Making Authentic Food Vegan

I’ve been a vegan food writer and chef for ten years now and one of the most prominent themes that runs through my works is that I like to take authentic cuisine and make it vegan. I am fascinated by ideas and culture and authentic cuisine is simply the food-based expression of those two things. For me, food isn’t just nutrition, it’s a story. When I eat a meal by a creative chef, I don’t just get a great meal, I experience the way that chef thinks about food, how they decide to combine ingredients, what flavors they prefer, and how they choose to alter ingredients to bring certain aspects to the forefront. When I eat an authentic meal, I experience those same ideas, but they are ideas that have been transmitted and developed from cook to cook, often over generations. It’s the same experience, but on a larger, cultural scale and because the food is so rooted in a particular culture, they give an insight into how that culture takes the ingredients they have on hand, not esoteric ingredients that have to be special ordered, to fashion outstanding food. It’s even a way to experience history, after a fashion. I can’t eat mole without thinking about the history of the Moors, the Spanish, and Oaxaca. Also, it’s a way to eat some really great food!

Translating authentic recipes into vegan recipes has its own challenges. While many cultures have recipes that are already vegan, or so close, it’s easy to alter the dish, a lot of the recipes are…not. I have an incredible respect for authentic food because it’s part of a culture’s identity and as much a treasure as any famous artistic piece, so how far can I go when translating a recipe without losing that identity? It may seem pedantic, but I answer that question each time I write a vegan version of a recipe. How slavish do I need to be to the original? If it is a meat-based dish, do I only use a meat alternative? The answer to that, by the way, is no, but with caveats. Do I seek out the dish, not to taste, obviously, but to look? How much license do I take with the other ingredients? What if I can’t find those other ingredients because they are too rare outside of a particular country? What do I call the recipe if the authentic title itself refers to a specific non-vegan item? Do I translate the title into English or leave it as is? Each recipe has its own balance of answers. I’ll tell you where I skew on each of them.

For meat-based dishes, I tend now to give two versions of a recipe; one that uses a meat alternative and one that uses a whole food veggie. I used to be a meat alternative snob and completely eschewed them, but that was a little pretentious on my part. A lot of people love them and want to use them to experience the dishes they had before they went vegan. Good on them. I don’t care what people eat if they are eating vegan. I also personally enjoy the creativity and health benefits of using straight veggies more, so if there is a way to get even close to the original recipe using a whole food, I do it. I always try to seek out an authentic dish to see how it is made and to see and smell the final product, even though I don’t want to eat it. Actually, I don’t particularly care to watch it, too, but I feel like I have a responsibility to know what I am talking about as a food writer and educator. I have seen too many vegan authors write about authentic food in a way that looks factual to someone who has no knowledge of the food, but for someone with knowledge of the original version, it’s obvious the author has no real experience with it. Sometimes, I’ve even seen recipes copied off of Google, or even from my own work. When it comes to how free I am with the ingredients, I keep it pretty tight. I try to give people the best version of an authentic recipe and I only change it when necessary to make it vegan. If you see one of my taco recipes, that’s how that taco recipe is likely to be made in someone’s home. For example, you won’t see soy sauce in my carnitas, but you will see beer. The only time that changes is if a vegan recipe needs a little boost to make it more like the original version of the recipe, but it still has to be the right boost.  If an ingredient is hard to find, I give the reader the real ingredient and provide a substitution for it. It’s a way to educate, to entice people to find out more about ingredients used in other cultures, to respect the food, but still provide a way for the reader to make their own tasty version of that authentic recipe. Finally, I try to give both English and the original non-English names for recipes. In reality, when I write about authentic food, I get so involved in the culture that I think of the recipes with their non-English names first. For example, it takes me a moment to figure out that when I see “basket tacos,” that they are “tacos de canasta.” If you said tacos de canasta, I’d know right away what you were talking about! That’s not true for most people, though, so I tend to give recipes English titles and then provide translations. I love linguistics, so I think it’s fun to see the titles side by side and my hope is it encourages people to learn a bit of another language. In a way, that sums up my approach. I want people to be able to make great, tasty food and if I can help educate people, get them to explore other cultures, and encourage an appreciation and respect for that culture’s culinary traditions, then so much the better. It’s my job to give you all the information to that, but it’s your job to take what you want from it and make mouth-watering vegan food! Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

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