How to Improve Vegan Food

Let me be clear. I am not a vegan nor even a vegetarian. But I have had an ongoing discussion about vegan food over the past three weeks with lots of people and I figure that if I, a non-vegan, am having this conversation repeatedly there must be some meat (so to speak) in it.

So, here’s the deal. Vegan food should taste good. If it does, people will incorporate those dishes into their diets. You may not win a philosophical victory–because they’ll still also eat meat–but you will be introducing people to tasty, healthy dishes. That is a victory.

But so very, very often vegan food looks fantastic and tastes like someone just dumped every spice in the cabinet into it. Take this dish I encountered at the library. S. and I met for lunch at the downtown library and there, in the case, was this fantastic looking vegan bean dish. Just from the looks of it, it appeared to have three or four different types of beans, onions, tomatoes, maybe some kind of squash, all in a kind of hearty thick stew. Mmm, can’t you taste it just me describing it?

Well, the dude behind the counter insisted that I should try it, which I thought was weird, but okay. And try it I did and… ugh… no. Not good. It was as if the cook thought “Oh, hey, mustard goes with beans because you put mustard in cowboy beans” and then thought “But I can’t just use yellow mustard because it’s supposed to be fancy, so I will use this fancy pants mustard.” But, of course, different mustards taste different. So, where as the kind of bland zip of yellow mustard might have been a nice compliment to the sweetness of the beans and onions, the fancy mustard’s spices clashed with and almost overwhelmed the taste of the beans. And it was weird because beans and onions and tomatoes all have good tastes that go together. You might not have even needed anything other than a little salt and pepper.

I had macaroni and cheese instead.

I get that spicing things when you don’t have the option of animal products can, at first, seem tricky. But really, vegetables taste awesome. You don’t have to do anything to them. The other thing is that we live in a world where a lot of cultures eat a ton of vegetarian or very-heavily vegetable based dishes. There is no shame in studying what spices they put together and ripping them off for your own vegan dishes. It’s honesty fine if the innovation in the recipe is just in the non-inclusion of animal products. It doesn’t also have to taste like something that has never existed in the history of the world.

But, on the other hand, a vegan dish shouldn’t be “just like” some meat-based dish. I don’t need vegan pork and beans, you know? Just feed me some yummy vegan bean dish. Hell even with yellow mustard and brown sugar and onions. That’s cool. I don’t need fake pork in it. Plus, I like tofu when it’s prepared as tofu. Again, we have lots of cultures who cook with tofu as a thing itself, not as a fake meat. Please, I beg you. Rip them off.

And then, invite me over for dinner.

11 thoughts on “How to Improve Vegan Food

  1. The problem with the beans you tried may have been that the beans came from a can and too much of everything was put in to try to disguise that fact.

    There are so many good vegan soups, stews, grain dishes — I don’t know why some vegans (or providers of food to vegans) immediately go to vegan versions of meat dishes. (Though I have been served some mighty tasty meat substitutes.) That’s a carnivore’s viewpoint, though. I’m sure that vegans themselves can shed some light on the question.

  2. When you described this dish, it almost sounded to me like a chili, so when you said “mustard,” I immediately thought “UGH!” The description had my mouth set for a different flavor, which must have been something akin to your experience.

    But then I started thinking of a cold bean salad with tomatoes and squash, and still, the idea of mustard (unless you meant mustard seed, which might have been great) is a big drawback. I think like vinegar and tarragon and those sorts of savory things. Mustard is a blunt weapon there. If I’m thinking of a zippy option off the shelf to add to this, I’d have gone for Sriracha sauce.

    (And if indeed this was for cowboy beans, the forward flavor I would prefer in it is molasses, which has a nice bite/sharpness without having that nasal-assaulting acidity of prepared mustard.)

  3. I dig you, B. One of my favorite dishes is black beans and brown rice. I don’t get crazy with the beans; just a little vegan margarine, crushed garlic, salt, and pepper. I even use canned beans. If I want to get fancy, I’ll do a reduction with vegetable broth and the garlic before adding the beans. But that’s it. Sometimes less is more. I’ve experimented with some vegan soups, as well, and follow the same principle.

  4. Andy, I definitely would not have made whatever that was with mustard–period. But I can understand how someone whose philosophy is “We must have FLAVOR to make up for the lack of meat taste!” might try it. But whew, you’d think they’d actually try it, as in taste it and realize it wasn’t working.

    Sam, I’m convinced that garlic and/or onions are awesome flavoring for almost anything.

    I was very excited to learn that my dad, like me, believes there’s no such thing as too many beans in chili, so the chili I made over the holidays had four different types of beans in it. It was awesome.

  5. …you’d think they’d actually try it, as in taste it and realize it wasn’t working.

    Or maybe they were so far committed to the recipe that they couldn’t figure out how to correct for the mustard when they overdid it. Fact is, that’s a flavor that’s really hard to mask once it’s there.

    I recall one time when I was trying to make some red beans and just overdid the thyme in it. I tried adding ketchup, but then it just tasted sweet *and* soapy.

  6. Things can really go wrong when someone who’s not a vegan tries to make something that is. People in foodservice also overthink vegetarian food. I don’t care for veg*n food that’s supposed to mimic no veg*n food, for the most part. I just make something I like and don’t use critters. And I don’t get many complaints.

  7. I’m with you on vegan foods not needing to mimic non-vegan foods, the exception being cheesecake. I have to make cheesecake with soy cream cheese anyhow, per TheBoyfriend™’s whey allergy. I have in the past switched out the egg for egg-replacer making the cheesecake vegan, and it’s still totally to die for.

  8. I’m not vegan but since I discovered the vegan menu at Taco Mamacita’s in Edgehill, that’s what I usually order off of when we go there. I find the vegan offerings are better than the regular menu.

  9. I’ve got to disagree with you on one point, Aunt B. Sometimes great things come out of fake meat trying to be real. There are some Chinese restaurants near me that use soy and vegetable protein to make fake meats (primarily for Buddhists, as I understand.) So delicious. BBQ’d pork that’s better than the real thing.

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