When Hannah Sunderani moved to the northern French city of Lille in early 2016, she did the unexpected. Instead of eating her fill of buttery croissants, creamy Camembert and iconic jambon-beurre, she decided to go vegan.
“It’s funny, because when you think about France, you definitely don’t think about vegan food,” says the recipe developer, food blogger and author of The Two Spoons Cookbook (Penguin Canada, 2022).
Animal products loom large in the food of France. There is the holy trinity of pâtisserie — eggs, butter and cream — a universe of cheese, and meaty fare such as andouille, boeuf bourguignon and charcuterie.
Fewer than one per cent of the French population is vegan, the Guardian reports. But as Sunderani saw firsthand, a new wave of artisans, bakers and chefs is shaking up the country’s “food conservatism” with plant-based versions of the classics.
Vegan options were few and far between when Sunderani and her husband, Mitch, relocated to Lille for his job. By the time they moved back to Toronto a few years later, though, they had plenty of plant-based restaurants, petits magasins and cafés to choose from.
“Slowly they started to pop up one by one, and it was really, really cool to see that happen,” says Sunderani.
She became friends with those leading the charge in Lille, and some of the recipes she features in The Two Spoons Cookbook were inspired by their reinventions.
Sunderani’s chocolate-coffee smoothie is a spin on the veganized freakshakes her friend Ousmane Waly Ndong serves at his “ultra-cool” Lille café, Wally’s Coffee. Her “faux” gras — made with mushrooms and lentils instead of duck or goose liver — is a riff on the version she used to buy at local vegan shop Végétal & Vous to spread on toasted garlic bread. The seed for her mushroom-and-spinach quiche was planted when she first tried vegan quiche at a little neighbourhood restaurant called La Clairière.
“When we think of French food, so often, we think that veganism is off limits. Like, ‘Oh, well, if you like French food, then you can’t possibly be vegan.’ But when I was in France, I saw it being done,” says Sunderani.
“It was really cool to see how there’s this shift happening with traditional French recipes and putting a vegan spin on it.”
In The Two Spoons Cookbook, Sunderani highlights some of the ways French classics can be reinterpreted and offers a window into a day in the life of a plant-based eater.
Navigating the language barrier while eating vegan in France was “quite a big learning curve,” says Sunderani. “But I did learn so much when I was there, because I feel like in France, their culture is so rooted in food and celebrating over food.”
She took full advantage of the daily farmers’ markets — picking up fresh vegetables each morning and talking with the vendors about ways to prepare them.
Lille is “so quintessentially French,” says Sunderani — with cobblestoned streets and a boulangerie on every corner. Immersed in the culture and language, “it was just a really, really lovely place to live and learn.”
You can do it all and you can do it vegan.
Growing up in Toronto, Sunderani had always been interested in cooking and experimented with creating vegan dishes as a university student in her early 20s. She was looking for ways to manage irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which was affecting her quality of life.
“I couldn’t sit through a two-hour lecture — that would give me a lot of anxiety,” she says. “And when I saw GI specialists (gastroenterologists), they were like, ‘Okay, well, this is just it. You’re just going to have to live with it. A lot of people have irritable bowel syndrome.’”
Eating more fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts helped. Her experience with IBS “introduced (her) to a whole new way of cooking” and was also a catalyst for her blog.
In Toronto, she had hesitated to commit to a vegan diet. It was less common at the time, Sunderani says, and she was worried about inconveniencing friends and family. But when she and Mitch moved to Lille, she saw an opportunity.
Sunderani started her blog, Two Spoons, to document her plant-based journey in France. As an extension, she sees The Two Spoons Cookbook as a tribute to her time there.
“It really shaped me as a cook,” she says. “I really wanted to … almost give back to that time, because it was so influential, and it really did morph me into the cook I am today.”
With The Two Spoons Cookbook, she set out to dispel the idea that French food and plant-based eating are incongruous. Even French pâtisserie, with its dairy-and-egg foundation, is possible.
“It’s really cool to know that you don’t need the butter. You don’t need the egg. You don’t need all these things that we’ve been so accustomed to when we think of baking. You can do it all and you can do it vegan,” says Sunderani, who features plant-based pâtisserie recipes including brioche, croissants and tarts in the book.
Cook this: Mushroom and spinach quiche from The Two Spoons Cookbook
Cook this: Chickpea salad niçoise from The Two Spoons Cookbook
Cook this: Lemon tart from The Two Spoons Cookbook
As much as they enjoyed living in Lille, she and Mitch returned to Toronto in late fall 2019, just before the pandemic hit. They planned to have a child and wanted to be closer to friends and family.
Two Spoons became Sunderani’s full-time job. Being back in Canada as part of a community of plant-based recipe developers helped her blog flourish, she says. Writing a cookbook had been part of her five-year plan, but in just six months, she had a book deal.
“On the flip side of that, though, my husband and I were seriously struggling with infertility. And so that was really hard,” says Sunderani. The opportunity to write her first cookbook had come sooner than she expected, “but then something that (I) expected to come so quickly was taking so much time.”
As she and Mitch dealt with infertility, Sunderani focused on writing and photographing The Two Spoons Cookbook. The project was her “saving grace,” she recalls. Spending time in the kitchen, drawing on her memories of France, was a much-needed source of happiness.
“And then when I finished the cookbook, I found out that I was six weeks pregnant,” Sunderani laughs. “It’s such a joy to be able to hold my son now who’s 10 months and then also this book baby. And just know that things are meant to be what they are in the time that they come.”