You’ll know the feeling if you’ve done it: scanning a menu for anything you can eat, weighing up the pros and cons of dropping the V-bomb with your waiter. Is this the kind of place that will sneer if I ask for no parmesan? Is this a V-friendly zone? Even typing this sounds ridiculous, yet it’s true: the overwhelming feeling for vegans being catered for is that they are a pain in the pork cheek.
Most vegans are familiar by now with US chef Anthony Bourdain’s much-quoted tarring of vegetarians and their “Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans…[as] the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” That was 13 years ago, but it seems veganism remains something of a profanity to the majority of chefs, and I think I’ve worked out why: meat is still perceived as the center of every meal in western cuisines. If not meat, then at least fish or a hefty slab of goat’s cheese. It’s the focus, the literal pièce de résistance and the chance to be totally ostentatious. I’ve never heard anyone muse over puy lentils in the same way people wax lyrical about pulled pork or marinated chicken, although they offer a similar source of nutrition to a diet.
But there are plenty of cuisines that know that sometimes it’s the legumes and nuts and vegetables that can hold center stage, and that a meal doesn’t immediately reach that status by whacking a portion of meat on it. Whether it’s Italy’s love affair with the white truffle mushroom, the coconuts that both feed and house families across Sri Lanka or the legends surrounding the origins of tofu in ancient China over 2,000 years ago, there are entire continents where meat and dairy may not have always been practical to farm or suitable for the climate, so meal times have evolved in a different way, focusing on what can be cultivated, and celebrating it. These are traditions that have been made to make the most of what is available- that turn tricky customers like aubergines into the reason you fought over second helpings and sort of really meant it.
It’s a myth ready for a revamp that so-called foodies and die-hard meat-eaters are mutually exclusive. Opting out of consuming animal products and bi-products doesn’t have to change how committed you are to finding that ONE PERFECT CHURRO. Take the cookbooks that line my kitchen- they’re not written for vegans or even vegetarians, but instead feature recipes that are meat, dairy and egg-free through default. Indian, Turkish, Polish and Palestinian foods are just a few of the cuisines I feel like I’ve only just touched the surface with, and they’re some of the tastiest, intricate recipes I’ve ever come across.
From thick stews and glorious dals to seemingly endless mezzes, when you step off the beaten track of traditional restaurant cuisine in the Western Hemisphere, you realize there’s a wealth of naturally vegan food that’s been feeding the world for thousands of years. Yes, times have changed since the inception of tofu, and many people across the globe can now fill their shopping trolley with whatever they fancy, any time of year, but just because it’s available doesn’t mean you have to eat it.
While vegans remain in a minority, I think it’s vital that people start taking their choice seriously. It’s an absurd notion that only certain chefs understand what ‘real food’ is, or that anyone should feel too intimidated to use the ‘V-word’ in a restaurant. Shake up your dinner and make a vegan option the pièce de résistance. After all, meat doesn’t have to make a meal, and there should be plenty to go round without it.
Here’s a recipe that shows precisely what I’m talking about, with frijoles refritos- refried beans- at the center. As a staple Mexican food, they’re rich, nutritious, filling and have a deliciously moreish flavor none of my friends can get enough of. Starting with the beans, you could add a fresh salsa, guacamole, chili-roasted potatoes or corn relish- and all of a sudden you’ve got an entire meal for everyone. This time around I chose to add homemade pickled-pink onions, toasted tacos and shredded raw vegetables for some crunch. You can easily turn this recipe gluten free by using traditional, masa harina flour tortillas, and it’s already soy free.
Makes 12 tacos
For the pickled-pink onions:
- 2 firm red onions, sliced into rings
- ¼ cup organic white sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 cup apple cider or white wine vinegar
- ½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¼ cup peppercorns if available
For the refried beans:
- Vegetable oil
- 1 large white onion, chopped small
- 1 tsp chili flakes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp chipotle paste (or use a chopped chipotle chili if you have one)
- Salt and pepper
- 2x 29oz tin black eyed beans (around 800g)- retain a little of the liquid from the tin to cook the beans in.
- Plus 12 small tortillas and around 4 cups of shredded vegetables, such as a mix of carrots, cabbage, lettuce and cucumber.
- Sweetcorn, chopped cilantro and sliced scallions for garnish
The pickled onions take about an hour to turn pink, so it’s good to get them on the go first. Place the onions in a medium bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover them. Count to ten, then drain the onions and add them to a glass bowl or jar and set aside.
In a small pan over medium heat, whisk the sugar, salt, vinegar and lime juice until the sugar and salt dissolves. Now pour over the onions, adding the peppercorns if using, and leave for at least an hour, until the onions turn a great shade of pink and have cooled. Use as needed.
The hour the onions take to pickle is the perfect time to make the refried beans and prepare the other taco components.
Starting with the refried beans, in a pan with a few glugs of oil, gently fry the chopped white onion for around 5 minutes, until it goes soft and translucent. Add the chili flakes, bay leaf and chipotle paste, and salt and pepper, and fry for another 2 minutes. Now add the black eyed beans along with a little more oil and bring to a simmer.
Simmer for around 10 minutes, then once the beans are cooked through, turn off the heat of the pan and take out the bay leaf. Using a potato masher or the back of a fork, mash the beans to form a rough paste.
Now add back to the frying pan and cook on a low heat to allow all the flavors to intensify. Check for seasoning and add a little more salt, pepper or chili flakes if you fancy it. This will happily fry away for about 10 more minutes.
I like to use mini tortillas as they are easier to toast at home- just heat a griddle with about a teaspoon of oil and grill either side for about a minute. Make sure the tortillas stay warm so they can be easily folded, so keep wrapped in a tea towel until you’re ready to assemble the tacos. Then, holding the taco in your hand, just add a spoonful of the refried beans and a handful of the raw shredded vegetables. Top off with any extras and the homemade pickled onions, and eat straight away.