The Multicultural Vegan

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while!  In addition to having had a few personal things happening in my life, I’ve wanted to write an article rather than a recipe, and that seems to take a little more time and effort.  I’ve wanted to compose an article like this for a while because the topic is frequently on my mind.

One thing I’ve learned since going vegan over two years ago is to appreciate other cultures.  It’s now become somewhat of an obsession of mine, and it all starts with the food.  I’m constantly finding new and interesting foods from different countries, even here in Cleveland, Ohio.  For example, I recently discovered a little Nigerian restaurant with wonderful West African food.  I would have not discovered this place if I were simply eating at Applebee’s or Olive Garden!

I also love watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.  Although Tony frequently criticizes vegetarianism, he has the perfect job!  The Travel Channel sends him to various faraway places and asks him to eat as much food and talk to as many people as possible to get the full picture of the culture, and the Travel Channel records it all, plays it on TV, and rakes in lots of money.  He’s also an author, public speaker, and father.  Who wouldn’t want to be paid to eat and travel?  It’s fascinating!

Most importantly, since I’ve expanded my culinary boundaries, I’ve learned to appreciate people of other backgrounds and the traditions that make up their recipes.  I’ve developed a new form of respect for those whose ethnicities are different from mine, and therefore this revelation has had a huge impact on my life.  Even though some have evolved, every dish has a story and a tradition associated with it.  One can’t experience a meal from abroad without knowing the full story behind it, and I can’t help but to fall in love with every nation and every culture.  How can anyone be prejudiced against a person without fully familiarizing themselves their traditions?

Nonetheless, I’ve found that each ethnicity has a different menu.  And some of them are very veg-friendly!


Japanese

Japanese food has to be my favorite ethnic cuisine.  Due to the common practice of Buddhism in Japan, vegetarianism is widespread.  Many people may be intimidated by Japanese cuisine, because the flavors are so foreign from our regular Western food.  However, Japanese foods are very veg*n-friendly, and is oh so delicious!  The flavors are subtle yet satisfying.

  • Vegetarian sushi – Don’t be afraid!  Vegetable maki (6-piece roll) is delicious and completely fish-free!  Just dip in soysauce and enjoy!  I’m lucky enough to have a popular, yet authentic, Japanese joint in my neighborhood, and I’ve had “specialty” vegetarian maki that includes pickles and tempura crumbles.  Heaven!  (Don’t forget the pickled ginger and wasabi!)
  • Inari sushi – A pouch of deep fried tofu.  Even if you don’t like tofu, try it.  Anything deep-fried is awesome, right?
  • Soba (buckwheat) and udon (wheat) noodles – These are served as noodle bowls with various toppings
  • Miso soup – There are many variations of this soup, but it is usually prepared with miso paste (made from soybeans, barley, or rice) and a broth with wakame (seaweed), tofu, and Japanese onions that resemble green onions.  Most miso soups that I’ve tried are vegetarian, but some have fish ingredients in the broth, so it doesn’t hurt to ask before ordering somewhere.
  • Vegetable Tempura – Tempura is a batter used for frying different foods (i.e., shrimp, various vegetables), and as I mentioned before, anything fried is awesome.  These vegetables are no exception.  I’ve had tempura broccoli, sweet potato, eggplant, among others and they’re all delicious (but sweet potato has to be my favorite).
  • Stir-Fried Vegetables
  • Fried Tofu
  • Teriyaki Tofu
  • Edamame – Baby soybeans that are boiled and salted.  Don’t eat the whole pod, just put the pod partially in your mouth and pinch it your teeth to remove the bean.  Then discard the pod once you’ve removed and have eaten all the beans.

Mediterranean

Mediterranean cuisine evolved by the merging of several cultures.  Because the Mediterranean Basin is defined as the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, the food is a product of cultural influences and the historical trade amongst the countries themselves.  Common ingredients among the entire region include olives and olive oil, garlic, onions, legumes, a variety of herbs and spices, and vegetables such as eggplant, peppers, squashes, okra, artichokes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and chickpeas.  Meat is not as prevalent as it is in North America and Northern Europe, and it’s limited to what’s available in the region:  sheep, chicken, goats and seafood.  Since meat is sparse, Mediterranean is one of the more popular veg*n fares.  What’s really cool about the cuisine is that the above ingredients make up the overall theme of Mediterranean food, but its dishes vary from region to region!  This means that you can experience a Middle Eastern dish like tabouleh, then visit the Southern European region and have a wonderful pasta or rice dish, and then finally taste couscous from North Africa!  Here are some dishes and the country that has founded them.

  • Middle East – popular ingredients include pita breads, sesame seeds, chickpeas, mint, and parsley
    • Tahini – a common ingredient in main dishes made from sesame seeds)
    • Hummus – a Middle Eastern staple, with the main ingredient being chickpeas
    • Baba Ghanouj – a puree of charbroiled eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon, and olive oil
    • Falafel – fried patties of chickpeas, fava beans, parsley, and scallions
    • Tabouleh – a salad typically made from bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, tomato, lemon juice, and olive oil
    • Dolma – grape leaves stuffed with a combination of rice, chickpeas, olive oil, pine nuts, tomatoes, herbs, and spices
  • North Africa – known for fresh and rich spices like cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper, coriander, and saffron
    • Couscous (wheat pasta made into granules)
    • Spinach pies
    • Harira (a soup made from flour, tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas, onions, rice, olive oil, and spices)
  • Southern Europe – a blend of Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines; staples include pasta, rice, tomatoes, and breads
    • Italian foods favoring garlic and tomatoes (rather than creamy sauces)
    • Paella – a rice dish with green vegetables, beans, olive oil, herbs, saffron, and other spices

Indian

The Hindu religion and beliefs in the country of India plays a huge role in the cuisine of the country.  Specifically, the practice of ahimsa (non-violence) attributes to the popularity of vegetarianism, by which nearly half the country observes.  Since vegetarians also consume animal by-products, there are portions of dishes that have paneer (an Indian cheese) or cream.  Nevertheless, the great news is that there are plenty of vegan meals.  All of these are usually served with delicious saffron rice.  The below are just a handful of examples.

  • Chana masala – Chickpeas with curry seasonings
  • Aloo Gobi – Cauliflower and potatoes
  • Dhal – Lentils, peas, and/or beans, made into a stew
  • Baingan Bartha – Grilled eggplant
  • Samosas – Baked or fried pastry shells that contains potatoes, peas, onions, and a variety of other vegetables
  • Saffron Rice
  • Bhindi Masala – Okra in curry sauce
  • Chutneys – A type of sauce, each with different flavors.  Some popular varieties are made from cilantro, mint, and tamarind.
  • Naan – An Indian fluffy flatbread sometimes with garlic and butter (or substitute with olive oil)

Italian

Although there is a high emphasis on meat and cheese in Italian food, most dishes contain many veg*n (vegetarian or vegan) ingredients and can be easily modified.  Most noodles, in general, are made from semolina wheat flour.  As long as they aren’t called “egg noodles”, they are probably vegan.  In other words, by leaving out the meat and cheese you can make or order a wonderful and nutritious Italian meal without difficulty.  Here are some examples of Italian ingredients and dishes:

  • Eggplant
  • Polenta – Boiled corn meal
  • Pizza (minus the cheese)
  • Capalinni Pomadoro – Noodles with fresh tomatoes, basil, and olive oil
  • Minestrone Soup
  • Pesto
  • Bruchetta (minus the cheese)
  • Pasta (non-egg noodles, wheat noodles)
  • Gnocchi – Dumplings made from wheat or potato

Chinese

The Chinese also commonly practice Bhuddism, so there is normally a wonderful selection of vegetarian foods.  However, at most Chinese-American restaurants, vegan and vegetarian options are practically non-existent.  I attribute this to Americans’ fascination and addiction to meat products.  However, I’ve found the following dishes at PF Chang’s and other digs.  With a good recipe, these dishes are rather easy to cook as well.

  • Stir-fried Tofu with Vegetables
  • Sweet and Sour Tofu
  • Potstickers
  • Lettuce Wraps

Latin / Mexican

Most Latin dishes include meat, however they are easily converted to veg*n with a little tweaking.  Having a Puerto Rican husband, we’ve experimented and have become pretty good at making veg*n versions of traditional latin dishes.

  • Guacamole and Salsa
  • Red or Black Beans and Rice
  • Mexican Burritos and Tacos – Substitute beans and Boca Crumbles for the meat.  Chipotle makes my ultimate burrito:  rice, black beans, fajita onions and pepper, fresh tomato and corn salsas, guacamole, and lettuce
  • Mexican Chile Rellenos – chile peppers stuffed with rice and vegetables (but normally stuffed with meat and cheese)
  • Spanish Vegetable (also known as Valencian) Paella – A rice and bean dish with sautéed vegetables on top
  • Yuca – Yuca (not to be confused with yucca) is a shrub which contains an edible starchy root.  The root is usually boiled (eating the root raw is poisonous), and eaten in a variety of ways.  It can be fried and eaten as french fries.  It can be boiled and eaten with olive oil.  It can also be added to soups.
  • Plantains – These fruits are in the same family as bananas, and they look similar.  However, plantains are usually used for cooking.  They have a sweet taste when they are fried in oil or baked.  That can also be used like potatoes to make plantain chips.  A specific Puerto Rican snack using plantains are tostones.  Plantains are sliced widthwise into small discs, fried, smooshed, then fried again.
  • Quesadillas, without cheese
  • Pastelillo – A Puerto Rican enchilada, usually filled with ground beef and potatoes, but can be substituted with Boca TVP crumbles
  • Tacos – You can eat tacos without meat or cheese.  Beans usually make a good substitute for meat, or you can use Boca TVP crumbles, as I mentioned above.

French

Let’s face it: the French aren’t known for their vegetarian cuisine.  However, there’s Ratatouille (no, not the cute Pixar movie), which is stewed vegetables; and there’s Ragout (a main entrée stew with or without meat).  And of course you can eat french fries fried in a veg-friendly oil.  Other than that, you’re at a loss!

 


So the next time someone asks me, “So what DO you eat?”, I have plenty of answers.  These are all great dishes to try at home, but you can also check out the local digs that you’ve been avoiding, because you had no clue what to order!  Good luck and enjoy your culinary adventures!

 

 

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