I accidentally ate meat at the Mercado de Lucas Galvez in Merida, Mexico. Despite everyone’s claims that I could not eat vegan in the Yucatan – let alone enjoy its culinary specialties like cochinita pibil, ceviche, or queso relleno – I was determined to eat only plants and avoid explicitly “vegan” restaurants. My belief was that I could find the Yucatan’s famous regional flavors in its local ingredients, spice and herb mixes, and technique, not meat per se. I failed on my first endeavor at the multiple-warehouse-sized Lucas Galvez market when I ate an ambiguous carne negro. I nonetheless walked through the entire market so that the next day I knew which vendors to seek for a truly Yucatecan plant-forward lunch: panuchos (spiced black bean-filled pockets) with habanero salsa and pickled onion and cabbage, a bowl of lima beans with ground pepitas and epazote, and a plate of roasted local vegetables like chayote, plantain, and calabaza with a side of sopa de lima and a mamey zapote fruit. A few days later, in Tulum, I stumbed upon Suculenta, a vegan tamale shop that was so delicious I spontaneously asked to apprentice and cook with its owner Juan for a couple days. Juan does not eat a 100% vegan diet, but he says he prefers to cook vegan food because it best expresses his Mayan ancestors’ cuisine (which was vegan before Spanish colonization) with ingredients like chaya leaf, x’catic chile, achiote, and a family recipe mole.
A week later, in Berkeley, California, I ate at The Butcher’s Son, a popular vegan delicatessen that many friends had recommended. I ordered the Fried Chicken B.L.A.T. and devoured it with glee, yet I felt complicit in a grotesque anthropology: people first consumed meat as a rare, caloric sustenance food, a ritual celebration that used every part of the animal; meat gradually became disassociated with animals as preservation and other concerns led to sausages, meat pies, and eventually gastronomy’s nadir of cold cuts; now, we eat imitations of processed meat, obscurations of obscurations. I feel that something has gone awry in the movement of vegan cuisine.
Vegans most often cite environmental sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition and other related reasons for their dietary choice. Furthermore, the consensus among Blue Zones researchers, Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Die work, the EAT-Lancet Commission, Canada’s latest annual nutrition guide, and food thought leaders Michael Pollan and Michael Bittman, together make a robust case for a mostly plant-based diet of whole vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. People born and raised in meat-centric cultures or landscapes, however, cannot so easily rearrange their plates. I believe that accessibility as well as flavor will most significantly usher a global vegan watershed, not a pea protein patty with a fake cheddar slice that taste just like a cheeseburger. The responsibility of chefs is therefore to prove that plant-based food (a term I prefer because it clarifies what to eat, whereas “vegan” only indicates what not to eat) tastes best, and I posit that such a decision will not reduce pleasure but will universally spark remarkable new pleasures and varieties of flavor.
The world’s greatest omnivorous chefs admit that plants carry the most potent seeds of flavor, far more than meat. A 2016 Saveur article, “The Magic of Making Mush for Dinner: Vegetable Purees Deliver Flavor Like Nothing Else,” describes techniques by David Bouley and Michael Anthony (the latter is the author of seminal vegetable cookbook V is for Vegetables) to make vegetable purees – a la 1960s nouvelle cuisine chefs like Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and Fredy Girardet – that thicken dishes with more body and flavor without the added heaviness of butter or cream. During a talk at the New York Times Wine & Food Festival, Bouley tried to “rectify the misconception that all French cooking is overly rich and filling, ‘no cream, no butter’ because [his] mantra [and] his mission is finding and perfecting ways to achieve the complexity of fat, without fat.” Popular cookbooks like April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Greens, Jeremy Fox’s On Vegetables, and Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons laud plants’ unparalleled range of flavor though all three chefs cook meat in their restaurants (April Bloomfield’s The Spotted Pig specializes in British offal). Even proud carnivore Calvin Trillin concedes in his classic Alice, Let’s Eat!, “My findings [at a barbecue joint] confirmed the natural law that the shape of object has limited effect on its taste. I liked barbecued mutton, but, then, I might have liked barbecued porcupine, [my wife’s] theory being that the taste I truly crave is the taste of hickory-wood smoke.” When it all boils down, you can cook great plants without meat but you cannot cook great meat without plants; chefs moreover reveal the strongest flavors when they revere a vegetable, herb or spice, and concentrate the full potential of its tastes and textures.
One might refute, “Why limit ourselves to plants? We have more creative choice when we cook with plants and animals, right?” Wrong. More choice is actually the antithesis of creativity. Almost every creative breakthrough in any art form was born from scarcity rather than abundance. Food history demonstrates this truth with beloved regional dishes that made the most of few seasonally available or leftover ingredients, like Sichuan China’s mapo tofu, Italy’s bruschetta, Burma’s fermented tea leaf salad, or Ghana’s jollof rice and peanut stew. Too many flavors in a dish can overwhelm the palette and distract from the quality of ingredients (with the exception of dozen-spice-and-chile curries, biryanis and moles, whose tastes nonetheless derive from flavor-compatible, region-bound plants). If every dish has an upper limit of flavor notes, food will taste richest yet balanced if chefs choose the sole most flavor-dense ingredients; with the exception of umami, plants provide all the major tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, acid, aromatic, pungent – that animals lack. I admit, animal fat is the planet’s most flavor-dense ingredient, and its culinary foundation across the world as butter, schmaltz, lard, cheese and others is indispensable to numerous cuisines. Yet as Bouley offers, less fat yields more overall flavor. One might then refute, “This just sounds like a low-fat diet. Why not cook lean meat in a little vegetable oil?” Fat is an essential part of cooking (and nutrition) and, if deployed well, can elevate all the flavors in a dish. One can certainly add too much vegetable oil, but in my experience, animal fats dominate the flavor palette whereas plant-based fats like olive oil, tahini and avocado support and bring out the best of its fellow flavors. Consider that most salad dressings call for oil rather than butter.
I once ran a small homemade ice cream business (before I ate vegan) through which I learned that the butterfat vs. flavor tradeoff – the proportion of cream to milk – is the bane of every ice cream maker’s craft. More fat smoothens and thickens texture but overcoats one’s taste buds from the actual flavor. The best pistachio ice cream I ever ate (from Burlington, Vermont’s Shy Guy Gelato), for instance, was made without any cream because the nuts alone provided enough fat. The consistent invention of new vegan “milks” has, in its attempt to substitute, incidentally created a new pantry of culinary possibilities by soaking and blending – in far wider variety than plain animals’ milk – nuts, seeds, and grains with water. Seattle’s Frankie and Jo’s and New York’s Van Leeuwen, for example, sell coconut milk- and homemade cashew milk-based ice cream that draw some of, if not the longest, queues for ice cream in town.
On the savory side, the most flavor-intense dishes I have ever eaten are plant-forward performances of vegetable alchemy, like the burnt broccoli salad with eggplant puree and red chile coriander vinaigrette at New York’s Superiority Burger, a roasted cauliflower and shakshuka hummus from a hole-in-the-wall in Tel Aviv, a mushroom taco omakase from Mexico City’s Los Loosers, or the “Beet” (confit shallot and golden beet pavé, white beet and preserved peach mustard cream, fermented horseradish and beet relish, crispy and shaved Chioggia, white beet vinaigrette) at Vancouver’s The Acorn. My first motive to switch from a vegetarian to vegan diet, in fact, was to become a better cook. It is easy to make a mediocre dish and then throw a fried egg on top or douse it in cheese; I learned much from the more rewarding pursuit of experimenting with the complexity of nut and seed butters, the umami of mushrooms, miso, capers and kombu, as well as fermented, pickled and foraged foods.
I recently ate a better B.L.A.T. at another Berkeley vegan spot, Sanctuary Bistro, which realized my craving for one of the world’s great simple sandwiches sans imitation meat. The restaurant’s “bacon” is slow-roasted thin-sliced shiitake mushrooms, no liquid smoke or spices added, just elevated umami; my server explained, “We want to appeal to both ardent vegans and meat-eaters trying it out, so we call it “shiitake bacon” for familiarity, but “bacon” really fulfills people’s desire for something salty and crispy yet chewy, not pork.” Vegan activists have long agreed on the environmental, moral, and nutritional benefits of their lifestyle. From a culinary perspective, however, we are just on the brink of a transnational gastronomic revolution that proves the most ethical meal is inseparable from the most delicious.