Eat North Vegan on 14 September

For Eat North’s last outing of 2019, there was a showcase of vegan food. Thomas Chalk went along for some real tasty fake meat.

This was the third year of Eat North summer food events at North Brewing Company, in partnership with Leeds Indie Food, and they closed the season with a celebration of vegan food. Plant-based meat was very much the order of the day, featuring heavily in the menus of all three savoury stalls in the forms of seitan, tofu, jackfruit and banana blossom. I for one have no problem with a bit of ‘fake’ meat if it’s tasty and satisfyingly-textured.

On A Roll brought a menu centred around sushi rolls (the rolls are uramaki, for those in the know, or those who like me looked it up on the internet), but with a difference: fillings were encased in a long sausage of rice which was then rolled in crumbs and given a spell in the deep fryer. Slices of this were served with an assortment of condiments, and a slaw that featured the welcome addition of a little beetroot and small pieces of uncooked instant ramen noodles that retained some of the crunch that makes them so addictive to nibble straight from the packet. I chose a portion of Vish’n’Chips, the filling being a plant-based fish that I think was made from banana blossom with a distinctively marine flavour from seaweed, coupled with a seam of mushy peas running alongside. 

The chips came in the form of potato straws garnishing the rolls. I love seaweed and was pleased that this taste was to the fore. The architecture of the rolls meant that the predominant texture was rice, which was dense without being stodgy, and lightly crisp on the outside. Having not eaten vish before, it would have been good to have had a little more so that I could try it on its own, but it’s a credit to the balance of taste and texture that I didn’t feel the need to deconstruct the rolls and excavate the vish. The tartare sauce that dressed the dish lacked a little vinegar, for me, but a dipping sauce brought this acidity along with soy and the toasty hit of sesame oil.

My friend Steve, far less inclined than me to plant-based meat, was relieved to find that On A Roll’s mushroom tempura were identifiably mushrooms. They looked tempting, but I had more stalls to visit…

Knave’s Kitchen, pop-up and established resident at Oporto, offered as main dishes a seitan burger, cornflake-battered chicken goujons, and a bhaji burger (great for those who are not on board with plant-based meat). I went for the chicken, in honour of my late grandmother’s infamous cornflake topping for lasagne, and was pleased that Knave’s showed themselves to have a better hand with breakfast cereal than the much-missed Mrs Chalk. The goujons were served wrapped in a tortilla with Brazilian slaw and a chive ranch dressing – grated cabbage being as ubiquitous as plant-based meat at this event. The seitan chicken had the meat-like springy resistance and textural grain that this gluten product can bring. The slaw was lightly dressed rather than making use of vegan mayo, with occasional corn kernels, and the crunch and tang made a good contrast to the protein part of the wrap. I’d have liked a stronger kick from the chives, perhaps, but this wasn’t enough to spoil my lunch.

Knave’s sides included Mac Fries, with a mustard-yellow cheesy mac sauce and a scattering of pickles and jalapenos. If plant-based meats are getting close to the real thing, it’s fair to say that plant-based cheeses are a little behind. As a sauce in its own right, this would have benefited from a slightly heavier hand with the flavourings (at a guess, nutritional yeast may have featured).

Ball Box completed the trio of savoury stalls, bringing a meatball sub, katsu tofu balls, and wild mushroom and truffle arancini. Having eaten a divine and possibly unbeatable meatball sandwich at last year’s vegan Eat North, courtesy of Wanderer, and not being a fan of truffle, it looked like the katsu balls were the choice for me. I was not disappointed. Ball Box takes firm tofu and blends it with onion, garlic, garam masala and breadcrumbs. They roll this into balls and bake them. Before serving, these are crumbed and fried. The taste was hard to place – the garam masala is subtle enough not to taste noticeably ‘curryish’ – and there was a savoury depth to the flavour that lingered nicely in the mouth. Many people dislike tofu for being watery or slimy, and while I can’t agree with them that this is a bad thing, these katsu balls were admirable for having a texture that was very far removed from this. Dense and with a springy resistance to the tooth, they stood their ground against seitan with admirable resolve. 

The katsu curry sauce, slightly sweet and fruity, like a posh version of chip shop curry sauce (in the best possible way!), enhanced rather than overpowered the tofu. Lightly pickled onions and, of course, more slaw, brought the right amount of crunch and piquancy. Of the vish rolls, the chicken goujons, and these tofu balls (all of which were very successful), it was these that stole the show for me.

Rabbit Hole Coffee provided caffeine, cocktails and cake. Tempting as it was, it was a little early for a rhubarb aperol so I had a coffee (and, admittedly, a half of North Brewing Company’s Route Beer session IPA, a nicely balanced ale that was just right for sitting in the Saturday lunchtime sun). The coffee was on the lighter side with nice fruity notes, though still with body and depth. We took some slices of cake home, needing a breather after sampling so much food. The chocolate sponge was rich and dark, joyously moist despite having quite an airy crumb and with a strong cocoa kick. The pumpkin spice sponge was a touch drier, and while there was a notable flavour of allspice and cinnamon, quite likely enough for some people, I would have liked a bit more spice. 

Alongside the food, there were a number of stalls from local printmakers, offering an interesting and eclectic array of sensibly priced art, a nice addition to Eat North’s showcase of local talent.

All in all, a great afternoon out with some of Leeds’ excellent independent food makers. Roll on Eat North Vegan 2020.

All photographs by Stella Sheibenzuber, who is working in Leeds with photographer Mark Wheelwright under the Erasmus programme.

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