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I am a long-time Vegetarian but sometimes flex up (or down, depending on how you look at it) to Vegan since I don't like eggs unless cleverly disguised as a cake, and don't drink milk. Not having either in the house most of the time means cooking some recipes can be a pain, so I was keen to have a look at this book for ideas of what I could use as substitutes.
The book's tag line is 125 Easy, international lunches kids and grown-ups will love, and a quick glance at the contents confirms at least the first part of this, with entries from the Middle East to Mexico, and Africa to Australia. The author issues a disclaimer that her dishes are often inspired by local cuisine, but may not be 100% authentic. That's not an issue for me, especially given that few countries around the world are big on vegan diets, so it's only to be expected.
Children (and their parents) around the world eat packed lunches, but what they choose to take with them, what they carry it in, and how it is presented can vary radically. This book aims to give you a glimpse into the lives and lunches of people around the world, offering an array of vegan alternatives to the usual ham sandwich, packet of crisps and chocolate bar. For me this was one of the most interesting parts - the sociological angle rather than the cooking bit itself.
The book rather confusingly focuses on both countries and on types of food. So, first you have a string of short chapters with comments on cuisine around the world, and suggestions for menus, but none of the recipes. These come later, and are split into sections including sandwiches and wraps, mains, bread and muffins, desserts and so on. At the back there's a comprehensive index, so even though at first is seems a bit muddled, you can eventually find what you're looking for. So far, so good.
Some of the 'recipes', however, are a bit of an anti-climax. One is for roasted garlic, for example, and involves two ingredients: garlic and olive oil. Ditto the stewed apricots (combine dried apricots with a little OJ). These count towards the 125 lunches, but I'm not sure I'd ever stomach either as a whole meal... Similarly, there are recipes that are already vegetarian, such as shortbread, that only require one substitution to make vegan - in this case it's changing standard margarine for the non-dairy kind. I just thought that any vegan worth their Kosher salt would have already worked out that that would be a pretty safe switch to make, so the idea of a recipe seemed a little redundant.
There are some interesting recipes, though, which make the book worth a flick through at least. One is for a vegan version of scones that require no milk (neither regular nor soy), another is for chocolate Babka muffins that I'm struggling to picture, but which sound worth a try. The reason I can't get a clear image in my head, leads neatly on to something that niggled me about this book. I thought it could have done with more photos. The few that are included are out of sync from the recipes in the centre of the book and shown as part of the 'picnics' this book advocates. Some include extra items you don't need a recipe for, to make up a more balanced lunch (adding a helping of fruit, for example). However, only a small selection of dishes is shown, leaving you with a bit of guess work on the remaining recipes.
Some of the dishes focus on ingredients that just are not readily available in the UK, making it an impractical book for someone who doesn't tend to follow a vegan diet, but is looking for something to make for guests with specific requirements. Even vegans used to cooking for themselves and sourcing suitable ingredients may struggle with some of these, like vegan sour cream (I've only found it online) and prickly pear syrup. However, many of the dishes do include your bog-standard vegetables, noodles, spices, available in any decent sized supermarket, so it's not a total loss.
I suppose my main criticism of the book is that it's rather oddly pitched into the market. Some of the recipes that can be made simply, with easily sourced ingredients, are just a bit obvious, and unlikely to provide any radically new ideas to vegan chefs. Others are vegan to start with, or require only one ingredient switch, like the aforementioned shortbread. Perhaps useful most if you're a British cook through and through, and looking for some international ideas, but if you've already eaten your way around the world, either through travel or through some of the great ethnic restaurants we have here in the UK, you might be underwhelmed.
From a personal point of view, I also thought it a bit strange the way some of the dishes deliberately set out to emulate carnivorous alternatives. While I eat meat substitutes, I don't feel the need to dress them up to look like something they're not, for example by making a Chicken pie with fake-chicken. Why not just call it a pie? Is there a perception that children should be going out of their way to hide their diet from their peers at the lunch table? And surely doing so would just set them up for trouble later in the playground when they have to turn down an offer of an unsuitable snack from someone?
This book could be a somewhat useful addition to your kitchen shelf, but could never become the only vegan cookbook you ever need. To be fair, it doesn't set out to do this, so see it as an extra rather than a basic, and you might want to consider taking a look. It is slightly more aimed towards the American cook, but the tone is not too annoying, and for the most part, vocabulary is not too obscure.
To sum up, this is a slightly confused book that has interesting pockets of information, but could never become the only vegan cookbook you need, even for lunches - which is saying something.
I don't think this is worth shelling out full price for but might be worth a peek if you spot it second hand for a couple of pounds.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk