Saturday, November 10, 2007

Vegan =/= Healthy

In my experience, there are three types of vegan food (OK, there are lots more than three, but please bear with me for the sake of simplicity): Healthy Food, Last Resort Food and Holy Crap This is Real Food Food.

Healthy Food - I think this is the food most omnis think of when they think vegan. It's often raw, is basically just processed fruits and vegetables and may contain grains most omnis have never heard of. Usually tastes "healthy" and may smell like hippie.

Last Resort Food - How many servings of mashed potatoes have we all eaten, not because we love potatoes (though I do!), but because there was nothing else without meat in it on the menu? French fries? Onion rings? "Garden salads" consisting of a plate of lettuce and three cherry tomatoes? This is the food we eat because there's no other alternative where we are and it begs the question "How many side dishes does it take to make an entree?"

Holy Crap This is Real Food Food - Veggie dumplings. Jerk seitan. Hearty soups. Sesame tofu. Stuffed mushrooms. Curries. This is food that's awesome, regardless of your nutritional preferences. Put it together and you get real meals, with courses and everything.

When I prepare and eat the Healthy Food, I almost feel virtuous. Here is tasty food that I can eat without any fat and calorie-related guilt. Not only that, but in many cases, it's pure, unadulterated food. I can look at what I'm eating and know exactly what all the components are. I can even identify the herbs and spices. They're not hidden under thick sauces or breading. The vitamins and enzymes are largely intact. It makes me feel like I'm getting the most out of my food. It also makes me feel like a "real" vegan; omnis probably don't have much use for raw lasagna. I get a lot of my Healthy recipes from the message board on If you're in NYC, Quintessence is a nice raw, vegan, organic place. The food is both tasty and presented well. You don't walk out thinking "Shit, I could have not-cooked that at home and saved $20".

Last Resort Food can sometimes be pretty great; I've had many a fabulous emergency salad. But for every good salad, I've had three that were just lettuce and too much dressing (or worse, overpriced, bitter greens and too much dressing). And let's not forget the places that don't even make salads (or if they do, they all have meat in them).

This past Sunday, I went to Saint's Alp Teahouse with some friends to celebrate a birthday. The first bummer was remembering they make their milk teas with actual milk, so my favorite taro was out (Gobo uses soy milk. Vegans and lactose intolerants rejoice!). I ended up with jasmine green tea, which was actually really good and I'll definitely get it again. Most of the bubble tea I drink doesn't actually taste like tea. This did. I like tea.

The next bummer was the realization that everything on their menu was either a beverage, had meat in it or was deep fried. I guess I should be thankful there are any vegan options on the menu at all, but really, who wants to eat spring rolls and "crispy bean curd" when they're minding their health? Not me. I ended up with the samosas, kind of hoping they'd be baked, but they weren't (duh). They were pretty tasty, but I've definitely had better.

Holy Crap This is Real Food Food practically makes life with living. Without places like Red Bamboo Soul Cafe and Buddha Bodai, I know I'd personally feel rather out of the food loop. The food at these places is so tasty that my omni friends suggest going there instead of the other way around. And it's not all about the "fake" food. Dishes like Black Bean Ginger Stir-Fry and Bean Curd with Organic Mushrooms and Basil are filling and wonderful without even a hint of wannabe meat, fish or dairy.

There was only one thing I disliked about my favorite restaurants: the knowledge I'd never be able to come even close to making anything like what they serve at home. Then I got Vegan With a Vengeance and Veganomicon. Now I can make "real" food like Hot Sauce Glazed Tempeh, Chickpea Noodle Soup and samosas at home. This fills me with unadulterated joy. I don't know how to artistically "plate" a meal yet, but I'm getting there!

And I think it should be noted that there really isn't much healthy about (for example) General Tso's Mock Chicken. Sure, it's tofu, but it's deep fried and smothered in a sugary sauce (mmm....sugary, sugary goodness). A lot of people are under the impression that food must be healthy if it's vegan, but a quick flip through the Veganomicon will tell you that's not the case. An egg and dairy-free chocolate cake is still a chocolate cake (a yummy, yummy chocolate cake). It's important to be careful about what we eat, vegan, vegetarian, omni or whatever. We won't be much help to the animals we're trying to protect if we OD on fried vegetables, after all.

And now I'll hop off my soapbox.

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