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Monday, July 10, 2006

Vegan World Fusion Cuisine

Next time you happen to be passing through Hawaii (is that four subway stops or five)…

Who am I kidding? Getting to Europe from upstate New York is ten times easier - and cheaper – than traveling to Hawaii. So a visit to Mark Reinfeld's Blossoming Lotus restaurants and his ideas of Vegan Fusion cuisine isn't likely to happen real soon. (Though maybe the one in Portland, OR, or the one coming soon to Mountain View, CA.)

What I really liked is the ideas in Jeff Yang's article on musing about what is needed to attract people to vegan foods, using Reinfeld's restaurants as a launching pad.

Unfortunately, for those of us used to the ways of the flesh, the vegan path is a difficult one to walk. I have my share of veggie friends and relatives -- Hindus, Buddhists and health junkies -- and I've tried to make the transition. But meat and dairy, like any other delightfully unhealthy addiction, are hard habits to break, and the vegan equivalent of nicotine patches -- the meat and dairy substitutes that vegans call analogues -- are consistent in that they provide an experience that's almost totally unlike the products they're trying to emulate. (In fact, the only thing that doesn't taste like chicken when you cook it is vegan "chikken.")

There are other problems with analogues. As anyone who's ever eaten at a Buddhist-style Chinese restaurant knows, the art and science of getting things that are not meat to look, feel and taste like meat often involves saturating perfectly good vegetable matter with sodium, fats and nitrates. And at the end of the day, there's something a bit dubious about going vegan but relying excessively on the crutch of "veat." ...

[At the restaurants] It's all market-fresh fare prepared according to strict vegan principles, incorporating a diverse and cross-pollinated variety of cooking styles and flavors. The vegan world fusion palette intersperses Asian ingredients from Indian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese food traditions with those of Greek, Italian and Tex-Mex cuisine. Though the names of the dishes are familiar (spanakopita, burritos, pasta and spring rolls all make an appearance), the focus is on flavor rather than verisimilitude: Analogues are used sparingly, though the references to "cheez" and "mylk" still pop up on occasion. …

Good vegan food is something totally different -- inspired by carnivore cuisine but in a category unto itself, a bold variation on the theme. And that, ultimately, is Blossoming Lotus's big magical secret. …

"At the end of the day, we want to offer this option as just another alternative," says [Reinfeld's partner] Zingaro. "We're not asking you to 'convert.' We're not preaching to you. It's really great food -- enjoy it! And maybe if you enjoy it enough, you'll make the decision to go vegan on your own."

That's the right philosophy, and one that all of the pioneers trying to develop dairy-free versions of foods should take to heart. I don't eat bad versions of "normal" food: I make my own dishes designed not to need dairy to taste right. Dairy-free isn't a punishment. It's an excuse to release your creativity. If you're lactose intolerant, or allergic, or vegan, pamper your taste buds with fresh foods and creative combinations. Or at least seek out those who do it well.

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