I was recently thinking about my friend, Julia, who moved to the United States many years ago from her homeland, Germany. Julia is multi-lingual, and after living and working in California for all of this time, she even thinks and dreams in English. That is fascinating to me, because even after taking two years of Spanish in high school, two years of Spanish in college, and touring with a children’s theatre show that utilized the Spanish language, my Spanish is still very… basic. Let’s just say if you needed to find a bathroom or the library in Mexico, I would be capable of asking a local. Once they gave the answer, you’re on your own.
In a way going vegan is kind of like learning a new language. At first, it’s a struggle. You’re looking over a vegan restaurant menu, and some of the things may seem foreign or new – tempeh, seitan, Daiya, perhaps even quinoa. Or you’re at a diner and flummoxed over how veganism can fit in on a menu of burgers, omelets, and various parts of pigs. Maybe you’re at home and thinking about your regular dinner rotations and in your mind crossing X’s through all of your favorites with a big red marker in your mind.
Then after being vegan for a while you become fluent. It’s seamless. You look over a vegan restaurant menu, and you’ve had all those things dozens of times before. Outside of vegan restaurants, you know which things can trip a person up, and you ask your server ahead of time about chicken broth in the rice, lard in the beans, fish sauce and oyster sauce in the stir-fry, ghee on the na’an… You know how to make easy substitutions, like more vegetables in place of meat on your pasta or to request salsa on your baked potato instead of animal-based butter. It becomes second nature.
That’s why when someone I know is considering going vegan, this is my recommended first step – use the idea of learning a foreign language to your benefit. If I wanted to ask, “Where is the library?” in Mexico, I might need to break down each word. (Okay, my Spanish isn’t that bad, but just go with me here…) First I need the word Where. Dónde. Is. Está. The. La. Library. Biblioteca. I just sub in Spanish for English, and I have, “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” Similarly, it can feel stressful at first when you’re hungry and just want to eat to stare in the refrigerator, think of all of your old habits, and then wonder, what now? Dios mio, tengo hambre.
Instead of eating every meal out at a vegan restaurant or feeling like even a quick lunch requires cracking open a cookbook, think about the 10 meals you regularly eat at home. Then swap out the animal protein with a vegetable protein. Prefer it covered in cheese? Well, there are loads of plant-based cheeses on the market, but when I’m looking for a source of something fatty, rich, and creamy, I opt for avocado or nuts nine times out of ten. After making a list of ten things, maybe it would look something like this, along with the easy swaps I could make:
2. Tacos – fill corn or flour tortillas with pinto or black beans instead of ground beef. Stuff with tomatoes, green leafy lettuce, and onions, and top with avocado or guacamole instead of cheese and sour cream.
3. Pizza – put as many vegetables as possible on your favorite pizza crust. Go cheeseless but add avocado, roasted garlic, salsa, sauerkraut, or hot sauce to add a new zing to the top. (If you’re hesitant to try a cheeseless pizza, check out Daiya mozzarella. It’s available in most grocery stores nowadays. Check the refrigerated health market section of your store or next to the dairy-based cheeses.)
5. Sandwich – instead of tuna salad, break down chickpeas in the food processor or with a fork and mix them with an eggless mayonnaise, diced pickles, and chopped celery. (This homemade tofu-cashew mayo from FatFree Vegan is top notch.) Or do a hummus sandwich with grilled red peppers, red onion, and artichoke hearts.
6. Chili – throw in brown lentils and/or as many varieties of beans as you like instead of ground beef. Top with crushed corn chips or salsa.
7. Stir-fry – buy or make baked tofu or seitan instead of chicken or shrimp and stir-fry with a ton of veggies. Splash on tamari and rice vinegar to taste, top with a handful of cashews and cilantro, and serve with a side of brown rice or over rice noodles.
8. Mediterranean wrap – instead of meat on a kebab, bake falafel, add tahini, hummus, diced tomatoes, and chopped leafy greens. Stuff all of that into lavash, a tortilla, or collard leaf. Serve with prepared dolmas and tabouli.
10. Curry – Instead of meat in the sauce, choose chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, or tofu. Serve with brown basmati rice and cilantro chutney.
With time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner aren’t obstacles. You become fluent in Vegan, and you no longer have to peg in new ingredients into your old habits. It’s just your usual dinner of black bean burritos or your typical breakfast of blueberry-topped oatmeal, and that is deliciously simple in any language.
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