Vegan? Here, Have Some Leaves

BY SIMONE VAZ
Jan 06, 2009

Does eating a special diet mean that you have to take your kitchen with you in a cabin bag? It is time for people with specific food requirements to stand up and be counted.

 

Recently, I took a luxury cruise where I spent almost every day going hungry, and later, a cooking class where I ate like a prince and learnt something about being on a special diet while travelling.

I had chosen the cruise line because they promised to provide vegan food. As a practitioner of the macrobiotic (a whole food-based) diet I customarily ask for vegan choices because it takes less explaining that ‘macrobiotics’.

Unfortunately, that promise was just so much…well, sea foam. During the seven-night journey, I was offered, variously, steamed brown rice and raw salad leaves (no dressing); crab quiche; tofu in tomato sauce, followed by lentil soup, and zucchini and tomato stir-fried with brown rice, all with no seasoning at all. That’s it. When I asked for more variety, I was told in no uncertain terms that cooking specially for one person was too much trouble.

Then I went to the macrobiotic cooking school and had my gourmand’s eyes opened. The food was delicious. It had taste, flavour, colour, variety, texture, roundedness. I gobbled my way through each meal, wolfing down, in a most unbecoming manner, pilafs, hearty stews, nut cream sauces, gratins, delicate soups, cakes and puddings. It was hog heaven.

Learning to cook the food showed me that it was not difficult – in fact, it was much easier than producing a Cordon Bleu meal but equally satisfying.

High quality vegetarian food is more than a matter of simple food substitutions. It is about creating a whole new way of cooking based on using a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, seeds and fruits that is as delicious as mainstream cooking.

The food would have been good for most types of diets commonly recommended for a range of chronic conditions – from heart disease and diabetes to auto-immune conditions and cancer. With our ageing Asian population, one would expect that such a diet would be in great demand.

So why is it so difficult to get good quality, whole-grain, vegetarian food, rather than the half-hearted attempts we see everywhere across the region? By this I mean the oily, salty mock meats, the vegetables braised in meat stocks, the spinach lasagnas covered in cheesy béchamel sauce, the stir-friend brown rice with salty oyster sauce, or the vegetable aspic jellies made with animal gelatin.

There are of course many answers. There is not enough demand for high quality vegetarian food, is one. But this is changing with the number of ageing baby boomers (defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) seeking healthier food alternatives as they pass middle age.

One sign of this is the increase in Asia of the total area under organic management 10-fold between 2001 and 2004.

More disposal income as the region’s economies continue to prosper means that people can pay for more expensive, healthier food choices. Indeed, a 2007 study by market research firm TNS had at least 49% of respondents from 11 Asia-Pacific countries say that they would be willing to pay a 10% premium for groceries and services that were environmentally friendly.

But my own personal experience on the cruise ship seems to point to another reason why it is so hard to get a good range of wholesome vegetarian menus – the chefs of the world are slow on the uptake. High quality vegetarian food is more than a matter of simple food substitutions. It is about creating a whole new way of cooking based on using a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, seeds and fruits that is as delicious as mainstream cooking. It requires chefs to put aside everything they have been taught about what constitutes haute cuisine and use their deep knowledge of food and taste to innovate and create healthy vegetarian dishes that would please the most discerning of palates, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike. Perhaps it is the challenge of the unfamiliar that deters them?

Ultimately, it is a chicken-and-egg situation – more demand first, then the food, or vice versa? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. It will likely take many committed consumers and food providers (hoteliers, restaurateurs, caterers and yes, chefs) to push the envelope and breach new frontiers in healthy eating.

Back to my situation on the ship. I should not have accepted the lack of sensitivity to my lifestyle choices. Nor will I be like my friend Barbara, who wheels her cabin bag chock full of vegetarian food wherever she goes. Neither helps the cause. From now on, this is one vegetarian who will push for her right to make her lifestyle choices, and put her money only where travel is a healthy experience – on every level.