Author: Carol Lopez | Every Healthy Bite
Turning traditional dishes into vegan meals is easier than you think. Most of them have a vegan counterpart waiting to be discovered. It only takes a bit of curiosity and a relatively open mind! Here are some of the guiding principles I follow to convert my favorite dishes into delicious vegan meals. Discover how to approach everything from meat replacements, texture, color, and flavor!
Following the most popular reaction of I could never give up cheese, comes the I could never give up traditional cuisines. If you’ve ever had to explain why you follow a vegan diet, these reactions may sound familiar.
For most of us, food is not just food. It signifies culture, comfort, and togetherness. If we think about changing the way we eat, we’re thinking about changing the way we live. And that’s not easy to do unless we have a clear and practical mechanism to transform an evident challenge into a new possibility.
If you’re craving non-vegan traditional dishes, I’m here to share that most of them have a vegan counterpart just waiting to be discovered. It only takes a bit of curiosity and a relatively open mind! Here are some of the guiding principles I follow to convert my favorite dishes into delicious vegan meals.
Sometimes, it’s not even the meat itself that makes it unique, it may be the sauce or the texture.
This is arguably the most crucial step. Observe and identify what makes a traditional dish unique. Then, unpack the original ingredients to pinpoint what makes it special. Is it the deep smoky flavor? Is it a creamy texture? Is it the color or aroma? Sometimes, it’s not even the meat itself that makes it unique, it may be the sauce or the texture. The goal here is to find what makes it irresistible. If this is a dish from your cultural background, watch your family make it and take notes! Otherwise, there are plenty of online resources, like YouTube videos or recipes, that can be extremely helpful.
Even when you think that there might not be a vegan replacement for an ingredient, you’d be surprised by the options available once you do a little research.
If the traditional dish contains meat, you would most likely replace it with tofu, tempeh, seitan, legumes, mushrooms, or jackfruit. Or even meaty vegetables like eggplant, cauliflower, or beets. Your choice will depend on the texture you’re looking for. For example, I use mushrooms to emulate a soft raw fish texture in this Mushroom Ceviche, and tofu instead of chicken in this Peruvian Stew. Even when you think that there might not be a vegan replacement for an ingredient, you’d be surprised by the options available once you do a little research. Condensed milk is one of my favorite examples. You can make condensed milk by reducing plant-based milk and sugar on the stove! Perfect for vegan Alfajores.
Food texture is one of the components that makes dishes unique. If curry is not as creamy, it becomes a stew. If rice is too moist rather than fluffy, it becomes a risotto. Here’s a list of six basic textures and plant-based ingredients you can use to achieve them.
- Creamy: Plant-based milk, plant-based yogurt, tofu (silken, firm, or extra firm), coconut milk, nutritional yeast, olive oil, avocado, and blended cashews.
- Thick: Add soda crackers when blending ingredients for sauces to make them thicker. Or use cornstarch, flour, arrowroot, or tapioca starch as thickening agents. A great example is the use of cornstarch in most stir-fries to prevent the sauce from becoming too watery. When baking, flaxseed egg, applesauce, or mashed bananas are usually used as a thickening and emulsifying agent.
- Crunchy: To make food crunchy, you need high heat! Use vegan butter, olive oil, sesame oil, or any type of oil for that matter, to bake or fry. You can also use bread crumbs to make food crispy.
- Soft: Soft vegan foods include legumes, tofu, carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms, among many others. To make them soft, you need to cook them slowly over medium heat.
- Firm: Examples include seitan, tempeh (much firmer than tofu), veggie burgers, vegan sausages, or raw vegetables. Any type of food that has a bite to it.
- Chewy: This includes ingredients like wheat berries (soft and chewy) or oatmeal. You can use peanut butter, blended dates, or sweet dried fruit to make baked goods chewy.
Fresh and bright colors make meals look appetizing. But sometimes, you may not be able to find the same ingredients locally as the ones used in the traditional recipe you’re trying to emulate. For yellow color, I usually use turmeric or yellow bell pepper. For white color in creams, originally made with dairy products, I use cashews or yogurt. For the red color, paprika or chili powder are your go-to spices. And for the green color, the possibilities are endless. You can use green bell pepper, spinach, basil, mint, or any type of herbs to brighten up any dish!
Get creative! Here’s the time to use plenty of spices and herbs, that’s where you’ll get most of the flavor.
You want to keep as much of the original flavor as possible to make your vegan version taste and look similar. Only replace non-vegan ingredients and try to keep everything else intact.
Get creative! Here’s the time to use plenty of spices and herbs, that’s where you’ll get most of the flavor. To mimic seafood flavors, use seaweed and lemon. For Asian cuisine, I gravitate towards soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce. They’re all vegan. Finally, to find special spices and herbs, visit the international aisle in your local grocery store or international specialty stores.
In most cases, what gives traditional dishes unique flavors is the base of aromatics.
Aromatics are herbs, spices, and vegetables cooked in oil as a base for dishes. In most cases, what gives traditional dishes unique flavors is the base of aromatics. In Peruvian cuisine, for example, a particular yellow pepper called aji Amarillo is often used as a base to achieve a deep flavor and yellow color. Just like soy sauce in Asian cuisine, or curry spices in Indian dishes. Some examples of aromatics include onion, garlic, ginger, spices like paprika, oregano, cumin, and pepper. If you can’t find the same aromatics in your area as the original dish, replace them with something similar in flavor and color.
Your focus should be on trying to replicate as much of the traditional dish uniqueness as possible.
When it comes to turning traditional dishes into vegan meals, you’re not only trying to replicate the texture and flavor, you’re also looking for uniqueness. This may encompass anything from a traditional cooking technique, a locally grown ingredient, or even a particular color. If you go back to your notes, can you spot any unique cooking techniques? A serving method? Or a unique ingredient? Your focus should be on trying to replicate as much of its uniqueness as possible. For example, this Peruvian Green Rice is cooked with beer and water and often served with onion relish and a squeeze of lime juice.
It’s worth noting that the goal is not to recreate a traditional dish with precision. It is to identify what makes a dish unique and bring your vegan take to the mix! You can even make dishes or sauces more versatile and use them in new ways.
The intent is not to replace traditional cuisines, it is to create options that can make a diet transition easier while widening the possibilities of vegan cooking.
Traditional cuisines are deeply linked to cultures that have been engrained over hundreds of years and passed through generations. The intent is not to replace them, it is to create options that can make a diet transition easier while widening the possibilities of vegan cooking.
Now that you’ve learned these simple principles, I encourage you to rethink the way you approach a traditional recipe. Experiment with new ingredients and flavors, and get creative in the kitchen! Vegan food can also be flavorful, rich, creamy, and unique.
For easy and affordable vegan recipes, head over to Every Healthy Bite. You’ll find plenty of delicious plant-based recipes!
Carol Lopez is the creator behind Every Healthy Bite, a health and wellness website focused on nutrition, wellness, and plant-based recipes. Her vegan recipes are easy, quick, healthy, and affordable.