Although I’ve been happily vegetarian for about three years now, I still have this mental block about going vegan even for short periods of time. I get up on a designated vegan day, look longingly at the open wedge of brie in the fridge, think about tea with milk…a cheesy omelet…lovely thick Greek yogurt. And then I get grumpy, eat whatever vegan food is readily available (regardless of taste, quantity, or nutrition), feel deprived, and give up the whole vegan thing by lunch time.
True, it would be helpful not to have eggs or dairy in the fridge to begin with. However, since I have no intention of becoming a full-time vegan, I always have some non-vegan staples in my fridge — eggs and butter, if nothing else.
After I had given up designated vegan days, I noticed that I do actually eat vegan meals fairly often without realizing that they are vegan. These painless, unplanned vegan meals all have one thing in common: they are all Asian.
My parents are Chinese immigrants, so dairy was never a huge part of our meals. Whenever we ate Chinese food, which was about five times a week, it never contained dairy and only rarely contained eggs. Fresh lightly steamed or stir-fried vegetables always outweighed the meat by about 4:1. In contrast, western cuisine lays on the meat and dairy with a heavy hand. Cutting it out means either eating weird hippie food (sprouted quinoa or raw cashew ‘cheese’) or making a lot of substitutions, often with highly processed ingredients like TVP. I recently looked at a vegan mac and cheese recipe that contained 30+ ingredients. (As opposed to homemade mac and cheese, which has about 5 and is cheaper and easier to make. And tastes better.) Making western cuisine vegan is an uphill battle.
However, a lot of Asian food can be made vegan simply by cutting out the meat. Some of my favorite meals involve simply stir-frying a huge, colorful mound of fresh vegetables with garlic, ginger, seseame oil, soy sauce, chili oil, or peanut sauce, in various combinations. Need a starch? Throw in some brown rice or whole wheat noodles. Want something hot? Make a noodle soup instead. Protein? Some extra firm tofu chunks. The combinations are endless. And because the vegetables come out of the pan just a little seared but still full of color and texture, you might not even notice that there’s no meat, egg, or dairy involved.
(No recipes, either. Like my mother and generations of Chinese cooks before her, we toss in whatever we have and/or sounds good, and then season to taste. If you have basic Asian seasonings, everything else can be improvised.)
Here are some vegetables I like to stir-fry:
- baby corn
- bell peppers
- mushrooms (shiitake, oyster, button…)
- green onions
- bean sprouts
For me, cooking from a cuisine in which dairy plays a minimal role has been the easiest (and cheapest) way to go vegan without feeling like something’s missing. Never mind the vegan cheese, vegan butter substitute, buckwheat groats. Pass the veggie stir-fry, please!
What are your tips for painless vegan meals?