Faux Meat: A Vegan Faux (Food) Pas?
Chicken parmesan. Philly cheesesteak. Barbeque buffalo wings. While the mere mention of these three classic meat meals is enough to tantalize the tastebuds of any meat lover, they have found an unexpected home in the culinary culture of New York City: the dining tables of vegan/vegetarian restaurants. Perhaps even more interesting than how chefs create pork from soy is how restaurant patrons react to their faux-meat concoctions.
At first glance, the menu at Red Bamboo Soul Café (with locations off the New York University campus on West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue and in Fort Greene, Brooklyn) would cause any vegan visitor to do a double-take. It's only after one reads the fine print under each dish's name that it becomes clear that all of the items are made from soy or wheat-based products. While ex-carnivores trying to kick their cravings may flock to such a restaurant lusting for soy pork chops or ocean-flavored soy fish cakes, some vegans shy away from anything reminiscent of meat.
Alexis Eaves, a native Brooklynite who has been working at the Red Bamboo on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene for two years, classifies the restaurant's customers into three categories: authentic vegans and vegetarians, recent converts, and "a lot of customers that are trying it out for the first time." While she has head complaints that the menu is too faux-meat-heavy, she points out that vegans and vegetarians still comprise their primary revenue base because "they like it as a treat."
Erik Sutch, a junior at New York University and veteran vegetarian and dedicated vegan of one year, has mixed feelings on "mock meat." "The reason I went vegan was to get away from greasy, unhealthy food," said Sutch. He feels that faux meat meals detract from a true vegan experience because they are often prepared in the same unwholesome ways meat can be cooked. For example, take Red Bamboo's trademark (literally) and most popular Soul Chicken sandwich, which is meant to imitate a fried chicken sandwich. A fried meat substitute, albeit a soy product, is still fried.
Vegans have three main options when it comes to meat substitutes: tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping would recognize tofu as the squishy white blocks in veggie or dairy aisles. Tofu is a soybean curd with a cheese-like texture. Tempeh, another soy product, is fermented soybeans made in cake form. It often comes prepared with various seeds or grains, and is much firmer than tofu. Of all these substitutes, seitan is the most similar to actual meat (hence its nickname, "the wheat meat"). Although it is made from wheat, when it's prepared seitan takes on the look and feel of cooked meat. It is very high in protein, and it's the most versatile of the mock meats.
While Sutch himself avoids faux-meat (with the exception of Tofurky lunch meat), he sees the silver lining in red bamboo's seitan in disguise. "A lot of the reason they do that is to appeal to non-vegan eaters," said Sutch. "It's good in a sense because it will make veganism apply to non-vegan eaters." Because of its mainly faux-meat menu, Red Bamboo is a restaurant where he brings his meat-eating friends when they come to the city to visit, but he rarely goes there on his own.
For vegan restaurant-goers who prefer their soy not to look or taste like a duck, there are some purist options. Zen Palate, a vegan/vegetarian venue with locations in midtown and the financial district, has a menu with faux-meat-free options. Also, Angelica Kitchen on 11th street and Second Avenue serves up seitan as-is.
For some, faux-meat never even factors into the vegan equation. One of the greatest benefits of giving up meat and dairy products is ensuring a better future for the environment. Steven Matt is the founder of One-earth.com, a website geared towards putting sustainability within reach by categorizing environmentally-friendly resources on a local level. Matt first became a vegetarian when he graduated from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute in 2007. In January, he made the switch to veganism, sacrificing his love of steak for his life's work. "The vegan lifestyle is one of the most effective chocies one can make to reduce their negative impact on the environment," explained Matt. "It encourages consumers to use an amount of resources less than or equal to the amount we have on earth."