Cheeky vegan: I tried the new Nando's plant-based alternative

Nando's has become the latest food chain to produce a plant-based facsimile of one of its meaty menu favourites. But how does it taste?

The wrap
The wrap, along with the burger and the pitta, comprises the new, meat-free offering Credit: Handout

Veganism has now marched into KFC, Domino’s, Pizza Express and even Burger King, with each of these high-street chains making plant-based facsimiles of their top-selling meaty dishes. Yet the “cheeky Nando’s” – assuming you disqualify from this category, as most of us do, the bean burgers – has remained a cultural shibboleth impassable to vegans.

Teenagers wooing each other over wings; competitive young men self-immolating on the flames of peri-peri sauce; politicians forming parties with the lifespan of a warm chip; such are the sights of a trip to Nando’s, and such are the activities hitherto denied to vegans.

But this week’s unveiling of the “Great Imitator” should change that. Nando’s has crafted a grilled chicken substitute that, in theory, looks like chicken and tastes like chicken without having squawked or suffered like a chicken. It’s made of pea protein (powdered peas, basically), rather than soy or wheat gluten, and you can have it in a wrap, burger, or pitta.

I tried all of them. In each case, the chicken element came in the form of four strips, browned and crispy on the outside and tender within. Extracting a single strip from the wrap, which was the first dish I tried, seemed an unfair test – would anyone do that to sauce-free chicken? – but the ersatz chicken passed it, by and large. In line with the chicken substitutes available in both restaurants and supermarket, it had the right ratio of crunchiness to soft chewiness, seemed to have some minimal seasoning, and had that final, fundamental, elusive quality of traditional chicken: dullness.

Would a Nando's vegan chicken burger pass the taste test? Credit: Felix Biggs

Like any real chicken, it begged for sauce, and, this being Nando’s, that’s what it got. I tore open a packet of peri-peri sauce, squirted a small lagoon of it onto my plate, and dipped the head of my wrap on its surface. For the first time in many years, I had the feeling of having consumed too much peri-peri.

With each of the three dishes, the “chicken” was buried in salad and white bread of varying voluminousness. The burger, encased in a ciabatta-style bap, was dripping with an chilli jam and mildly spicy mayonnaise. The wrap, a squat cylinder enclosing your regulation four strips and a long wad of lettuce, oozed with the same, as did the wrap.

The challenge of chicken with skin, the kind tasty enough to eat without being swaddled in carbs, is evidently still to be surmounted. But if you treat it as an ingredient, as Nando’s have, and give your customers control over their level of spice, as they do, then this chicken substitute is a good filling, and one that does pretty much the same sauce-sopping, substance-bestowing job of the original. My meat-eating housemates, with whom I’d shared a takeaway, agreed.

The strips are cooked on the same grill as actual chicken, which means that some won’t class them as vegan. They have the endorsement of Peta, though, and it’s gladdening to think of the amount of animal suffering that might be averted by this menu alteration. Nando’s, like many chains, buys its chicken from Red Tractor certified farms, whose rules allow 38kg of live chickens per square metre – i.e. 20 chickens on a floorspace a little bigger than that of an armchair. Is this what’s meant by “cheeky”?

You don’t need to be a vegan to approve of Nando’s finding an alternative.