Charlotte Willis explores the effect of two different food cultures colliding…
What can the Western world learn from the traditional cooking methods, ingredients and flavour varieties that have been used in traditional Eastern cultures for centuries? Could they hold a realm of as yet undiscovered culinary possibilities? Let’s explore the growing fusion of eastern culture in our modern vegan eateries.
Asian-Fusion. Typically involving some sort of overpriced restaurant pop-up in the middle of a busy city centre. One minute it’ll be the hottest place in town. Months later, the exact same eatery will be boarded up. I’m not a fan of taking traditional foreign cuisine, with all its intricate tried and tested traditional flavours, and attempting to re-invent them drastically to make them more ‘British’.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to travel to the Eastern continent and sample the authentic traditional foods on offer, you’ll understand my dismay! Forget the teriyaki-style mushroom burgers. I’ve had enough of tempura fried this and that. If we take a closer look towards the Eastern continent, we discover a true vegan cornucopia, full of colourful and vibrant ingredients that might just influence the way you cook and eat for the better.
The UK is well known for our lack of vegetable consumption – unless they happen to come in two’s, alongside a piece of meat that is. Omnivorous adults and especially the newer generations of children are decidedly veg-deficient – remember seeing footage of mums feeding their children chicken burgers through the school fences in protest of Jamie Oliver’s school meal programme? But think about it… When you picture traditional British food, I, like many, envisage a classic Sunday roast. Perhaps newspaper-wrapped fish and chips or an old-fashioned steak and kidney pie and mash. Not a carrot nor lentil in sight.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a decent dash of ‘veganising’ for our traditional recipes – you only have to look at the line of vegan customers waiting avidly in the rainy streets of Hackney for the latest opening of a restaurant dedicated to fried tempeh “chick’n” strips. And who doesn’t fantasize a little too much over an all-trimmings-included-tofu-turkey roast dinner every now and again? But when it comes to everyday food that is healthy, nutritious, delicious and vegan-savvy, I believe we should be reaching further afield, taking inspiration from the Eastern cultures around us.
A quick thumb through the introduction pages of various cookbooks inspired by authors originating from India, Thailand, Turkey, China, Tibet and other far-flung Eastern regions, we reveal a common theme. The majority of the authors recall their childhoods being particularly vegetable-based, emanating from their traditional cuisine that they now share with others. Meat and fish, and many dairy products that are commonplace in the UK market, are either rare or non-existent in many traditional Eastern dishes.
According to a recent Telegraph survey, the top countries for lowest meat consumption include Bangladesh (4kg per person per year) and India (4.4kg per person per year), with the majority of other countries whose residents are meat-averse being located in Eastern Africa, Southern Asia and certain Middle-Eastern countries including Turkey. To put these numbers into perspective – the average UK resident consumes 84.2kg meat every year.
Why is this? Looking at the traditional diets of Eastern cultures, it’s clear to see that recipes and preparation methods owe themselves to vegan and vegetarian ways of cooking. There’s a sense of appreciation and understanding of how best to utilise these plant-based ingredients. Recipes formulated over generations use vegetables, pulses and grains in combinations with spices, herbs and sundries to create nutritious plant-based dishes that are wholesome and, for the most part, vegan.
Food with compassion
One of the most interesting influences in forming the predominantly vegan and vegetarian cuisine typical of certain regions in the East, is that of religion. Naturally, different religious denominations influence and affect how their followers live their lives, and this includes eating patterns and dietary restrictions. Most remarkable of all is perhaps the traditional teachings of Buddhism.
Certain denominations of Buddhism encourage their followers to maintain a diet that restricts the consumption of all meat and animal products, under the premise of a desire to emanate compassion and harmonious living with nature. Fascinatingly so, some denominations of Buddhism forbid the consumption of onions, garlic and scallions (spring onions) as these are believed to influence emotions. Root vegetables may also be avoided in an attempt to prevent the death of the plant.
Lessons from the East
Allow me to get scientific for a second here: Research evidence (such as those cited in T. Collin Campbell’s The China Study – a collection of scientific evidence and theories exploring the link between diet and disease) repeatedly demonstrate the link between excessive animal protein consumption and the increased likelihood of developing certain diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The same is true of obesity, the biggest western health epidemic of our time. So, in other words, the traditional Western diet is scientifically correlated to poor health.
For the Western world, your typical dietary intake of 2,000 calories would be broken down into around 50% carbohydrate, 16% fat and a whopping 37% protein. Now, contrast this to the more traditional Eastern diet consisting 70% carbohydrate, 15% fats and 15% protein, and it’s clear to see where these cultures are getting it so right compared to us. Despite consuming roughly the same amount of fat, Eastern cultures traditionally derive a much lower proportion of calories from protein and consume a higher number of carbohydrates.
What really makes the difference here is the type of carbohydrate and protein being consumed. Carbohydrates in most typical Eastern diets are more focused towards whole and fibrous grains with fruits and vegetables that undergo minimal processing. Eastern protein sources are largely legume based. Animal, fish and dairy sources feature minimally (there will be exceptions from culture to culture). Western diets are typically quite the opposite. Processed, lower-fibre and starchy carbohydrates combine alongside protein sources that are almost entirely animal-derived.
In other words, Eastern diets might hold the key to a healthier life. In fact in some countries across Asia and the Middle-East, diseases that are of an epidemic frequency in the UK simply do not exist! Heart disease is a rarity, with obesity most commonly found in ‘westernised’ areas that have been monopolised by larger-scale multinational food companies including Mars, Pepsi, McDonald’s and Burger King.
Make meals an occasion
One of the most prominent lessons from the Eastern cultural ways of eating is the importance of sharing meals with family and friends. More often than not, large plates of food are distributed amongst a gathering. Food is central to social interactions, whereby loved ones come together and revel in the talents of the chef while sharing conversation. After all, what better to unite us than a delicious meal at the end of a day?
I find the same bonding experiences true of eating at vegan supper clubs, or pop-up vegan bring-and-share events in my local area. These are a fantastic way to bond with and meet new like-minded people in your town, plus there’s the added bonus of a delicious feast to share with your new crowd. Why not try searching for a local vegan group online via social media? Feeling creative? Reach out and host a vegan night for family and friends, asking each member to invite a new face to the group.
Meet in the middle
If hot curries aren’t your dish de jour and you’re not a fan of Asian foods in general, then fear not, as there are other Eastern cultural delights for you to discover. Meet in the Middle… East. Middle-Eastern diets are centred on the celebration of vegetables and crafting dishes that are doused in heart-healthy oils, packed full of flavour and are a lighter alternative to traditional Asian foods.
Take inspiration from Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. Armed with a bunch of fresh lemons, a bag full of cumin and as much tahini, garlic and olive oil as humanly possible, you’ll be mastering the art of stuffed vine leaves (dolmas), blitzing up a delicious muhammara, baking your own falafel and then stuffing it all into a pitta with tabbouleh as fast as you can say (or eat the whole batch of) hummus. Middle-Eastern food is already for the most part “accidentally vegan”, with many side dishes, starters and mains being vegetable-based. Dairy is also used sparingly, and could easily be omitted or replaced in recipes to veganise a dish.
Influence your food
What can we take from the traditional Eastern diet as vegans that will help us evolve our diets to not only better our health, but enable us to get a better variety of cuisine into our daily eating habits? Below are my best suggestions for helping introduce a little more East into our Western diets…
On the pulse: Centre your meals on lentils, pulses and legumes. Make these ingredients the star of your dish, as they are packed full of fibre, healthy plant-based proteins and slow-releasing carbohydrates to help regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Eat minimal processed foods: Keep it simple! Try eating meals with ingredients that have been subjected to minimal processing. This way, you reduce the added salt, sugar and fats that modern food processing incorporates into food products. Your gut will also thank you for this! Wholefoods contain more insoluble fibre, which your gut bacteria feed on to help keep your body working at full capacity.
Eat enough. Not too much: Traditions, particularly those of traditional Chinese cultures, dictate that you should eat food with less haste, stopping when you feel full and satisfied. By listening to your body’s hormonal messages from the stomach to the brain, you are less likely to over-eat. The result? Less bloat. More satiety.
Season well: Incorporate spices, herbs and seasoning into every dish you possibly can. This could be as easy as cumin in hummus, turmeric in a smoothie (not as bad as it sounds, trust me!) or paprika on your roasted potatoes. It really is simple to create delicious meals, provided your herbs and spices are in stock! Keep herbs in the freezer to retain their freshness, and store spices away from direct heat and sunlight to preserve their antioxidant powers.
Research and cook: A quick scan over a few recipe books in the world cuisine section of a bookshop will help inspire and guide you on your Eastern culinary adventures. From a simple katsu curry to a more adventurous spiced lentil and pea dhal or a traditional Turkish tajine. Try dedicating Saturday nights to a different cuisine destination and let your taste buds loose, marvelling over the vast flavours and aromas as yet undiscovered.
The spice of life
Looking beyond the composition of the Eastern diet, when we delve into the individual ingredients that each dish contains, we begin to see a greater picture of health. Used traditionally to flavour dishes for centuries, spices are far more commonplace in continental foods than traditional Western dishes. Walking down a traditional Asian spice market is on my bucket list (along with meditating in Tibet and becoming fluent in German, just FYI).
Beyond the flavours that are released that dance on your tongue, utilizing spices in cooking actually allows for their healthful compounds to be released into the goodness of the meal. For example, curcumin, found in turmeric, is rich in antioxidants and health-promoting goodness and the compounds in garlic help promote heart health, circulation and memory.
Herbs and spices contain a vast array of powerful medicinal and healing compounds, which have formed the basis of herbal medicines that are used today. When used in combination, spices and herbs unlock each other’s powers more effectively. So simmering a big, flavoursome stew packed with six or seven different herbs and spices is as close to a witch’s cauldron of goodness as you’ll get.