Top 4 plant-based cuisines

Pumpkin curry

The term “plant-based diet” can be confusing or possibly threatening to some people.  They like eating meat; “plant-based” sounds like giving up something they like.  There’s a judgmental aspect to it.  The other problem for people eating typical Western diets, is that the standard cuisine is meat-oriented.  Meat-and-potatoes meals are the norm.  If you give up meat, you’re basically taking meat off the plate, leaving it empty-looking.

I can’t argue with that perception.  If in fact you just remove meat from your typical meals, your plate will look rather forlorn.  It’s not a great way to imagine plant-based eating.  A better way is to consider plant-based, meatless cuisines from around the world.  Many countries have food traditions that either de-emphasize meat, or omit it entirely.  Sometimes these traditions developed due to scarcity; sometimes for religious or other cultural reasons.  But instead of feeling deprived, people created recipes using plant foods and seasonings that made up for the lack of meat.

Whether you cook, buy take-out or dine out, you can find foods from many of these cuisines in Western countries.  Here are some of my favorite cuisines that celebrate meatless (or low-meat) meals:

  1. Indian.  Beef is not eaten in India.  Chicken, lamb, eggs and yogurt feature prominently in many recipes, but Indian cooking also features a wealth of meatless options, seasoned with delicious combinations of spices and herbs.  Legumes (pulses), such as lentils and chickpeas are dietary mainstays.  Rice and naan (flatbread) are paired with seasoned vegetable dishes.  There are plenty of vegan dishes, but yogurt and ghee (clarified butter) do feature in a lot of Indian cooking, and these are not typically included in vegan diets.  But for sheer meatless deliciousness, you can’t beat Indian recipes.
  2. Thai.  Although fish, poultry and beef are used in Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines, they are typically used in small amounts.  Rice and vegetables are mainstays, so a meal that is predominantly vegetables and rice is definitely “plant-based”, even with small portions of meat.  For vegans and vegetarians, tofu can easily be substituted for meat.  It works especially well is hot spicy dishes, and those with coconut curry sauces.  Peanuts and other types of beans and fermented soy foods add to the variety.  It’s meatless dining made easy with wonderful seasonings.  One thing strict vegans and vegetarians should watch out for: fish sauce.  This is widely used as a flavoring in S.E. Asia, and is traditionally made from fish.
  3. Mediterranean.  While there is no one standard definition of “Mediterranean”, it is ideally a plant-based cuisine that de-emphasizes meat and dairy foods.  Vegetarians will have the easiest time with Mediterranean style recipes, as cheese, eggs and yogurt are used frequently.  But there are plenty of options for vegans.  Lentils, chickpeas and other legumes are staples, along with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and nuts.  And of course, pasta, flat bread (pita), rice and loaf breads are important parts of any meal.
  4. Mexican/Central American.  Beans, corn and chilis typically come to mind when you think of Mexican food.  While a variety of meats and fish can be used, they aren’t essential.  Cheeses are used in most familiar recipes, such as burritos or tacos, so vegetarians would have an easier time with these cooking styles.  Even if you omit the cheese, you can still create flavorful and filling food.  Beans, tortillas, chopped vegetables, salsa and guacamole can make for a delicious meal, even without a garnish of cheese.  Molé sauce has a rich deep flavor, and would spice up a vegan Mexican meal.  It goes especially well with rice or tofu.  One caution: molé is sometimes made with chicken broth, so if you’re dining out, ask about that.  You can easily substitute vegetable broth if you’re making your own molé.  Another caution: refried beans are traditionally made with lard, but it’s easy to find non-lard vegetarian varieties now in grocery stores.

What about cuisines that aren’t so amenable to meatless meals?  Northern European and French food come to mind.  Meals typically feature meat, poultry, cured meats or fish as well as cheese, eggs and butter.  Traditional seasonings are very simple, so vegetable dishes were never emphasized as they are in, say, Indian cuisine.  Adapting these types of meals to plant-based, or vegan, might seem hopeless.  For some people, substituting fake meat, made from soy or other plant foods, is the solution.  But why do that when we have access to such a wide variety of international food choices that make plant-based eating easy and delicious?

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