Rabbit food. That’s what my dad calls vegetarian cooking and cuisine. Salads and vegetables – can’t be anything more to it, can there? Oh, but there is. Vegetarian cooking is at least as varied as ‘regular’ cooking – and in some cases, far more imaginative.
Nearly thirty years ago, Diet for a Small Planet, and the follow-up cookbook, Recipes for a Small Planet hit the bookstore shelves with a resounding thud that still echoes. While many of the theories of protein complementarily that Frances Moore Lappe presented have been proven to be naïve by further research, the basic theories of eating and the wonderful meatless – and truly vegetarian – recipes endure. The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest followed, and then an avalanche of cookbooks devoted to the vegetarian gourmet.
Vegetarian cooking is more than just ‘meatless’. There’s an art to mixing flavors and textures in just the right combinations to create masterpieces that are as appealing to carnivores as to those who’ve eschewed meat. For Hindi chefs who practice Ayurvedic cooking, food is more than nutrition – it is a meditation, a gateway to the higher consciousness. There are three major components and six tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent) to be considered in the preparation of every dish, and a meal prepared according to the Ayurveda is a feast for the eyes, the nose, the mouth and the mind.
The very best vegetarian meals are not ‘meatless’ versions of dish that usually has meat in it. ‘Meatless’ lasagna suggests that something is missing from the recipe. Anyone who has dined on spinach lasagna knows that there’s nothing missing – the blend of creamy cheese and spinach and spices is perfect in and of itself. Polenta with spicy black bean sauce has no need of meat to make it more complete – made right it melts on the tongue AND sticks to the ribs at the same time.
Even within the overall umbrella of ‘vegetarian cuisine’ there are variations. Outside Western culture, most meals have little or not meat at all – so it is not surprising to find vegetarian main dishes in Indian and Chinese cuisine, nor in Russian cooking and African regional cuisines. Many base main dish meals on legumes and nuts. Peanut and cashew soups, humus with spices and lemon, fermented black bean sauces ladled over bread and pasta and rice and couscous – Middle Eastern and African cooking offers all of those and more.
If one approaches vegetarian cuisine as a ‘substitute’ for cooking with meat, one is sure to be disappointed. It is a way of eating and cooking, of spices and combinations that can be as light and fluffy as a meringue or as dense and chewy as the best seven grain bread. If you’ve never tried a real vegetarian meal – as opposed to a ‘meatless’ or ‘meat substitute’ – the very best place to start is at your nearest Indian or Middle Eastern restaurant. You’ll be amazed at the flavors and textures – and you won’t even notice that there’s no meat.