A “vegan” and a “vegetarian” are two different things. That’s one thing you have to get straight. While most vegetarians simply refrain from eating anything that had a heartbeat, but still allow eggs and dairy products, vegans go one further and exclude anything related to animals in any way, shape or form. This means that even though chickens are perfectly happy to lay eggs and bees are glad to make honey, most vegans won’t touch either, based upon the concept that to do so would be to exploit animals. Dairy products are right out.
This presents a challenge for most chefs. Originally you might have been thinking “Just leave the bacon off the breakfast plate, and they’ll be fine.” No, the eggs go too. The pancakes require butter, butter is a dairy product, and did you say “buttermilk” pancakes? Gone. Biscuits and gravy? Is it sausage gravy? Better hold back on that, too. The hash browns? Hope you didn’t fry them in lard! The muffins – did the recipe call for eggs? No, not allowed.
One could hardly blame you if you gave up in frustration and grabbed a handful of raw produce to serve. To be sure, most vegans wouldn’t blame you either. Obviously, they like salad.
Vegans are vegans for any combinations of these reasons:
_Health_ The vegan diet includes whole grains, beans, soy products, olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and fresh spices. Resultantly, they argue, their diet is very high in protein, vitamins, beneficial monounsaturated fats, and antioxidants and other micronutrients, while being moderate in sodium, calories, and saturated fats. In addition, they automatically exclude those scary food contamination problems that strike their meat-eating counterparts, such as e. coli and mad cow disease.
It should be noted that there are essential vitamins missing from the vegan diet, most notably B12, iron, and calcium, which they must supplement by other means. Vitamin-fortified foods or vitamin supplements are usually used.
_Ethics_ Probably the biggest concern is for animal cruelty. Vegans typically wish to exclude any and all forms of “animal exploitation” – not just meat and leather, but even the products that you can obtain from an animal without killing it; because even milking a cow or shearing a sheep for wool is still exploiting an animal for a human’s benefit. This is a belief, when held, which varies in degrees of commitment from philosophy to religion.
_Environmental Responsibility_ The typical environmental impact talks about methane gas from domesticated animals being as bad for the ozone layer as emissions from car exhaust, and about how it takes this many acres of land to sustain one cow where the same acres could more efficiently be used to raise crops, and so on.
_Religion_ While religions which specifically require veganism are rare, several sects of Buddhism still require strict adherence to non-violence, including killing an animal. Parts of different philosophies, which usually focus on reducing the impact one’s life has on the Earth, also suggest or enforce vegan beliefs.
_Aesthetics_ It can certainly be argued, if you’ve been inside a slaughterhouse, that the factory-like process of butchering animals is unpleasant in smell and appearance. Vegans also boast that their food just plain tastes and looks better. They say that the elimination of salt, grease, animal fat, and so on keeps their palette clean enough to taste the real essence of fresh fruit and vegetables.
One wonders where vegans would be without soybeans. Soy forms a big staple in the vegan diet, in the form of soy milk, soy meat substitutes, and tofu. It is interesting that vegans work so hard to create so many things out of soy beans that look, smell, and taste just like the meat and animal products they are trying to eliminate. Anyway, soy substitutes will be a big part of any large vegan banquet, particularly because soy is so easily fortified with other vitamins and nutrients.
International cuisine holds many wonders for the vegan dietary spectrum. In particular, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Southern Indian, Thai, Mesoamerican, East Asian, and East African cuisine have a rich tradition of recipes and dishes which happen to be vegan-friendly. This is due in part to some parts of the world having birthed their culture in a regional area that doesn’t have a handy livestock animal nearby, or just being poor grazing grounds to start with.
But also, many cultures of the world have a wealth of native crops which lend some interesting flavors to the cuisine. At least here, you can be a little envious of vegans – some of them are gourmets in their own right, and can regale you with tales of Indian curry, rice pilaf, almond deserts, salsa, baba ganoush, seven-grain bread, and various other cultural specialties. Particularly in contrast to the typical North American and European Union homogenized diets, which sometimes seem to consist entirely of hamburgers and fries or chips, the vegans certainly get a wider variety of flavors.
A chef can see this as an artistic challenge to be creative within a strict set of rules, and studying some vegan recipes and the menus at vegan restaurants should give you a host of inspiring ideas.
Meat substitute will usually be some form of tofu. Tofu comes in textures ranging from soft, which is about like yogurt or jello in consistency, to very firm, which is more like a hard cheese. Tofu is marvelous because it can take on the taste of virtually anything.
Make tofu bacon by slicing thin strips of hard tofu and frying in a skillet with vegetable oil, adding a couple drops of liquid smoke flavoring. Or grind hard tofu into a good hamburger and chili substitute. The medium-texture tofu can be used for a cheese substitute. And soy, itself, can be made into anything from milk to yogurt to ice cream, some of it tastes as good if not better than its animal exploiting counterpart.
On the whole, cooking for the vegan is more or less like cooking for any other ethnic or religious group which restricts certain things from their diet. A little creativity will win you some big points with your vegan customers, and furthermore will help conquer a niche market. Vegans often mourn the lack of restaurants that cater to their needs. Providing some imaginative menu entries for vegan customers will make a happy patron who spreads good word of mouth to their vegan friends!