The Vegan Experience: Welcome to Year 5

Zucchini and Roasted Tomatoes With Pasta and Dried Olive Flavor Shake

[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

It's March, and this year's Vegan Experience couldn't have come soon enough. It's been a full year since the last one—I decided to shift it by one month going forward so that I get access to different ingredients and seasons—and I am so ready for a month of pure vegetal bliss.

Four years ago, I decided to spend a month sticking to a 100% vegan diet. I enjoyed the experience so much that it permanently changed the way I cook, the way I look at menus, and the way I eat. I decided then and there that I'd adopt a vegetarian-with-occasional-seafood-when-off-duty diet. Unless I specifically needed to eat meat for recipe testing, for reviewing, or when traveling for work, I'd stick to the veg.

There are many reasons why you might choose to maintain a vegan diet or lifestyle. There is evidence that cutting animal products from your diet can improve your health (this is not why I do it). Overall, it is better for the environment than a diet that relies on commercial animal farming. For me, the choice is mainly an ethical one: If we do not need to harm animals to survive, then why should we?*

It worked out pretty well for several years, but I had some major lapses this year, mainly due to one thing: a travel-heavy schedule.

* And let's be clear about something: The idea of completely "good" meat is a euphemism. There may be farms that are better or worse for animals, but there is no plate-destined animal whose life wouldn't be better if it wasn't finished off at the slaughterhouse. Similarly, the egg and dairy industries—even the operations that produce "good" eggs and dairy—are, if anything, worse than the meat industry from an animal welfare perspective. All of those male chicks and calves have to go somewhere, and it's not to Disney World.

Staying Vegan on the Road

Crispy Potato and Chorizo Tacos

Crispy Vegan Potato and Chorizo Tacos.

At home, staying vegan is pretty easy. With a fully stocked vegan pantry, any meal from a snack to a full-blown dinner is a snap. The vegan miracle ingredients I keep on hand bring deep flavor to my meals. If I don't feel like cooking, I don't have to rely on terrible frozen vegan pizza; I know where I can get good food in the neighborhood (thank god for the awesome Japanese and Indian food on the Peninsula!). But I'm not always at home.

This year, my book happened, with all the traveling, eating on the road, and schmoozing that comes with a book tour. I'm currently sitting in a hotel room in Dallas, having just finished a breakfast of huevos rancheros (I'm a sucker for Tex-Mex). They came served with chorizo—I didn't know that when I ordered them, but I ate it anyway. Last night, I had braised greens with grits at Filament, a lovely new Dallas restaurant, but for lunch, I grabbed a burger in the hotel restaurant because I was in a rush, and there were no fast non-meaty options. The day before that, I was invited by barbecue expert J.C. Reid to enjoy some brisket at Roegels in Houston. It was outstanding, as were the pork ribs, pork belly, beef rib, hot link, and boudin that he tacked on to the order. The only vegetable I managed to eat during that meal was a pickle. I'd had nearly the exact same meal the day before in Austin, at Franklin Barbecue (where, if anything, the brisket is even more compelling).

This is a problem I ran into both times I drove across the US: In many parts of the country, dining out while traveling and maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet becomes extremely difficult. You'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant that serves vegan food, beyond an iceberg salad with no dressing, in, say, western Kansas. To be fair, there are some great vegetable-focused destinations in all three of the cities I visited on the Texas leg of my tour (in Austin, Qui does some particularly remarkable things with vegetables), but finding these sorts of spots requires a big investment of time, something which is at a premium when you're both traveling and working.

Of course, there's also the cultural element. When one of the top barbecue authorities in the country invites you to eat barbecue in Texas, do you say no?

For many vegans, the answer is easy: Of course you say no to them. I would say no if I had a little more willpower. I try not to beat myself up about this, but it's difficult. Suffering from "omnivore's guilt" is one of those navel-gazey First World problems that make me want to roll my eyes at myself.

The Solutions

The Ultimate Rich and Creamy Vegan Ramen With Roasted Vegetables and Miso Broth

The Ultimate Rich and Creamy Vegan Ramen.

The solution? Well, there isn't one, really. At least, not a quick one. Traveling makes sticking to vegetables difficult. But there are some major bright spots on the horizon. If the books that have come out and sold well in the last couple of years are any indication, we should all be swimming in vegetables soon. Thug Kitchen was in the top slot on Amazon's cookbook list for what seemed like the entire year (though, honestly, I can't recommend it). Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty and Plenty More were instant best sellers (and deservedly so; they are a couple of my favorite books). The generally meat-and-two-sides America's Test Kitchen put out a vegetarian cookbook last year. Even April Bloomfield, the queen of pigs herself, released A Girl and Her Greens, a book that, while not consisting of 100% vegetarian recipes, definitely plays to our newly rekindled love for roots, stalks, and leaves.

That my annual series of vegan recipes is among my best received year after year is telling as well. Some of my favorite encounters on the road in this past year have been with folks who told me that, despite their typically omnivorous diets, they've found a new appreciation for vegetables and the incredible flavors and textures you can find in them, just as I first did five years ago.

It's you guys I'm really after. The folks who hear "vegan" and instantly think of sprouted hemp and tofu.** I want you to give flavor-forward vegan cooking a chance and realize that it's not just a world of faux foods, meat substitutes, and things that are trying a little too hard to be hamburgers. Some of my vegan recipes are delicious foods that just happen to be vegan. Kale and polenta soup with miso. Sichuan-style blistered green beans. A pasta dish with dried tomatoes, olives, and three kinds of garlic.

** Which, by the way, can both be wonderful if treated right.

Some are vegan versions of dishes that often contain some meat, like my creamy vegan ramen (my favorite ramen recipe of all time!), my Korean fried cauliflower, or this hearty mushroom ragù.

Others are conscious references to form factors you'd be familiar with as a meat eater. In these cases, straight-up imitation is never my goal. Let's face it: Vegetables are never going to taste like meat, so why try to disguise them? I want my vegan burger, my vegan chorizo, my mushroom bacon, and my vegan nacho sauce to taste great not because they taste just like the original thing, but because they are absolutely delicious on their own, whether you typically eat meat or not.

So here's my challenge to the meatheads out there (and I use that term in the most affectionate way possible): I want you to spend not a whole month, not even a whole week, but just three meals this month cooking one of these vegan recipes, and see if it doesn't make you want to eat that way just a bit more often throughout the year.

Top 10 Tips for First-Time Vegans

Grilled Lemongrass and Coriander-Marinated Tofu Vietnamese Sandwiches (Vegan Banh Mi)

Grilled Lemongrass- and Coriander-Marinated Tofu Vietnamese Sandwiches.

Let me leave you with my list of the top 10 things you can do to optimize the chances that your first experience dabbling in vegan food will leave you hungry for more.

  1. Start with an open mind. There's no surer way to guarantee failure than to go into it with a bad attitude. Unfortunately, this is not something that's easy for many folks to do. If you think that going vegan is going to be a punishment or that you won't last, then it will be, and you won't. I hope that this whole series of articles has helped at least a few people realize that it doesn't have to be that way.
  2. If cooking at home, give yourself extra time to cook, particularly at the beginning. For most people, designing meals 100% around vegetables is going to be a completely foreign concept, and one that requires planning and extra time in the kitchen, even for a seasoned pro.
  3. Take a look at your pantry. Is it full of meat-based condiments, dried pasta, rice, potatoes, and the like? If so, you're not going to have a fun time trying to cook. Make sure your pantry stays stocked with plenty of beans and whole grains; hearty, leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collards; and vegan-friendly sauces.
  4. Avoid convenience foods. I've yet to taste a vegan convenience product that I've liked. If all you subsist on as a vegan is bad frozen pizza, frozen vegan burritos, veggie burger patties, and ready-made meals, you will not be a happy eater. Regular frozen foods are bad enough. Vegan ones are simply abysmal.
  5. Take a walk through the produce section. Going vegan is the perfect excuse to load up on all kinds of vegetables that you never regularly ate before. I call it diversity through restriction. As a meat eater, I frequently found myself resorting to the easy stuff—the steak or the burger—avoiding the often-more-interesting vegetable-based options. As a vegan, my diet has become much more diverse and, as such, more enjoyable.
  6. Do not be embarrassed. There has been the occasional moment when I've felt I needed to explain myself, to rationalize to others why I'm doing what I'm doing. "Oh, it's just a writing project" or "Just wanted to know the enemy, you know? Heh heh...", and I never felt good about saying that. On the other hand, when I come right out and say, "It's something I've always wanted to try, because I tend to agree with a lot of vegan philosophy," I end up getting a lot more respect and an interesting discussion out of it, plus the potential to actually impact another person.
  7. If you're going on a road trip, pack food with you. In fact, have snacks and emergency rations available to you at all times. It's not that you'll get hungrier as a vegan (at least, I didn't); it's just that, on the off chance that you do end up missing lunch or forgetting it at home, your options as a vegan on the road or in unfamiliar territory are not good. Some fresh fruit, a good salad, or even trail mix can be a lifesaver in those situations.
  8. So you messed up. Don't sweat it. The key to being a successful vegan is to live the lifestyle as much as is reasonably possible. There may be some who disagree with me on this, but if you've realized that you accidentally ate some butter or that the curry you just tasted had fish sauce in it, don't beat yourself up. Stuck on the road with no prospect of vegan food for the next couple of days? Well, don't starve yourself—just do the best you can. The moment any diet stops being fun is the moment you begin to think it might not be worth it. That said...
  9. Stay strong. The first few days might be tough, but once you get into the swing of things, it becomes easier and easier. It's at the point for me now that, when I think about what to cook for dinner for me and my wife tonight, meat doesn't even enter my mind. (And I don't miss it.)
  10. Don't judge others. So you disagree with someone else's lifestyle choice. So what? You're not perfect, either. The best way to help people and win them over is to teach by action, not by lecturing. Bring some vegan food over or treat them to a vegan meal. If you want to make the change and keep your friends while you're at it, you have to realize that not everybody is at the same place in their life, and not everybody has the same value system as you.