A few weeks ago a friend suggested we meet for a quick bite at Veggie Grill before seeing a movie in the same mall. “What’s Veggie Grill?” I emailed my friend. “Kind of fast-food vegan but clean and cheap,” she e-mailed back.
I arrived hungry. But my heart sank when I read the menu. Very little on it looked (or sounded) like food, let alone vegetables; The Veggie Grill’s specialties are “chillin’ chicken” and “veggie steak.” Menu favorites include Chill Out Wings, Thai Chickin’ salad and an array of sandwiches and burgers made with these same “specially seasoned and marinated veggie protein blends.” The menu said that all of the salads were “infused with quinoa” but I couldn’t understand how anything could be infused with a whole grain. Surely they meant “peppered.”
I sighed and ordered the Chop-Chop Chef Salad. If my salad was infused or peppered with anything, it was garlic powder, one of my least favorite tastes in all of bad cooking. Under the muted mall lighting it was a little too dark to make out the ingredients in front of me. I tasted tempeh, an acquired taste that I have never acquired, so I left most of that on the plate. I picked through the romaine and took a forkful of another “veggie protein blend.” All I could think of was my favorite French word for repugnant food: infect, meaning “foul.” I ate the lettuce, left everything else on the plate, went to the movies and dined on popcorn.
Veggie ‘meat’ is highly processed food
Veggie Grill, which operates four eateries in L.A. and Orange counties, boasts its menu is 100 percent plant-based with absolutely no cholesterol, animal fat, trans fat or high-fructose corn syrup. That may be true. But make no mistake: veggie “meat” is highly processed food. Here are the ingredients in “chillin’ chicken”: water, isolated soy protein, vital wheat gluten, natural flavors, modified vegetable gum, potato starch, expeller pressed canola oil, pea protein, carrot fiber, organic beet root fiber, organic evaporated cane juice, yeast extract, sea salt (100 grams of chillin’ chicken, or one serving, has 470 mg of sodium, which is a lot of salt for one ingredient in a dish). Veggie-steak? Same stuff, minus the modified vegetable gum, potato starch and canola oil. What is natural or whole or fresh about any of these? Nearly every one of those ingredients is processed in some fashion: a lab, not a human digestive system, pulled the protein out of the soy, the “vital” gluten out of wheat, the fiber out of the organic beet roots and (presumably not organic) carrots, the protein out of the peas.
Why turn to fake food for vegan meals when so many plant-based dishes that actually taste good already exist? Restaurant chains would do better to send their R&D people around the world and have them read cookbooks rather than the latest food industry publications. They might draw inspiration from the incredible vegetarian street food in India or a hearty Tunisian meal of couscous served with a spicy tagine of winter vegetables and chickpeas and greens. These meals beg for no meat or cheese, real or manufactured, to feel complete. When I eat in Middle Eastern restaurants, all I want are the mezze — hummus, baba ganoush, muhammara, fattoush, tabouli, deep-fried cauliflower, falafel — not because I’m vegan (I’m not), but because they’re incredibly, intensely flavorful.
The Greeks have been fasting in accordance with the Orthodox calendar for hundreds of years, and they have an extraordinary repertoire of high-protein vegan dishes. For a little less than half the year (48 days before Easter, 40 days before Christmas, and various lesser fasting periods) observant Greeks abstain from all animal products except certain shellfish and mollusks. The range of bean and vegetable main dishes in the Greek repertoire is striking; every region has its specialties. Extremely healthy, these dishes contain no saturated fat whatsoever and lots of fiber. Many of the traditional dishes are called “olive oil dishes” (ladera) because they’re cooked with copious amounts of extra virgin olive oil. I tone it down a bit in my recipes, but still use enough so that when the beans and/or vegetables simmer in the oil and liquid in the pot, the broth is alchemized to a velvety sauce.
Tofu has a long and delicious culinary tradition in Asian cuisines. It may be stir-fried with rice, noodles and vegetables, or simmered in a miso soup, or eaten cold, with dipping sauces — but it isn’t turned into some kind of fake “meat” with a made up name, and it’s no substitute for cheese (As Deborah Madison says so eloquently in her classic, “Vegetarian Cooking for Everybody”: “I like tofu, but not in my lasagna.”). It is what it is. Which is what food should be.
This problem with vegetarian cooking is nothing new. Soy burgers have been around since the ’70s, when I began my career as a vegetarian cook, and probably longer. I think it stems from a fixation on protein and the notion that meat is the only viable source. If you stopped eating meat in the ’70s, the first question your mother asked was “how are you going to get enough protein?” Never mind that we as a nation probably get too much protein to begin with. It didn’t occur to most cooks at that time to look to other culinary traditions for the answer, but today we have lots of exposure to the world’s cuisines. Now there is no excuse for “chillin’ chicken” and “veggie steak.”