Sales of paneer – the fresh, mild, Indian cheese – are up by 37 per cent from last year, says Waitrose. Halloumi from Cyprus is also on the rise. The cheese-buyer at Waitrose suggests the reason is the trend for “meat-free Monday”. These are props that carnivores use to make them forget the absence of meat on the plate.
Eating more vegetarian food never seems so appealing as in the turkey-bloated aftermath of Christmas. But what the rising sales of rubbery cheese suggest is that we still struggle to make the imaginative leap to seeing vegetarian cooking as a positive choice, rather than an absence. Halloumi is the nut cutlet du jour, enabling us to eat vegetarian while preserving the “something-with-veg” structure of a meat-based meal.
There’s nothing wrong with these cheeses per se. As Nigella has remarked, halloumi is like vegetarian bacon, a sliver of saltiness that enhances a poached egg. Paneer is one of those sponge-like substances that can taste as wonderful as the flavourings you throw at it. Meera Sodha’s chilli paneer from Made in India (Fig Tree, £18) is the best recipe I’ve tried: it is crisp-fried, then simmered with cumin, garlic, chilli and spring onion.
But when we eat these cheeses as our default way of thinking about vegetarian food, we miss the richer possibilities in cooking without meat.
My favourite vegetarian cookbook this year was A Modern Way to Eat (Fourth Estate, £25), from Anna Jones, who trained at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Jones talks compellingly about how, when she went vegetarian, her style in the kitchen changed.