Monday, May 20, 2013

A Vegetarian Rant

I walked out of a foodie gathering last evening with laughter ringing in my ears. Oh, I’m sure it was intended to be friendly laughter, but all the same, they were mocking me.

Vegetarians are not taken seriously in the food community. We are odd, delusional folks who fail to appreciate that meat is the centre of any classy meal. Well, I beg to disagree. Good vegetarian food is creative, flavourful and forward-thinking.

I was a terrible cook until I became a vegetarian. The traditional “meat and two vegetables” led to boring meals with no flavour. As a vegetarian, that standard scenario was turned on its head. Every meal was different – would it be a soup or a stew, savoury pancakes or spring rolls? Meal planning was suddenly way more fun.

Trips to the farmers’ market became an adventure. What could I make with fennel? Why not try arugula on my pizza?

Cookbooks were culinary travel adventures and my spice rack expanded to include flavours from around the world. There was Brazilian Black Bean Soup, Spicy Szechwan Vegetables and Tofu, Samosas, Mushroom Moussaka, Turkish-Style Stuffed Zucchini, and so much more! There was nothing boring about my diet.

Good vegetarian food is flavourful and adventurous. Unfortunately, most vegetarian meals in restaurants are dull and uninspired. Restaurants have one vegetarian option that they serve year in and year out. It’s pasta or gnocchi or eggplant. It’s often bland. You can tell that the chefs aren’t interested.

The excuse they’ll offer – and yes, a top chef offered me this excuse just last night – is that folks in Saskatchewan like their meat and potatoes so that is the focus of restaurant menus.

Well, if that’s the case, why are there so many ethnic restaurants in every city across Saskatchewan and Canada? Locals love going out for Thai, Chinese, Mexican or Indian food. And all those cultures offer great, flavourful vegetarian options.

If chefs can’t make their vegetarian options just as exciting as their meat options, then they’re failing at their job. They’re using meat as a crutch rather than focusing on creating flavourful, inventive dishes of all shapes and sizes.

Times are changing, and people’s attitudes are changing. We’re travelling more and we want to try new dishes and unusual flavours. We’re more health conscious. Sure, we enjoy rich food, but we’re also looking to our chefs to give us tasty food that is also healthy. And many people care deeply about the health of our planet. Raising animals is resource-intensive, depleting and polluting our land and water.

It’s time for chefs to get on board with food that is creative, flavourful, forward-thinking – and possibly vegetarian. Don’t get stuck in a carnivorous rut – explore your options.


Anonymous said...

hmm....never thought of things that way....i have had great luck with vegetarian selections here in alberta -

tho i am not officially veggie - i always say i could be - i often order the veggie option because i prefer the cleaner/lighter/more seasonal selections.

i went to a cooking class yesterday that focused on indian cuisine - and learned that MOST of their population is in fact vegetarian.

maybe you have to come to beef country to get some good vegetarian food! ha ha ha

su :)

Penny McKinlay said...

Edmonton has an amazing food culture - I definitely plan a return visit one of these days!

Anonymous said...

I think that's just a Saskatchewan thing...

Simon Reynolds said...

Well that's embarrassing for that Chef! Vegetarian food has been a staple part of menu's in the UK for decades and I'm still surprised about the meat and potatoes view that still exists here in Saskatchewan.
There will always be a market for meat and potatoes which can be tasty when done correctly.
Things are changing here and you have to adapt and be at the forefront of local food styles to not become a culinary dinosaur (extinct)
Years ago the staple dishes in the UK was a Mushroom stroganoff or vegetable curry and that would be your only choice on the menu and that was on every menu in most restaurants, then in the early 90's things changed and Chefs began adding exciting dishes to menus and now tend to offer complete vegetarian menus alongside the regular menu.
The reality is like most businesses customers vote with their wallet so by offering better quality fresh seasonal dishes you will see the results at the till.
I think the key is to forget this "West side story" meat Vs veggie and just accept there is a market for both...can't we all just get along :)

meshell said...

I remember getting into a "fight" with someone on twitter about that once upon a time (thankfully it was a few years ago.)

Someone took offense that I would dare pair the term "foodie" with "vegan". They thought it was an oxymoron, but I knew different, even then.

I'm with you on this rant. I'm working on changing both the public perception of vegan food, and also the relationship between the local food movement + ethical dining.

I'm glad that things are changing. I've watched them evolve. I lived in Saskatoon in 2007 - 20010, and I discovered so many lovely creative restaurants.

The one thing I've enjoyed doing is connecting with chefs in advance and asking... "can you make me something vegan?" Many of them will. Sometimes it's boring, but sometimes it's amazing.

I hope things keep getting better.

Catherine said...

Thanks for this Penny. I wish Saskatoon had more veggie and international options like Vancouver... but things are slowly getting better.

Anonymous said...

I would very much disagree. We as humans were not meant to be herbivores, nor carnivores, but omnivores. You have to remember that every restaurant is a business, a vegetarian restaurant will not be profitable in a lot of places. If your meals were boring and had no flavour, do not blame the ingredients. There is nothing tastier than organic, humanely raised Berkshire pork. Don't blame the chefs, they are just cooking what they like to eat.