How I Came To Question The Idea of “Vegan Food”
A few months ago I was browsing on the Youtube homepage when the title of a video caught my attention: Vegan Smoked Salmon + Cashew Cream Cheese. I watch food videos, and a lot of them. So I’d expect 90% of my recommendations to be food-related, but this was one I didn’t necessarily expect. What to think of this? The entire dish is made out of carrots, and the ‘cream cheese’ is simply a cashew dip. While the process took about 6 days, the video managed to sum it up in 6 minutes, after which I asked myself: why not just call it a veggie lox?
I’ve always associated the vegan diet with a lifestyle that refrains from animal-derived products to varying degrees – whether that’s through food, or clothing and care products as well. But as I keep running into vegan cheeses and vegan meats, I begin to question the purpose of vegan food and its ideals. The easy answer would be to admit that it’s a good way to transition for those giving up meat. Is imitation and replication the direction we want to push for in going vegan, or wouldn’t it be better to just encourage the consumption of whole foods in adopting a plant-based diet?
According to Pat Brown, the creator behind “The Impossible Burger”, says that one way to go about the environmental harms of meat consumption is to generate all forms of meat products that aren’t actually meat. “The Impossible Burger” is strictly targeted towards meat-eaters and is meant to provide them with a burger that is just as juicy and similar in aroma and texture as a real burger. When put to the taste test, most regular meat-eaters could tell that it’s fake. I’ll let you decide what kind of impact this is having when one of the chefs decides to grab a cheeseburger shortly after.
If we can’t call it vegan meat then what can we call it? In my eyes, I like to accept the ‘veggie burger’ considering you can recreate ‘burger patties’ out of chickpeas, beans, sweet potato, or quinoa, otherwise the name is not misleading. The same girl that brought you the ‘smoked salmon’, also has tutorials for ‘steak’ and ‘turkey’. Once again, I’m reluctant to consider that this 10-ingredient, tofu-based creation with various binding agents is a ‘vegan steak’. I would rather just eat tofu. I don’t want to consider a steak vegan because that is a single piece of an animal strictly void of any plant-derivatives.
I was told by a friend that in Dutch they don’t really speak of vegan meats. They just refer to them as meat replacers. Maybe we can argue that it’s a question of semantics, or that there’s an underlying cultural element. It’s inevitable that food carries a cultural component, and in some cultures, having meat on your plate or in a dish is so sacred that refusing to eat it can be considered an act of ‘turning away parts of your heritage’ – as explained by a Korean-American, Zavi in an interview. I’m raising this point because in certain cuisines, be it East Asian or specifically Korean, making dishes ‘vegan’ changes more than just the ingredients, but the cultural meaning and definition of what that dish stands for. Others will even refrain from calling certain meals vegan, but instead use labels such as “inspired by…”. While I will not touch base on it further in this post, you should check out this tumblr run by Zavi, where she explores the cross-section between veganism and culture.
The debate over dairy is in an even more of a grey area. A recent article by the New York Times addressed that dairy farms are protesting the labelling of “milk” on non-dairy alternatives, such as almond, soy, and coconut. The F.D.A officially defines milk as the “lacteal secretion… obtained by the complete milking of one or more cows…”. They also argue that they don’t want consumers mistaking the origin of non-dairy alternatives to cows, and also believing that they are nutritionally equivalent.
You’re probably thinking the same question, if not milk then what else? You could call it ‘almond water’ since those are two main ingredients, but of course that’s not as attractive. Otherwise I think the Australians are heading in the right direction by bringing us Mylk, which was actually the medieval spelling of milk to refer to the non-dairy alternative. Now this, I could get into.
Some re-creators behind vegan alternatives want to prove that in a plant-based world you can have and enjoy the same things, as mentioned by the chef of Crossroads, a famous vegan restaurant in LA. But why go through the efforts of calling a dish only made out of vegetables a ‘seafood tower’? In the end if people enjoyed the food, they might as well realize they don’t need animal products to feel satisfied.
I can’t speak for vegans in answer to what their diet and lifestyle truly stands for, as it’s probably dependent on your upbringing, culture, and of course your own perspective. As someone who enjoys plant-based food to the fullest, I believe that vegans have potential to re-create a cuisine that shouldn’t be built on the basis of imitation, but rather for its originality, nutrition, and most definitely, delicious taste.
– By Diana Ghidanac