EATING out as a vegetarian can be an underwhelming experience. There’s only so many times you can tuck into a chicken-free caesar salad.
Mexican-style restaurants offer meat-free burritos and fajitas, and burger stores such as Grill’d at The Junction have a choice of vegetarian burgers. And Depot on Darby has vegetarian tapas.
But vegetarian cafes and restaurants are few and far between.
In and around Newcastle, two spring to mind. Well, three, but Govinda’s is closed for renovations until July – or so the cafe’s answering machine informed GT.
Amanda Mulholland opened Earths Garden Organics at Islington six years ago, catering for vegetarian, vegan and raw diets.
‘‘Raw’’, she said, referred to fruits and vegetables altered only by a dehydrator, blender or food processor, and were not cooked above 70degrees. It’s all about preserving enzymes.
‘‘To create a raw cheesecake you blend nuts and dates, and then use a lemon cashew cream to create cheese-type filling, then a sauce on top, and it’s just amazing,’’ she said.
‘‘People are blown away that it’s not a cooked product, and that it’s not Philadelphia cheese or something.’’
Mulholland said she was committed to serving ‘‘healthy, hearty, home-cooked meals’’. Hearty is not a description typically used to define vegetarian fare.
‘‘People think there are not a lot of options for vegetarians, food-wise, and that you eat rabbit food,’’ she said.
‘‘But there’s lots of options. For me it’s about flavour, and layers of flavour. You have to develop a palate when you remove animal products from your life.
‘‘Different textures are also very important. Our sun burger, for example, is made out of black sesame seeds, ground-up sunflower seeds and linseeds, so it’s packed full of nutrients.
‘‘You’ve got your vitamins E and C, and your Omega 3, 6 and 9 from the linseeds, so basically there is a powerhouse of nutrition that you’re eating.
‘‘Lentil bolognaise is just amazing. I make a shepherd’s pie here, and when people eat it they say ‘I can’t believe that’s not meat’.’’
Mulholland became a vegetarian for health reasons, and said it took time to become accustomed to the dietary change.
‘‘You have to adapt to a vegetarian diet. It took me at least two years to transition. I used to be a very unhealthy vegetarian, in that I just eliminated meat. I thought that’s what you had to do,’’ she said.
‘‘You need to be really mindful about what you’re putting in your body to get the vitamins and minerals you need.
‘‘Incorporating nuts and avocadoes – good fats – into your diet, is important. It is a commitment, and it does take effort to learn.’’
Mulholland opened an organic produce store, Islington Village, four doors down from the Maitland Road cafe in December, and is happy to answer questions from customers about healthy vegetarian diets.
Earths Garden Organics is open 9am to 4pm, Thursday to Sunday, and 6pm to 8.30pm on Fridays, but is closed from July 1 to July 12.
Jack Arkless started Natural Tucker Cafe and Health Foods in Cooks Hill 21 years ago.
He said there had always been a niche market for his meals and produce, but it was growing, alongside organic trends.
He sells vegetarian ingredients, non-dairy cheeses, non-dairy yoghurts and ice-creams, pies, pastries and sweet treats and savoury products.
All of the salad sandwiches and wraps made on site are vegan and gluten-free.
He said there were still many misconceptions surrounding a vegetarian diet.
‘‘It can be difficult for non-vegetarians to understand that the lack of meat protein in a vegetarian diet does not cause some sort of weakness in the body,’’ Arkless said.
‘‘People expect vegetarians to be thin and unwell and to lack vitality. It’s a complex balancing act trying to eat a vegetarian diet and you need to adopt a balance of various food groups.’’
He said vegetarians had a hard time finding suitable places to eat out, as a rule.
‘‘There are very few complete vegetarian outlets and few restaurants have vegetarian options on their menus, except in Asian cuisines.’’
Restaurant Mason sous chef Kyle Liston agreed.
‘‘A lot of places, especially around Newcastle, offer what they call vegetarian options and it will be a Mediterranean mix of vegetables in a risotto and a pasta and that’s pretty much it,’’ he said.
‘‘I think that comes down to a bit of laziness on the chef’s part, and also the fact that vegetarians are in the minority in Newcastle.’’
Liston is hosting a cooking class in conjunction with The Essential Ingredient in Newcastle on June 24 titled ‘‘The Garden Patch: Inspiring Ways with Vegetables’’.
He will look at ways to use herbs, spices, nuts and seeds to cook with vegetables in an inventive way. ‘‘When cooking vegetables, introduce other flavours, whether it be fresh herbs, or spices, or any other kind of condiment. For instance, I will be glazing carrots in maple syrup at my class,’’ he said.
‘‘Don’t just make the flavour appealing, work on the texture as well. Colour is also important. Vegetarians love nothing more than heirloom vegetables because of all the colours and shapes.
‘‘You don’t have to stick with broccoli or dutch carrots, for example. There are yellow, black and purple carrots, and they’ve all got their different flavours and you can enhance them with other flavours that complement them individually.’’
While interested in making vegetables exciting to eat, Liston doesn’t get to practise it much in his kitchen.
‘‘There’s not that many people who order the vegetarian-style dishes and I end up throwing away a lot of food,’’ he said.
‘‘We can accommodate vegetarian requests but it depends how busy it is on the night. It also depends on how much notice we’ve been given.’’ Mary Fedorow, of Raymond Terrace, runs vegetarian cooking classes and has been a vegetarian for about 40 years.
‘‘Thai restaurants are usually very good for vegetarians wanting to eat out, and Chinese, because they use lots of vegetables,’’ she said. ‘‘You have a bit of choice. Why order a salad out when you can make one at home?’’
There you have it – make your vegetarian request when you make a booking, and you might avoid the Caesar or garden salad. Or better still, make your own restaurant-quality vegetarian meals at home.