Choosing to be a vegan didn’t happen to me overnight. It is not like you wake up in the morning, and all of a sudden, you look at yourself in the mirror and decide to save the world by being a vegan. There is also no coincidence to take on the journey to veganism.
I didn’t watch any inspiring vegan movement films and books. I didn’t know any vegan celebrities, filmmakers, and Instagram influencers because neither I don’t follow them nor I have social media account — apart from youtube. I never look at a particular public figure whose campaigns and fights for cruelty-free movement has inspired many to begin with their journey. I just watched a documentary about animal cruelty and veganism after six months of my transitional period of being a vegan. The hero of this journey is me, and I am doing it in my phase and awareness.
Asthma is running wild in my family blood. So inheriting an auto-immune illness has been in my family blood. I was told I have to live with it. Three years ago, I had gout. The unbearable pains from the swollen feet were unbearable. The list went on to several other medical conditions. Advice from a doctor was to cut off red meat consumption and reduce the amount of alcohol. I took it on board. I cut off my red meat diet for good-I gave away my beloved barbeque grill to a friend.
So being a pollo-pescatarian for three years is my transitional period before becoming a vegetarian that led me to veganism. During the three years of ‘the transition’, I grew my curiosity of plant-based ingredients and cooking techniques. My tastebud was quite vanilla. I only cooked and ate what I grew up and familiar.
I watched vegan YouTubers and bought a vegan cookbook not because I wanted to cook vegan food, but it was out of curiosity. There are no single vegan YouTuber nor vegan cookbook writer I look to her/him. Every one of them has different methods and perspective in seeing what vegan food for them. One person is always obsessed with veganising junk food into vegan junk food. The other focus on incorporating replacement ingredients into the vegetarian diet from different cultures to their cooking, such as an Indian saag puree curry, palak paneer dish, usually served with cottage cheese can be replaced with grilled bite size tofu or a Western-style scrambled egg with scrambled tofu. The humble young jackfruit curry I enjoyed when I was a child — we call it gulai nangka — and forgotten in my adult lifetime has risen to fame to create a pulled pork or salmon alike textures to make vegan pulled pork Banh Mi sub-sandwich. Some others utilise the humble middle eastern staple of chickpea into their one-bowl dish of creamy soup or chickpea flour frittata. I found myself watching their cooking shows and reading articles my new hobby.
Despite their differences of approach, all of them seem to have found similar ground in their cooking. They utilise some essential ingredients in their dish as the components to enhance tastes resemblance to egg, meat, cheese, and dairy. Nutritional yeast as a taste enhancer of cheese and nutty and chia seed soaked a few tablespoons of cold water is only one of a few other ways as an egg replacer.
Apart from eating those boring salads, I figured out that you can veganise any meat-based meal. From burger, fried chicken to curry, but don’t expect you’ll meet the same faith as your conventional tastebud of meat. For me, what we taste delicious is about how we change the narrative what delicious means to us. So taste is a matter of perspective developed over times of eating experiences.
Living in the Western world, we’ve never considered Umami as the fifth element in taste before. Umami is also known as the fifty flavours — from the four long-ingrained tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter — is some pleasant savoury flavour derived from a Japanese word of Umai. This umami element is commonly found in dashi stock, a clear stock usually made of bonito fish flakes, kombu kelp seaweed, dried shitake mushroom, and dried sardines. Not until 1990, it was finally recognised as a distinct fifth taste at the International Symposium on glutamate. While the Japanese had used the umami ingredients such as kombu, mushrooms as the main component of Umami, in the Western world, only in 2006 University of Miami neuroscientists validated it as the fifth element.
So here we are now, hearing the word Umami from celebrity chefs and cooking shows like a new toy. Recently, came along the time when the parmesan cheese we love to top on our pasta found its Umami throughout our evolving taste as endless eating experiences.
Being a vegan is about the willingness to explore and experience with the newfound ingredients in our cooking. It is about finding a way — through different cultures — to the new perspective of tastes. It is an exciting journey rather than the perverse ones. There is no right or wrong because you’re entirely in control of your narrative. Honestly, I now and then missed that juicy, crispy fried chicken. But I know it’s not the chicken I missed, but the tastes and textures gained through the cooking process in the chicken I missed. Hence I have my Sunday vegan junk food to allow me to experiment with cooking junk food such as tofu-based vegan crispy fried ‘chicken’. So nothing would stop me from eating junk food delicacies. Only this time, I changed the narrative of junk food itself.
From eating and cooking what I was familiar with, veganism has allowed me to embrace staple ingredients from the different cultural background, such as Middle Eastern and India. Over three years, I discovered the common grounds most vegans use in their cooking. These are my new best friends when I first started my vegan journey:
- Nutritional yeast. It is, in fact, my first best friend. Every vegan knows this vegan product to enhance flavour in any dishes if you want your meal to have a more in-depth taste of cheese and nutty savoury. Go ahead do your little google search the benefit of this yellow flaky things. I love adding it as a final touch on my scrambled tofu before plating it.
- Dried Kombu Kelp and Shiitake Mushrooms. When I’m craving to a bowl of ramen, the dashi stock of kombu and dried shiitake mushroom is a must in your ramen soup along with miso paste. It’s even an excellent replacement for your prawn stock when cooking cruelty-free laksa.
- Miso paste. It comes with different colours with slightly different depth of flavour is known as the main ingredient in the Japanese miso soup. But over the years, I have seen many vegan use them in the Western food to enhance the umami flavour, such as miso braised eggplants, the veganised version of fish and chips, seitan steaks any many more.
- Nori sheets. Assuming most of you a sushi lover, no need an intro. I’ve seen many vegan cooks use them to get the fishy flavour either in its original sheet form or grinding them into a powder. I just love them torn into pieces in a bowl of ramen.
- Seitan made from vital wheat gluten. Though I am not a big fan of anything gluten, sometimes no one can blame you of craving a seitan steak or crispy chicken made out of vital wheat gluten. This high-protein gluten-content flour is the hero of your rubbery wheat-based meats — add some chickpea flour to balance the rubbery dough and increase the protein content. For thousands of years, seitan has been a non-meaty meat staple in China, Korea, Japan, Rusia and the Middle East. Though those vegetarian monks are responsible for popularising seitan, it came to light in 1960. George Ohsawa, a Japanese macrobiotic teacher, penned it down as a wheat gluten product created by Ohsawa’s student Kiyoshi Mokutani.
- Kala namak. Believe it or not, the Himalayan black salt is pink. The term Kala namak is given explicitly to the Himalayan pink, black salt that tastes like eggs.
- Cashew nuts. Who would think blending it in a high-speed blender with water will result in a surprisingly non-dairy cruelty-free cream? It’s a perfect addition into your creamy chickpea soup or pasta carbonara.
It is inspiring to find out that vegan YouTuber is learning from each other. It is an evolving way of life rather than a trendy lifestyle. Most importantly, we are learning from what our ancestors have taught us before. We have been disconnected than ever before since the beginning of humanity. We seem to ignore the facts that meat is never the main staple since hunter-gatherer Paleolithic period, so did the kindness that came after them from Hinduism, Buddhism to early Christianity, and the civilisations that flourished around them. So vegetarianism and veganism isn’t a newfound way of life, but rather the lost one. We only restarted and reconnected what have been taught by our ancestors.
I am learning every day, and so do other vegans who have started before me. I believe ‘the vegan bible’ will continuously develop as we invented a new technique and ingredients as more people are becoming more aware of the benefits. We are what we eat. The three kinds of food in ancient Hindust Upanisad teaches us: of goodness, passion, and violence; that the diets of violence we daily consume come with its consequences in our blood and environment. It is not a sinful act or a forbidden one, but rather a pat on the shoulder of your awareness.
The three kinds of food, why does it sound so familiar to me? Though I’ve never heard of it before. It rang so true not because it is enlightening and inspiring, but because it had been in my blood all of my life, the seed is planted by my ancestors. So, for me, veganism is not a journey to go forward for a better world, but a journey to come back to the roots of humanity. It is indeed, a homecoming journey.