Demystifying Vegan Foods
by Dani Taylor
So you've decided to take the next steps towards a plant-based diet. Perhaps you've cut out dairy, and replaced it with almond milk and are feeling pretty good about your progress. You've decided to peruse some vegan cookbooks and implement a new recipe every week! Learning to cook without animal products should be a fun new challenge, right?
Upon your scanning, however, you're greeted with words you've never heard of, and pictures of ingredients that are utterly foreign to you. Tempeh? Kombucha? Umeboshi? At first glance, this may be enough to make you think you've made the wrong move. But fear not - today we will be talking about some of the unusual vegan foods you've never tried before and why you may want to!
Vegan foods are, simply put, foods made out of plants. So, why does a concept so simple seem to come with so many things you’ve never heard of before? You can certainly eat a vegan diet comprised of rice, beans, broccoli, and bananas - the usual suspects - without issue. But when you consider that many cultures worldwide adopt a mostly plant-based diet, the world of cuisine can completely open up for you beyond the standard American fare if you’re willing to be a little adventurous.
Here, in no particular order, are some descriptions of ingredients that you are sure to come across on your vegan journey:
Tempeh - A brick of soybeans that have been pressed into a cake and fermented. It has an earthy, nutty flavor and takes on the flavor of whatever you cook with it. This ingredient is excellent for making a "fakin' bacon" in BLT sandwiches.
Seitan - Sometimes referred to as "wheat meat," seitan is made of the protein found in wheat flour and has a very meaty texture and is high in protein. Seitan dates back to ancient China but is still found in many mock meat recipes today. You can buy seitan in the store or learn to make it yourself!
Nutritional Yeast - Unlike brewers or active yeast, nutritional yeast is not alive. It is used as a seasoning or an ingredient to add a nutty, cheesy flavor to dishes. Often lovingly referred to as "nooch," this can be added to pasta, pizza, popcorn, tofu scramble, steamed broccoli, and so many other foods. It is also high in protein and B vitamins.
Miso - Mostly known for its very popular Japanese soup, miso itself is not a soup but is a fermented soybean paste that is very salty and flavorful. Miso can be used to make broths, dressings, sauces, and soups.
Agar-Agar - This is a sea vegetable that is used to replace gelatin in recipes, and to thicken sauces.
Aquafaba - If there was ever such a thing as vegan magic, this is it. Literally translated to "bean water," aquafaba is the liquid from a can of chickpeas. When this liquid is whipped, it becomes fluffy and similarly forms stiff peaks to egg whites. You can use aquafaba to make meringues, marshmallows, fluffy vegan omelets, and so much more.
Jackfruit - Growing predominantly in southeast Asia, jackfruit is a giant fruit that has a very neutral flavor and takes on the flavors with which it is cooked. It can have a meaty texture and is popular in vegan "pulled pork" recipes.
Textured Vegetable Protein - Sometimes called TVP is defatted soy flour that has been dehydrated. When rehydrated with broth or water, it developed a very chewy texture that lends itself to chilis and stews quite well. TVP is an affordable, incredibly versatile, high in protein food.
Edamame - Soybeans! Edamame is just the word for whole soybeans, often still in the pod.
Kombu - Seaweed and sea vegetables can be a large part of some vegan diets. In addition to being used in soups and stews, kombu is also used to help reduce gassiness when eating beans. Kombu contains an enzyme that can break down the indigestible starches in beans when cooked together.
Stevia - Naturally very sweet, but with no calories, stevia is an herb that can be used to sweeten dishes and drinks without adding calories.
Flax Eggs - When ground flax seeds are mixed with water, they become gelatinous and can replace eggs in some baked recipes.
Kombucha - Black tea that is fermented and sweetened with fruit, kombucha has a slightly fizzy, slightly vinegary taste. Although it’s an acquired taste, one of the reasons people love it is because it is high in probiotics and presumably good for gut health.
Tamari - If you like Chinese soy sauce, you will probably like the Japanese version, which is tamari. The main difference between soy sauce and tamari is that soy sauce also contains wheat, but tamari is purely made from soybeans.
Kimchi - A staple in Korean cuisine, kimchi is a traditional side dish of salted and pickled and fermented vegetables. It is made with a widely varying selection of seasonings and can be either spicy or mild.
Spirulina - One of the most nutritious foods on the planet, spirulina is a supplement made from blue-green algae. Although it is sometimes taken in pill form, it can also be used in smoothies and salad dressings to boost the nutrient content of a recipe.
Chia Seeds - Ch-ch-ch-chia! Yes, the chia seeds used to make funny pets in the nineties are the same chia seeds vegans put in their overnight oats. Chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats. When hydrated, they also take on a slightly gelatinous texture that lends itself to puddings and desserts quite well.
Umeboshi - Umeboshi are fermented or pickled plums made from young sour Japanese fruit that's a cross between an apricot and a plum. It can be found in plum, paste, or vinegar form and is often used as a condiment in Japanese dishes.
Vegan Pepperoni, Vegan Cheese, Vegan Beef, etc. - One of the most common things you will find as you venture into vegan communities is that there is a vegan version of nearly everything. You will hear the word "vegan" in front of things you may never have expected. It's a great time to be vegan!
Making lifestyle changes can be overwhelming. Hopefully, this list helps to demystify some new foods for you. Next time you come across a recipe with a food that's new to you, don't be afraid to give it a try. You might find something new that you love!