"If there was an award for 'Least Likely To Go Vegan', it probably would've been awarded to me," says Emma Langley. "I'm not a big salad person. I'm not a health nut, I wish I was."
Chicken and dairy-heavy comfort foods ruled her diet. Even after becoming vegan in January 2011 for animal welfare reasons, she still didn't know how to replace those dishes.
"For the first two weeks, I think I only ate potato chips and drank Diet Coke," she says. "I didn't know what to eat, because I was so uninformed."
Nowadays, she's a much better cook and she's nailed plant-based dining. Her recipes power I Should Be Souvlaki, the vegan business she runs with her partner Adam Papastathopoulos.
The company's signature dish – meat-free souvlaki – is inspired by Papastathopoulos's upbringing.
Their story begins in April 2014, when the pair met. Langley was a vegan and Papastathopoulos was "very Greek", he says with a laugh.
For him, Christmas and Easter were celebrated with lamb on the spit, while the tables at family gatherings were crowded with dishes that either had cheese (Greek salad with feta) or meat (lamb chops, chicken skewers, pastitsio, and souvlaki, of course).
Five months after meeting Langley (and one screening of the Earthlings animal-welfare documentary later), Papastathopoulos decided to follow her lead. He admits it was "interesting turning vegan while I was living with Greek grandparents", he says. Once, he started mooing when his grandmother prepared a steak – an act he's quite apologetic and confused about now. Her friends didn’t understand why he'd give up meat, so he'd explain his reasons for going vegan – which only made his grandmother shake her head.
"Then they'd be like, 'what do you eat? You're so skinny!' I'd be like, 'I've been skinny for a very long time!'" he says, and laughs. "I'd say it was probably a solid six months of them becoming more comfortable with it."
Langley says his family had "always been welcoming" and would carefully switch out stocks, butter and other animal products to ensure she'd always have something she could enjoy at their feasts. And sometimes no substitutes were needed.
"There's a great range of Greek dishes that are naturally vegan," she says. Like yemista, which are punchy stuffed vegetables. "That's the first thing that yiayia [Papastathopoulos's grandmother] served me. It was amazing!"
As Langley and Papastathopoulos' relationship developed, so did the number of vegan dishes that appeared at his family gatherings. After struggling to finish the mega serves of fakes (Greek lentil soup), baked potatoes and other dishes, the pair would be bundled home with enough leftovers for the rest of the week. Sometimes yiayia would also add vegan butter to their take-home pile, too.
Despite being so well-fed, there was something from his pre-vegan life that Papastathopoulos missed: standing at a family gathering and watching someone slice souvlaki, hot off the grill, and add it to the warm pita bread in his hand. The heat of the pita, the fresh snap of the salad and the punchy garlic-laced tzatziki – he loved everything about it.
When he told her that souvlaki would be the thing that he missed most about becoming vegan, she decided to secretly master a plant-based version he could eat.
Any spare moment away from him, Langley spent on her souvlaki-making mission.
"I had a fridge stocked with different marinades and different [plant-based] proteins," she says. "Some worked and some disintegrated."
Langley made 30 different versions, letting the marinades steep for long periods. At one point, she woke at a crazy hour to analyse a 50-hour marinade and fry the well-flavoured protein while her parents were sleeping. (They were relieved when she finally had success and emptied her rows of test boxes and marinades from their refrigerator.)
"Obviously souvlaki is a very Greek dish," she says. "There were some times I peered around yiayia's kitchen [for help]." But making plant-based souvlaki was especially hard for two reasons: it was a dish Langley had never tried before becoming vegan and because she wanted to surprise her partner with the results, she couldn’t ask him for any help or advice.
"There's a great range of Greek dishes that are naturally vegan."
After much experimenting – and nailing a 60-hour marinade – she packed her just-mastered vegan souvlaki into an esky and served it to him while they were on a long weekend getaway.
Papastathopoulos says he was "blown away". Each garlicky and tzatziki-drizzled bite brought back many childhood moments of eating souvlaki with his family.
Langley has since refined her recipe to create a wheat-based "chicken" souvlaki and a lamb-style soy protein that she sells through I Should Be Souvlaki. She's secretive about what goes into the 60-hour marinade for both, and will only say this: "we wouldn't be an establishment selling Greek food if we didn't include a bucketload of garlic."
Originally, the couple's food was available at the Sydney Vegan Markets, but they've since pivoted to selling produce from a pop-up shopfront in Sydney's Newtown because of the pandemic. Their online store – which also offers vegan versions of avgolemono (Greek chicken and egg drop soup) and yiayia's lentil soup – makes items available in the frozen-food form, which means orders can be delivered far and wide, sometimes even reaching Melbourne.
I Should Be Souvlaki already has a strong fanbase, which ranges from initially sceptical Greek elders to people who'll sing the name of their business to the tune of the Kylie Minogue song it's inspired by. But the best endorsement is the fact that Papastathopoulos' family – including his father, mother, sister and cousin – are impressed by the vegan souvlaki. And with that dish mastered, there's nothing that Papastathopoulos misses, now that he's vegan.