I read a lot of menus. With research for Guac along with another company that I work as a food trend spotter for, menus populate the majority of my pdf downloads, iPhone safari pages and search queries. I'm pretty fluent in menu, because when you're eating vegan, translating them into workable requests for a kitchen is often the only way you're going to get a meal served.
So I got pretty excited when I found Soup Kitchen's menu this summer. I was in Manchester on a vegan field trip of sorts, scouring the Northern Quarter for places to eat, when I happened upon Soup Kitchen's summer line-up on their website. I loved how well thought-out every sub-section of their all day offerings were, and how many vegan options were readily available and clearly marked. In some kind of brilliant twist of fate, I happened to meet one of Soup Kitchen's chefs, Nanon Lingwood, the same evening at an exhibition opening. I was running out of meals to allocate to all the places I needed to try, as well as time, so I promised Nanon I would come back to hear about Soup Kitchen properly.
A few months later and with the promise of a new vegan roast dinner in the works, and I am back in Manchester again. The scorching summer afternoons spent meandering from beer garden to basement bar shade have been exchanged for driving rain and dwindling sunlight at the start of November, but this makes Soup Kitchen all the more inviting after a hungover train journey up from London. I head to Spear Street straight from the train station, and plonk myself down at one of the communal benches that take up the majority of Soup Kitchen's canteen, and realise this is the kind of place I could spend every day in.
Nanon has been working at Soup for a year and a half, but it's only in 2014 that she and head chef James have been able to focus on opening up the canteen's menu for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free customers, as well as anyone else that wants some hearty, filling food for a similar price to a limp salad from pretty much any 'healthy' fast food place you can name. This concept of hearty-filling-and-inexpensive is one that gets bandied about a fair bit, but you rarely, if ever, see it in action- at Soup, I can see it's key to anything that makes it onto the menu.
Unlike the hyper-masculine Americana food trend occupying a lot of plate space in Manchester and London right now (aka the awfully named 'Dirty Food Movement'), Soup have chosen to focus on Caribbean cuisine, due to links and prevalence in the Moss Side area south of Manchester's city centre. Nanon takes me through the menu written up on the wall, and for a vegan, it's a sight to behold- multiple soups and sandwiches that are all already vegan, not just able to go that way- along with a vegan hot meal, every day. Pret, Eat et al, take note- this is how you do fast food that's good for you.
"The vegans have been good to us", Nanon explains, as although she isn't a vegan herself, she wants to create a place that's sympathetic to dietry requirements, and this means fulfilling her own quotas for what a menu can provide when I'll admit, there are often a lot of caveats. Thankfully- and this is something I've often hoped does happen but it's hard to prove- Soup has found people looking for a vegan option to be a loyal bunch- whether it's just a lunch choice, a once a week thing or your whole life- if you can rely on somewhere to offer vegan food as standard, you're going to persuade anyone else you're with to go there too.
As I'm there on a Thursday I'm a few days too early to try out the vegan roast Nanon and James have been perfecting this autumn- (jerk jackfruit and vegan dumplings sound good enough to warrant another trip up north IMO), but the hard vegetable stew with rice and peas that I try is faultless. Potatoes that hold up to the stewing process with no carby mush in sight, rice and peas done the proper way- filling, flavoursome, hot, vegan- and no faux meat required. I couldn't eat a single extra thing, so vegan blondies, vegetable fritters and a whole load of gluten free pastries for friends kind of got skipped over for a simple tea and soy milk.
Heading out back onto the streets of the Northern Quarter that seem to split their time between being reminiscent of both Gotham and Carrie Bradshaw's Manhattan, I'm pleased I didn't get time to rush through a Soup Kitchen visit in July- I don't think you'd get the full whack of canteen sentimentality (okay, I love canteens) that you get in winter. And even aside from the homely, no-nonsense style of communal benches and cafeteria set up, I can't name a single other place in the UK I could go to that's catering so thoughtfully to such a variety of diets and budgets. Soup Kitchen deserves to become an institution.