the sheer audacity of eating vegetables on holiday

This here is going to be a post about eating (mostly) vegetables. There’s going to be mention of things like cabbage and beetroot. If that makes you uncomfortable, click away. If you’re thinking YES, finally another one bites the figurative meat dust, no, there will be mention of reindeer here too. And it’s delicious. 

Let’s look at what put a skip in my step, light in my eyes, a little drool on the side of my face. 

Holiday eating usually leaves me feeling defeated, bloated, exhausted. Yes it was epic (I devoured a bowl and a half of ramen in Copenhagen just three days shy of returning home, on a day that also included a smørrebrod of organic pork belly with crispy onions, pickled onions and potatoes, yaaassss) but like dating bad boys I wonder if there’s not something more fulfilling on the horizon. Recently I’ve tried to be more aware of what I’m eating and how my body is reacting (yes, even with the ramen and pork belly) as opposed to trying to stuff my face at every single opportunity because I’m only ever going to be there once.

Also because “Hmm, why not vegan or vegetarian food?” has piqued my tastebuds and cravings more often. Far from being left disappointed, I have found myself incredulously intrigued.

Reindeer meat is exceptionally tasty, tender, and the bread for this meat pie was so soft and fluffy it felt like doughnuts.

Reindeer meat is exceptionally tasty, tender, and the bread for this meat pie was so soft and fluffy it felt like doughnuts.

Before this trip, ask me to list my favourite meals and ten times out of ten my answer would have all been meat dishes, simply because you’ll never ever find me ordering any vegetarian dishes or venturing into the unknown territory of vegan food and vegan restaurants. While travelling through Nordic Europe however, I eyed vegan and vegetarian options with more than passing curiosity. While my favourite foods on the trip included reindeer meat pie (call it a meat pie but it was more of a sandwich: thin slices hugged taco-style cosily between a hot, fluffy, doughnut-ty type of bread) found at the Helsinki Market Hall, or a plate of fried herring, pickled onions and fluffy mashed potatoes from a street cart in Stockholm) the meals I found myself awe-struck with were wholly 100% vegan or 100% vegetarian with or without the exception of dairy.

My flirtation with vegetarianism isn’t a new endeavour. Once I turned vegetarian for a good 6 months before a trip to Germany sorely tested my conviction and willpower. I have no objections to eating meat, our bodies evolved with meat-eating (though what I do have issues with are industrial farming practices). Needless to say, my throw in the towel, cold turkey (ironic pun, anyone?) vegetarian rebellion didn’t last long essentially due to poor research. Way before Pinterest existed, I believe I ate meals never consisting of more than tofu, grains, and some odd green vegetable or so. Yes, for 6 months. You can see how a currywurst is excruciatingly tempting thereafter.

A few years down the line, with a curious palate and growing urgency to explore vegetables as more than a side kick to meat, I’m seduced yet again by the thought of possibly going whole meals without meat. Days, even? It took a few years of passively reading various food blogs, to aggressively eating a lot of salads, to feeling deliciously inspired at Ottolenghis’ and vegan restaurants that really kicked off a constant desire to incorporate more vegan and vegetarian foods into my daily eating without the all or nothing war cry leading me to eventual failure when cravings kick in. 

My absolute recommendation for Helsinki - at least one meal at Zucchini. It doesn't look like much, but it wowed even my sceptical carnivore partner.

My absolute recommendation for Helsinki - at least one meal at Zucchini. It doesn't look like much, but it wowed even my sceptical carnivore partner.

The Nordic folk have got this balance right it seems, our Finnish guide in Helsinki mentioning that the Finns typically lean toward vegetable-based meals maybe 4-5 times a week and incorporate meat on the weekends (Yes? No? Perhaps it was more one’s personal observation than an entire nation’s preference, I’d love to hear more about this from Finnish readers). There are many vegan restaurants here creating wonderful dishes reminiscent of Ottolenghi’s ingenuity with vegetables. My meal at Zucchini in Helsinki - lentil “meat”loaf, cous cous, beetroot and tofu gravy - is what I find myself thinking about most longingly, to the point where I’m in the grocery store looking for ingredients to recreate the dish. Zucchini’s owners have been cooking vegan/vegetarian meals since the 90s. Their wholesome menu changes daily(!) and with so many inspired dishes from imagination, similar dishes get rotated as far down the line as 3 months.

Suspend disbelief at Leib Resto ja Aed in Tallinn, Estonia and order this roasted spring cabbage with Estonian shiitake mushrooms and cabbage broth.

Suspend disbelief at Leib Resto ja Aed in Tallinn, Estonia and order this roasted spring cabbage
with Estonian shiitake mushrooms and cabbage broth.

In Tallin, Estonia, the humble, oft overlooked and possibly frequently ridiculed cabbage was elevated into something beyond the mortal realm. Cabbage, bean sprouts and mushrooms in a butter sauce. IT EVEN SOUNDS RIDICULOUS. Yet it’s one of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

Stockholm gave me a newfound respect for buddha bowls - chilli marinated tofu, glass noodle, vegetables, wasabi and avocado dressing, sesame seeds and shiso sauce - something I'd ridiculed as a trend but came to thoroughly enjoy. Why would I say no to the crisp, ethereal freshness of a meal that left me feeling light, happy and quite satisfied? And sesame seeds, what a wonder! Annoying when I have them in my sushi, but sprinkled liberally, they put some bite and surprising flavour into a buddha bowl. Such flavours are so much more pronounced and noticeable. I heartily remember in my mind the trolling of voracious meat-eaters in my youth (ugh, rabbit food, they mocked. Are you a rabbit?) and I say PFFT. Actually I said FUCK OFF, but nicely and gently with love, as I do.

A simple vegan meal of red cabbage coconut curry, steamed corn, leafy vegetables on brown rice with sesame butter completely blew my socks off in freetown Christiania, Copenhagen. Its brown puddle amid spears of green photographed horribly. But wow, the taste. It is incredible how these ingredients came together with such depth especially when you are used to thinking about meat as the best flavour base. Christiania is a self-governed community of about 900 people with different resources, skills and backgrounds. This comes through in the food at Morgenstedet where the menu changes daily accordingly to which chef is behind the kitchen. Or that dazzling array of Middle-Eastern salads - curried cauliflower, thick falafels, saucy eggplant - that quite literally stopped me in my tracks while I was dragging a luggage the size of a baby gorilla through Sønder Boulevard en route to our AirBnb, and I was compelled to go in and order a takeaway. It was delicious.

I’ve come to terms that I can embrace this growth slowly and be conscientiously unconscious in my choices. Have you ever tried paying way more attention to what you think you should be eating than not? It’s like counting calories: painful, insignificant short-term behaviour. I didn’t approach this part of my eating habits by consciously trying to limit what I could eat. I enjoyed culturally local dishes (Baltic herring and smoked salmon at breakfast) whilst still exploring vegan/vegetarian options as often as I could, where possible. Evolving my appetites and desires took a long time but it’s putting me on a better path to accomplish what I could not a long time ago.