A Hamburger Today

The Vegan Experience, Day 11: Diversity Through Restriction

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Days 11: Tuesday

Breakfast: An avocado with good crunchy salt.
Lunch: Chow fun noodles with bok choy and Chinese chives in fermented black bean sauce.
Dinner: Bok choy and Chinese chives in fermented black bean sauce with chow fun noodles (note: this is not the same as what I had for lunch. More on this on Friday).

On Day 3 of The Vegan Experience, I noted that when dining out, I often felt that I was always missing something, like a second class citizen who would only be begrudgingly catered to.

But as the days have progressed, I've come to realize that with just a tiny bit of planning, it's in fact the opposite: my food choices have actually diversified since beginning my one month abstention from animal products.

How does that make any sense? Surely, the more options and fewer restrictions I have, the more diverse my diet will be, right? For some people, that may be true. Many of you omnivores probably think it's true for you as well. If you'd asked me two weeks ago whether I'd be eating more foods or fewer foods once my diet kicked in, I would have said fewer for sure.

Let me give you a couple scenarios.

The Late Night Snack

Sunday night I was walking towards a subway station in Midtown after catching the second half of the Giants game at a bar, a bar that serves absolutely zero vegan-friendly options. With only a couple (vegan) beers in my belly, I was pretty hungry. On a normal night, I would've beelined to the nearest slice shop, grabbed a slice to go, and downed it on my way to the train station.

As a vegan, I didn't have that option. So what'd I do?

I ended up walking into the Maoz (careful, the site plays music when you open it) branch in Times Square.

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Awesome falafel from Maoz [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The shameful truth is that despite all the great things we've said about it on Serious Eats, I'd never personally been there. The pizza place always calls my name just a bit too strongly.

Here's news: Maoz is freaking fantastic.

Crisp freshly fried falafel, warm pita, and an all-you-can-stuff-in-your-pita salad bar the likes of which I've not seen anywhere, packed with things like pickled baby eggplants, herby tabouleh, vinegary marinated beets, chickpea salad, and a great spicy green cilantro sauce. I can tell you for certain that even after I'm back to being an omnivore, I'll be returning to Maoz any time I'm hungry within a five-block radius of one, pizzerias be damned.

The Dinner With Friends

I wouldn't say that restaurant menus lack diversity, but I would definitely say there are certain dishes that entice me more than others. On the high-end cuisine end of the spectrum, if there's slow-cooked pork or offal on the menu, I'm ordering it, no matter what. Striped bass or braised octopus? It's got my name all over it. I'm not saying that more mild mannered vegetable options don't appeal to me—they do, and occasionally I'll give in and order them (in general, if a high end place offers a legit vegetarian tasting menu, I'll order it over the regular tasting menu), but the majority of the time when dining out, it's offal and pork for me.

Similar things happen at mid-range restaurants: I'll waffle around, get flustered when the waiter asks me what I want, and settle for the easy cheeseburger option (and hey, if I can get a review for A Hamburger Today out of my lunch, why not?).

What this means is that despite the fact that I eat out as part of my living, many of these meals consist of some variation of hamburger, slow-cooked pork, or offal. These ingredients can be cooked in a crazy number of different ways, but they're still just variations on the theme.

Now that I've switched to ordering just vegetables, it's more clear than ever that vegetables are simple more diverse in their flavor and texture than their meaty counterparts, and oftentimes more interesting and delicious for it.

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Balaboosta's hummus [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I'd had the lamb burger at Balaboosta a number of times, but darned if I won't start ordering the Crispy Cauliflower with Currants, Pine Nuts & Lemon from time to time in the future. Red Egg has great meaty dim sum, but hey—turns out they have some pretty great vegetarian dim sum and lunch options as well.

A couple weeks ago you wouldn't have caught me dead in a raw food, organic vegan restaurant like Gingersnap's Organic in the East Village, but I headed there for lunch with Ed on Monday just to see what it's like, and—hey!—turns out raw food can be tasty. I wouldn't choose their cauliflower-based makizushi over the real deal (luckily, much of real sushi is vegan-friendly),* but their Caesar salad dressed with a ground sunflower-seed based dressing and their coconut-chocolate pie can easily compete with similar quick and inexpensive lunches in the area.

*And I'll say mum about my thoughts on shady "science" behind the actual benefits of raw food.

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Exquisite food from Kajitsu [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

There are some caveats to these scenarios. You have to go to a restaurant where the chef understands, respects, and knows how to cook vegetables. My dinner at Kajitsu was one of the most memorable and delicious I've ever had (see my [glowing] review here), and served at a restaurant I most likely would have never gotten around to dining at had it not been for this diet.

My selection of inexpertly grilled vegetable side dishes from the meat-centric St. Anselm? Not so much. You've still gotta do your research before heading out. As a vegan, you can't default to the easy meat options, making dining out much more adventurous, and oftentimes much more delicious as well.

The Quick Meal At Home

It's not like I ate a monochromatic diet of braised pork and hamburgers before. As I've said a number of times, at home most of the meals I cook for my wife and myself are largely vegetable and grain-based with a small amount of meat usually used as accent.

When I first went vegan, what did I do? I filled up that empty meat-shaped hole with extra carbs, for which I got promptly (and rightfully) reamed out. Since then, I've changed my cooking habits. Rather than relying on starchy staples, I've taken to raiding the vegetable aisle of the supermarket or hitting the farmers' market more frequently, loading up on everything that catches my eyes.

Meat and refined carbs are by nature more calorically dense than most vegetables, which means that when you shift to a mostly vegetable diet, you have to eat more in order to get the same amount of energy. And with more food to eat, you get far more chances each day to diversify and experiment.

I hit the supermarket or farmers' market about once every three days. Before I went vegan, a typical shopping list might have looked like this: a few onions, some plantains, some mushrooms, a box of arugula, a bunch of spinach, carrots, celery, and an herb or two along with a can of tomatoes, a can of beans, a box of pasta, a bag of rice, and a half pound or so of some kind of meat (let's say pork shoulder or beef chuck).

Since becoming vegan, my shopping list has not only grown, but it's diversified. Just today I came home with: an eggplant, zucchini, a few cucumbers, mushrooms, scallions, bok choy, a box of mesclun mix, some onions, flowering chives, Chinese chives, carrots, jicama, avocados, celery, parsley, cilantro, corn tortillas, canned tomatoes, canned chickpeas, canned kidney beans, canned black beans, and a bag of freshly steamed chow fun noodles.

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Lots of vegetables with a little chow fun[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

So by making a restriction in my diet, I've actually diversified my typical shopping list from seven varieties of fresh vegetables to 14, from one fresh herb to two, from two varieties of canned vegetables to four. Does giving up the meat seem so bad in that context?

As I've said, I'm not planning on keeping to this vegan diet forever—I'm interested in what it's really like and what possible benefits it might have for a devout omnivore like myself. I didn't go into this expecting to be changed, but I can tell you already that I've discovered many things that will stick with me long after that first bite of pizza breaks my animal-fast.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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