I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published May 7th 2013
Secret ingredients that will keep everyone happy
Vegetarianism, the practice of eschewing edibles made of meat, fish or eggs in favour of a purely plant-based diet, has been practised in human society for thousands of years. For devout Hindus, Buddhists and people following other Eastern religions, a vegetarian diet is an integral part of their lifestyle, supported by complex spiritual and cultural rationales. In contrast, here in the Western world a meat-free diet has only been common since the counter-culture revolution of the sixties espoused alternate ways of living, often inspired by Eastern traditions, and has slowly spread to a point where people of all ages and walks of life have consciously chosen to follow it.
It's not so difficult to cook delicious vegetarian meals.
Taking vegetarianism one step further, a vegan diet avoids any animal by-products at all, including dairy products and sometimes even honey. While some people may recoil in horror at such dietary choices, most vegetarians and vegans can't imagine living any other way, focusing instead on its ethical, health and spiritual benefits. Although frequently challenged with questions like, 'If you don't eat meat, what DO you eat?', vegetarians and vegans enjoy diets which are rich with variety, flavour and nutrition.
One challenge that new vegetarians and vegans sometimes encounter is how to cook their favourite meals, albeit without the ingredients that they're now trying to avoid. Another is experienced when only one or a couple of members in a family decide to change their diet: how can the cook make delicious meals that everyone will love, but not compromise his or her own decision to go meat-free?
A delicious vegan stew
Experienced vegetarians and vegans have encountered these challenges on many occasions, and know various tricks which produce results so sumptuous that even the most determined carnivore won't notice that his or her meal is meat-free. While some of these have been used for centuries in traditional Asian vegetarian cuisine, others are more recent additions to the vegetarian chef's repertoire. The following paragraphs list some handy-to-know vegetarian substitutes for common cooking ingredients. Give them a try when you prepare your next vegetarian or vegan meal, and taste the difference.
Tofu A derivative of soya beans, tofu is an integral ingredient in the cooking of most Asian cultures. A rich source of nutrients including protein, iron and calcium, it's perfect for vegans and vegetarians who are concerned about following a balanced diet. My favourite way to cook tofu is to shallow fry it, after which I add it to anything from stir fries and curries to salads. Tofu burgers are also delicious and easy to prepare. The only difference from a hamburger is that the traditional meat patty is substituted with a slice of shallow-fried tofu.
These days, tofu is widely available, at least in larger cities and towns. Although there are many types of tofu, in Australia the most common are silken or firm. I personally use the firmer kind as I find this easier to cook with. Tofu can be purchased at most larger supermarkets, health food stores and oriental grocers.
Tofu is usually purchased in blocks like this which you them cut up as desired.
A hearty home-made tofu stew.
Tempeh Tempeh is also made from soya beans, although its texture and nutty taste are quite distinct from that of tofu. To make tempeh, soya beans are cooked and slightly fermented, after which they are formed into a patty. High in calcium and protein as well as many other nutrients, it can be added to stir-fries, curries and stews in the place of meat, or used as a vegetarian option in burgers. In Australia it's slightly harder to get hold of than tofu, but can usually be found at most well-stocked supermarkets, delis, organic shops and health food outlets. Tofu is popular with both vegetarians and vegans, and is a great ingredient to use if you're cooking for a fussy eater.
Paneer (also known as milk curd or fresh cottage cheese) Extremely popular in Indian cuisine, paneer is created when milk is curdled, separating the solids from the whey. Although it's not quite the same, ricotta cheese is somewhat similar and can be used in some recipes, if 'scrambled' paneer is required. Although paneer can sometimes be purchased from Indian grocers, it's also quite easy to make. All you need to do is boil a few litres of whole cream milk (not skim or low fat), turn the temperature down very low, and slowly add a curdling agent such as lemon juice, yoghurt, butter-milk or citric acid. When the whey is a clear yellowish colour you'll know the curdling process is complete. You then need to separate the solids from the whey by straining them through a colander. When this is done, I usually press my paneer with a slightly heavy weight to make it firm. While a short period of time is usually sufficient for scrambled paneer, I'll leave it for an hour or two if I'm needing larger, more solid chunks for stews or paneer burgers.
The humble brown lentil is easy to source, cheap to buy and if cooked properly is a tasty and nutritious meat substitute. I use lentils in a variety of ways in my cooking: in hearty soups, home-made curries and in vegetable casseroles. Mashed lentils have a similar appearance to mince meat, and therefore I sometimes add them to my pasta sauces or in vegetarian lasagne. They're also wonderful in a vegetarian shepherd's pie: instead of meat, just substitute an equivalent amount of cooked lentils to the recipe. Dried lentils have a long shelf life, and I always keep a few cans of lentils in my kitchen cupboard as well since they're so tasty and nutritious.
TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) Another soya product, TVP is also known as Textured Vegetable Protein, and is available in various forms. My family mainly purchase it in flakes which, when boiling water is added, take on the appearance and texture of mince meat. I like to use these when I cook vegetarian lasagne or spaghetti bolognaise. When I've cooked these recipes for omnivorous friends and relatives, they've absolutely loved the result, so I strongly recommend trying this product.
TVP is also available as small chunks, which are sometimes called soya chunks, depending on where you happen to be shopping. Like the flakes, you simply place the product in a bowl and cover it with boiling water. Alternatively, you can boil the chunks in a saucepan for several minutes until they're soft and squishy after which they can be added to whatever you're cooking. They're great in all sorts of recipes including soups, curries and casseroles, and can really bulk up a recipe if you're cooking for large numbers.
TVP flakes, as they look before boiling water is added.
By adding boiling water to the flakes, they will swell and take on an appearance similat to mince meat.
The TVP should look something like this when the water is strained off.
Kofta balls are a popular snack food in India and are the perfect vegetarian substitute for meat balls. They're absolutely delicious served with a sweet, lightly spiced tomato chutney. Kofta balls can be made in various ways, but I simply combine an assortment of finely grated vegetables such as cabbage, carrot and cauliflower with a binding agent such as chickpea (besan) flour mixed with a small amount of water to create a thick paste, along with a pinch of salt, a tiny amount of black pepper and about half a teaspoon of fresh herbs. Using an ice-cream scoop to create small roundish balls, I then deep-fry the kofta balls in hot oil or ghee, removing them when they're crisp and light brown on the outside.
Made from dal, chickpeas, lentils or other legumes, Vadais are small dumplings with a somewhat meaty texture. They are a popular staple of classic Indian and Sri Lankan cuisine and can be either eaten alone, with a chutney or yoghurt sauce, or included in a subji or vegetable curry.
To make vadai, soak uncooked dal or chickpeas overnight in a large bowl filled with fresh cool water. This will soften them and make them easier to work with. After draining off the water, place them in a blender, add some salt, pepper and spices (such as ground cumin, ground corriander and hing) and blend them until a thick paste-like mixture has been formed. Taking small, round scoops, place the 'balls' into hot oil or ghee and deep-fry until they are a light golden-brown.
My favourite way to eat vadai is in a lightly-spiced yoghurt chutney. In India these are called dahi vada and are a delicious and very popular snack food. However, as mentioned earlier, vadai can be added to any recipe, used as a meat substitute or simply eaten on their own. Why not experiment with them, and find out what you like?
Vegetarian sausages and burgers
If you're cooking a vegetarian meal for children who aren't familiar with a meat-free diet, it's often a good idea to stick with foods which appear familiar. Vegetarian sausages and burger patties are the ideal solution to this dinner-time dilemma. With the surging popularity of vegetarianism in the West, it's now very easy to purchase these items in supermarkets, delis and health food shops. However, vegetarian burger patties are also very easy to make. Slabs of tofu or paneer are perfect, as are large kofta balls. Other recipes are easily available on the internet.
Compared to tofu, which is an old traditional ingredient, mock meats are relatively new in the world of vegetarian cooking. They're also a bit controversial, with some ardent vegans and vegetarians claiming that because they remind us of meat (often with distinctly un-vegetarian names such as lamb chops and chicken fillets) they should be avoided. However, they are great if you're cooking for devoted meat-eaters who are determined to dislike everything you make for them. Mock meats are often so realistic that such people can't even notice that their meal isn't meat at all.
There are many varieties of mock meat.
Depending on where you live, mock meats can sometimes be a little hard to get hold of. Vegan and vegetarian grocers, oriental grocery stores, vegetarian restaurants and organic or health shops will often keep a selection in their refrigerators. Popular brands include Lam Yong, the Linda McCartney range, the Redwood range and Vegi Deli. Of course there are also many more. These days, many larger supermarkets also provide a small selection, especially the Sanitarian brand in Australia. Most mock meats are completely vegan friendly. However, always check the list of ingredients to be sure.
Adding my agreement, this was very informative and very much appreciated. As a dedicated carnivore I love the challenge of cooking up tasty and satisfying vegetarian meals but I've always concentrated on veggies, I didn't realise there were so many meat substitutes! Thanks Carolyn.
This article is well written and full of excellent information and pictures. I have many friends who eat meat 3 times a day and have no idea what I eat as a vegetarian. It's so frustrating that people still assume we just eat salad and vegetables. Great reading :)
A much appreciated article. Was familiar with most, however the how-to on making Paneer and putting TVP into boiling water first were great tips (I've been putting mine straight into the sauces I use for spag bol, shepherds pie or stuffed marrow/pumpkin etc). I also did not know of the Linda McCartney range etc. It's made me think about getting a deep fryer as well. Previously I've thought it was unhealthy. Thanks