetarian options on the menu (and this was in Newtown, a suburb on the fringes of the Sydney CBD – generally touted as being pretty cosmopolitan).

    What frustrates me more is that the vegetarian options at cafés and restaurants are put together by people with a limited understanding of what living vegetarian actually entails. A recent stint at a self proclaimed vegetarian café was a shock. The commerically made cakes in the cabinet contained animal fats and gelatine. The sorbet was labelled on the menu as vegan, though I’m sure it contained egg white.

    As for supermarkets, the Sanitarium brand who manufacture TVP, nut loaf stuff and meat replacements are or were, to my knowledge, involved with the Seventh Day Adventists. Though I don’t eat it myself (because most of the products are gluten) it’s scary to think of what the market would be like without a company committed to vegetarian food because of it’s religious affiliations.

    Who should we contact to ask for better labelling on foods!? I am sick of spending twice the time shopping to decipher the ingredients list for animal derived emulsifiers, fish oil, animal fats, gelatine and rennet.

  19. Matt Says:

    @Lys: Some of that stuff is really quite shocking! And here’s a conversation I had in a pie shop last week:

    “What pies do you have?”
    “Meat pies.”
    “Do you have any pies without meat?”
    “Yes, we have chicken pies.”

    Priceless! :)

    I guess the FSANZ would be the mob to contact regarding food labelling:

    http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/aboutfsanz/

  20. Melinda Says:

    YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!

    What parts of Australia have you and your wife been living in?
    Small-town country backwaters?

    I’m sorry, but I am an Aussie vegetarian who has also lived in England in the past, and my experience was exactly the opposite.

    I believe the warmer climate in Australia lends itself more naturally to fresher, lighter, less meat-heavy food. And aside from those stuck in a small-town time warp, city people are more than happy to accommodate (or eat) vegetarian fare.

    In Britain, as far as I experienced, it was all about meat, meat, and more meat.
    What does a full “English breakfast” entail, people? There’s nothing even vaguely resembling green in that dish.
    And let’s not forget the great British favourite of “bangers and mash”, “roasts with yorkshire puddings and the fact that the avergae pom’s daily serving of vegetables seemed to consist of mushy peas and chips… with curry.

    Fruit and vegetables are cheaper, fresher, and superior in taste and texture to their English counterparts.

    Furthermore, in Melbourne, where I live, there are numerous restaurants and take-away venues which are entirely vegetarian or vegan.

    The best are The Vegie Bar on Brunswick st Fitzroy, (sensational tempeh/tofu dishes, entrees, soups and vegan desserts) and Veg Out on Fitzroy st St Kilda (dahls/tofu currys/spiced vegetables).
    Soul Mama and lentil as anything aren’t bad either.
    Soul Mama overlooks the st kilda beach at st kilda (great at sunset), and lentil as anything is a wonderful little chain of restaurants which operates on an honour system, whereby diners pay an optional amount of whatever they feel the food is worth. The food is simple and organic.

    I have never felt like an alien when asking if the soup at a restaurant contains chicken stock or any other questions important to strict vegetarians, and I have never been treated as though I am a pain in the ass, either.
    If the the staff aren’t sure, they simply tell me they will go ask the chef.
    I don’t eat meat, dairy or wheat, and I believe awareness of vegetarianism, veganism, and gluten intolerance is high in Australia.

    Where I lived in England, my local Asda didn’t even sell tofu!
    And tempeh? Forget about it:” What’s tempeh?? Gluten intolerance? Health food? I’m sorry, I was so busy stuffing my mouth with crisps and dry-roasted peanuts to think about HEALTH food.
    For a country where drinking is a national sport and even the women drink pints of it (snake-bite, anyone?) you are grossly mis-placed to bag out the Australian diet.

    All restaurants in Australia, (even the hick country towns) offer at least a steamed vegie option. And if your wife thought she was hard-done by with such a “boring” offering, let me re-count one Sunday afternoon meal at the local English pub: After looking at the charming offerings of roast lamb, gravy, baked potato, mushy peas and some unfortunate looking remnants vaguely resembling broccoli in the bain-marie and seeing there were NO vegetarian options on the menu, I asked if if it would be possible to have some fresh steamed vegetables cooked. “Oh no, we don’t do that” said the bewildered pom. Me (after over a year of becoming accustomed to such experience) “Fine. Could I just have a glass of pineapple juice then please?” “Er, we don’t have pineapple juice”.

    When my English relatives came to visit me in Australia a year or two later and saw “vegetarian” written on blackboards outside restaurants everywhere, shopped at the local supermarkets and saw the range of vegetables (”you don’t just have a cucumber here, you have CONTINENTAL cucumbers, LEBANESE cucumbers, REGULAR cucumbers”), and I took them to my favourite eateries, they actually commented on finally understanding how difficult it must have been for me in England.

    I have lived in Britain, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, and travelled Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the South Pacific islands, South America and approximately one third of Europe, and found England and Italy to be the most challenging.

    I believe your judgment of Australia being un-vegetarian is ill-informed and misleading, and completely unhelpful to any fellow Britons who are travelling to Oz and need some advice on where to eat.
    Why didn’t you focus your ‘research’ on locating some vegetarian eateries for them instead of having a whinge. Or did you just want to live up to your pommy name-sake of being “whingers”? ;)

    Here’s one Aussie who is vegetarian and proud….and not because the smell of meat sickens me….But for the “furry wurry animals”.
    And if you don’t “think of the animals” : you should. Even if just to respect the life that ended up as your sustenance.

  21. Matt Says:

    @Melinda: Thanks for your take on things. You raise some good points, though I still say that the UK is better for vegetarians, particularly when dining out. (Italy is indeed tough – my dad lives there – and France is even tougher!)

    Melbourne is perhaps the exception to the Aussie rule as it is so cosmopolitan (you’re lucky to live there). Sydney is improving all the time though. And I look forward to the day when our local pub has a veggie option on the menu!

  22. stephanie Says:

    WOWWWWWWWWW! I have just moved to australia from the UK and omg im finding it soooooo tough. Being used to sainsburys, tesco, asda, morrisons and the AMAZING marks & spencers all showing a V logo on EVERYTHING vegetarian I have now had to change my habits dramaticallly and bring a list of every emulsifier, e number & so on to know what might be veggie. Almost every company in the Uk from cadburys, mars, walkers crisps and so on all say if its vegetarian. In fact (unless its obvviously just a meat company) then every company i can think of bar Kraft state if its veggie.

    Whats with practically every cheese bar nimbin & devondale having animal rennet in it here? almost every margarine & yoghurt has gelatine. same goes for almost all desserts, snack foods and so on all having an animal somewhere. i think ozzies would be shocked to know in the UK even chicken noodles, beef crisps for example dont contain any meat at all and are all veggie and many have the veg society logo on it.

    i understand lots of veggies wouldnt eat that kinda stuff but many do. and there is nothing wrong with that. there is a serious problem with food labelling here & understanding what veggie is. i think many ppl think we just dont like the taste or something.

    in the uk too, so many brands say if they are not tested on animals. particularly the aforementioned supermarkets who all state that on all their own brand washing powders, toiletries, and daily household things. in fact m&s house things are all approved by the vegan society. they all fund into alternatives too. :)

    And yes there are restaurants in melbourne that are veggie. but in the UK practically every restaurant & chain restaurant all have V logos and cater massively for us. Yes carvery pubs clearly wont, but thats few & far between. and i come from scotland…..a massive meat eating place full of ppl who love a sausage supper, burger & pies. sometimes we dont want just a veggie restaurant we have to travel across a city for. why cant we have veggie in the mainstream too! we arent aliens. i understand ppl will say well i dont want to eat somewhere where meat has also been cooked. u are absolutely right….i dont either but the more chefs, companies, restaurant that start to understand it & see they can make money from it by being 100% veggie friendly means they will offer more and more products. more veggie products, means less meat ones. meaning less fluffys die as even non veggies will choose our options :)

    im limited at the moment to ALDI with their imported foods (which at least state if its veggie). I have emailed companies here to get them to send a product list with no such luck (except mars & unilver who did) each stating they couldnt provide me with one. however when i had emailed nestle uk a few yrs ag (as they are only confectionary manufacturer in uk who dont state on the packet) to provide me with a veggie list, they were happy to send me one. but nestle here cant! Why? why can one country tell me whats in there food, yet another cant? strange!

    everything says in oz if its halal or gluten free but not veggie. thats so backwards?! its the opposite in the uk. any ozzie veggies who visited a Uk supermarket would be in their element. I swear right now every cake (and their are over 100), every item (obviously other than meat products like roasts etc) in marks and spencers and the rest are all veggie.

    and yes u can rant and say well these are all prepackaged foods full of rubbish and so on so u shouldnt be buying them anyway (they arent btw & m&s and sainsburys only use free range eggs as well as hellmans and many other brands, same with no preservatives, msg etc). but so what. we should still have a choice as to what we want to eat too. we can have junk food even if we are veggie. i love a big chocolate mousse or a packet of prawn cocktail crisps even if i have never had any meat fish or animal derivatives since a baby. i dont eat roast chicken crisps because i crave chicken, i just like the taste of those crisps. even if i have never had chicken in my life and have no idea what its like and never will. im animal crazy and for me it is about the fuzzy wuzzy animals. id rather starve to death than have anything hurt another creature.

    so before u get on your high horse about not eating things like that then pls dont bother as if u really look at my argument here u will see that what im trying to say here is if every company starts to compete by putting V logos on their products and offer us more, then they will want to add more alternatives onto the market. and like in the uk u will find brands will start to substitute their meat ingredients to be veggie friendly so they can offer us more and more. i know im meant to hate big brands as im veggie and against them for capitisation & global warming and not want them to make money, but if they cater for us and become animal friendly then it improves all our lives. i swear i cant think of ever seeing a cheese in the uk which wasnt vegetarian. why have the rennet in it here?

    the easier companies help make it then the easier it will be for more ppl (espesh young ppl) to turn veggie. which is what we all want after all.

    i take incredible care to make sure i never consume anything without being 100% whats in it. and i know im not alone. there are thousands of veggies in oz and im sure they are as passionate as me.

    and for u tye die veggies who will look down at me for this then pls realise there are a younger generation of animal loves who are as passionate & dedicated as u. just because we want to be able to eat in a shopping centre now n again doesnt make us against the cause. if i live in a small apartment 20 floors high then im afraid i cant quite grow my own potato patch to live on. in an ideal world i would.

    my life revolves round me being as animal friendly as i can and ensuring i NEVER eat anything thats causes hurt. But lets bring vegetarianism & veganism to the masses by making it easier for ppl to make the change. let the companies know how much money is in only having free range eggs in there food and that there is a HUGGGE market to vegetarian foods. THEN WE ALL WIN!

    very few companies out there do it for the ethics sadly. just look at Mars like was previously said. but they changed as 3million ppl would have taken their business elsewhere. and thats what matters to these companies. but who cares when we win really by having them not killing millions more animals for our consumption.

    thanks for reading my little rant that turned into a big one. I just want everyone to be vegetarian or vegan. so lets stop distancing ourselves as hippy loving, tie dye wearing, alternative types. bring our vegginess to the normal mainstream chains and brands. and yes u might loathe these companies with a passion, but if we choose the ones who are most veggie friendly then other companies will follow suit.

    thanks so much to anyone who agrees and for putting this page on here. and even if u dont agree then thanks for having a little read anyway :)

    Vegetarians always taste better ;)

    xxxxxxx

    stephanie.mcshane@hotmail.com

  23. Jennie Says:

    Thank goodness someone else has also noticed this!
    I emigrated about five years ago from the UK (I’m a Berkshire lass), and was completely shocked at the lack of vego food on offer.
    About two years ago I took the plunge to veganism- and pretty much I live on veggies now and perhaps the occasional sanitarium tin of nutolene.
    I make pretty much all my food from scratch. Nightmare.

  24. Matt Says:

    @stephanie: Welcome to Australia, and thanks for posting all your experiences. Good luck with the whole veggie thing over here. It’s certainly a culture shock isn’t it! My wife says it’s better now than it was a few years ago. But it still surprises me. On the weekend we went to a chip shop in Ulladulla, which used to at least do veggie burgers. This time when I asked for something vegetarian they were quite taken aback! (New management I think.) I got offered Greek salad, chips, or… chicken. No kidding!

    @Jennie: Best of luck with your vegan adventures! I have a couple of vegan mates in the UK and they find it hard enough over there. Must be… challenging… in Australia. ;)

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