Friday, 24 January 2014

A little blog about halloumi...

Now, I love halloumi. I really do.  It's got a smack of salty savoury flavour with some damn good texture and chewiness to boot.  For a vegetarian, this is a very good thing.  We eat way too many foods that are smushy.  So I was surprised to find myself in a Twitter hooey with Luck, Lust, Liquor & Burn recently over their veggie options.  What started as an aside about just how much halloumi is on offer as the 'veggie option' (across Manchester restaurants I might add) turned into what seemed like I was having a pop at their menu as the angry, hard done by vegetarian (as ever).  

Unfortunately this is the limiting weakness of tweeting anything that could be controversial or require more explanation than 144 characters.  I think The Great Vegetarian Debate... or The Elephant in the Room, is a classic example of this.  Trying to remark about something of that nature on Twitter is going to lose all context and fall into failsafe old patterns for labelling vegetarians as ever suffering, blah blah blah...  I'm bored with this reaction now.  Water off a ducks back.  For me there are far more challenging and interesting things to discuss.  And it turns out halloumi could be one of them.

I often find it quite boring eating out as a vegetarian in Manchester.  Not because all the vegetarian food is bad, but because a lot of it is lazy. This is the crux of the problem with food that contains no meat or fish (let's just stop thinking of it as vegetarian food for a moment). Something happens when chefs go to make a dish with no meat or fish, as they start with this idea in their head of 'the veggie option'.  They often take a dish that would normally contain meat and make the easiest and most cost effective substitution.  In Manchester just now, this appears to be halloumi.

As I walked down Thomas Street the other day, glancing at menus, I thought someone was having a bit of laugh. As my friend Hannah surmised, it's like halloumi bingo!  There are so many places serving this, it's like groundhogs day for the vegetarian.

With the plethora of burger joints and American/Mexican influenced cafes all over the city centre, which is often where my teens would choose to go, halloumi has become ubiquitous, along with smushy bean burgers and meditarranean vegetables (red peppers), it's like the 90s all over again. If we're really lucky, we might even get a Portobello mushroom. But seriously, who can't grill their own damn mushroom and halloumi at home. Personally I'm less than keen to pay £10 for someone to do it for me.

Imagine visiting different cafes and restaurants and only being offered the same ingredients over and over again. Every place you walked in, it said grilled chicken.  It's just so boring and quite lazy (that's why I'd rather cook at home).  Halloumi is also cost effective because if there's limited demand, you don't want to waste too much chef labour on a dish that is only for vegetarians.  But then there will always be limited demand unless it stands up as a really great dish, in its own right, to all diners.

Okra chilli fries @ Mughli
It is rare that this dish without meat and fish is truly given some thought and flare. But it is when this happens that you see the dish being ordered by everyone, not just people with a vegetarian diet.  I've seen this happen with okra fries and aubergine mash at Mughli, deep fried mac & cheese at SoLita, and wasabi gazpacho and parmesan patties at Mr Cooper's House (yes I know parmesan isn't veggie, but let's just keep pedantry at bay for a mo), as well as dishes on my own menu (I like to think :).  Take a look around those restaurants and you will see plenty of meat eating diners tucking into those dishes. However, the rare occasions these little beauties do turn up on a menu, it's often as a side or starter, or even worse, is simply the toppings or accompaniments from the meat dishes.  Kind of feels like you've been cheated!

This is also why I fell in love with Asian food, because a great deal more of it is naturally vegetarian.  And why I've always loved Ottolenghi food, because that imaginative and balanced creativity has appeal across the board.  I guess this blog is a plea for more chefs to create more imaginative dishes that stand up in their own right as a great plate of food, rather than simply having a substitution 'veggie' dish that uses the same ingredients over and over.  I'm not saying a really well put together burrito with halloumi, well made refried beans and all the trimmings isn't a great plate of food, but it gets boring.  I could order another dish, but then the same ingredients turn up again... halloumi, roasted mediterranean vegetables (enough already with the peppers) or those damn smushy bean burgers.

Restaurants will say that the demand is too low to create more main courses without meat and fish.  But I wonder if this is true, or it's simply a reflection of poorer dishes or repetitive substitutes in them, that discourage a wider audience of customers from ordering.  You may be wondering why I'm so bothered about this (apart from being naturally blessed with the argumentative gene).  Two reasons.  I'd really like to eat more interesting food when I go out for dinner with my teens.  And if the so-called 'veggie' food appealed to a much wider audience, because it was just simply a great dish, then that would be good for the diner and the planet.

But my disappointment is made up of more than halloumi fatigue. I start to wonder if the people of Manchester will ever want more than over-the-top , heart stopping burgers as that market seems to have an alarming grip on everyone and everything (alongside some really mediocre Italian food). Americana has well and truly asserted its presence in Manchester. I see menus adapting to the burger/hotdog phenomenon, even where you think they should know better. But in difficult times, can you blame any business for jumping on the bandwagon of anything that will bring them the income they need.

I'm old enough to know this has always been the way with trends, but it still leaves me wondering about supply and demand, and which came first with the chicken and egg. Another friend, Claire, was lamenting the other day that people (mostly middle aged ones like me I suspect) should stop criticising hipsters, as they're the only ones spending any money at the moment. She has a fair point. But it's not much good to most of us if they are focusing their foodie attention on burgers and ice cream.  Although this 'gourmet ice cream in the winter' courtesy of Ginger's new place is a great way to keep the teens, vegetarians and even those damn hipsters happy I reckon!   


  1. I am keen to cut out meat from my diet and am doing more so day by day. We live on the North York Moors and are limited with suppliers/restaurants so my vegetarian dishes have to be researched and the internet is a great place for this. Right now checking out halloumi.

  2. Try making your own Paneer. Whole milk and lemon juice, boil, then strain thru muslin. Fry & use in curries, bakes & wraps :)