The roots of Vegetarianism

Age-old traditions reveal that the plant-based diet is more than just a fad

Let’s admit it: plants are the best nature has to offer us for our nourishment. And we don’t mean alfalfa sprouts, or avocado, which, however tasty and healthy they may be, are not really environmentally or socially sustainable. What we mean is common-or-garden vegetables: the plants that grow wild in our fields, and the vegetables we have been eating since we were children, with their familiar look and flavour. 

Markets at all latitudes are full of vegetables of all shapes and colours, varying with the season, and the right balance of vegetables and legumes can fulfil all our nutritional needs. There is of course a lot of talk about the veggy diet today, and the trend toward vegetarianism is becoming firmly established in many people’s lifestyles; but if we look back at our culinary traditions, we will see that they have always included a great variety of plant-based dishes. 

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Being a vegetarian was not a fashion in the past: for many people it was a necessity, because meat was a luxury for a privileged few. Others made a conscious choice to abstain from consuming animal protein for religious reasons. Buddhism, for example, does not tolerate the consumption of animal flesh because of its principle of non-violence; for similar reasons, Hinduism, Taoism and Sikhism also require a vegetarian diet. This rule has not, however, prevented the cuisines of these cultures from flourishing, developing their own intense flavours and cruelty-free recipes. 

 

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Saag Paaner, credits: Andrew Zimmern

India, for example, has a well-established vegetarian tradition, enriched by a vast choice of spices and herbs (cumin, cardamom, coriander, cloves, saffron, paprika…), and has produced a long list of delicious dishes which are entirely meat-free. They are not all curries, however much we may associate the strong flavour of curry with Indian cuisine; Saag Paneer, for example, is a traditional dish from northern India made of sautéed spinach and fresh cheese cut into bite-sized pieces, just creamy enough for dipping bits of delicious chapati, the traditional Indian bread cooked in a skillet. And it is only one of countless optionsavailable in the country with the most vegetarians in the world.

Japan’s Buddhist tradition inspired the invention of a particularly interesting vegetarian dish: seitan, also known as ‘wheat meat’ for its meat-like consistency and high protein content. It was already eaten in place of meat by Buddhist monks in the 6th century, and came to the west around 1740. And there is more to the vegetarian tradition in Japan: vegetables are cooked in many ways, for example by pickling them in acidic brine to made tsukemono preserves, or slow-cooking them to make the most of their flavour and consistency. 

The diet in many other Asian countries is also largely plant-based: Korean bibimbap is a bowl of rice, vegetables, noodles and egg, while tempeh is another meat replacement made from yellow soy beans in southeast Asia.

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Bibimbap

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The Middle East is the homeland of chickpeas and mint, of spicy stewed vegetables, where many of the most popular dishes are made from legumes. Such as Koshari, an Egyptian casserole made from rice, chickpeas and lentils, or Ful, a preparation commonly made in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, made by slowly simmering fava beans with onions and garlic, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice, served in abundant portions over bread for breakfast.

 

Back in Europe, we have ratatouille, a traditional dish from Provence that is now back in fashion in the wake of the animated film that came out a few years ago: a vegetable stew including bell peppers, tomatoes, courgettes, onions, garlic and wild greens. Its Italian cousin is ribollita, a traditional Tuscan soup made from vegetables, beans and bread, cooked for hours and reheated at least twice (as the name suggests) before serving it over a bed of homemade bread. The most important ingredient in this traditional recipe, handed down over generations, is cabbage, much in vogue as a superfood today. 

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Rediscovery of traditional vegetarian dishes has an important role to play in a world where growing demand for meat for all is increasingly causing environmental problems and has become a primary cause of the destruction of ecosystems. All we need is less exoticism and more sustainability. Because the fact that an aubergine rarely appears in Instagram photographs doesn’t make it any less noble!

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