Mangan Tayon! Let’s Eat!

Do you ever eat with your hands? I’m not talking about little snacks like popcorn or crackers. I’m talking about full meals, hearty stews with rice and noodles, scooped up by outstretched fingers reaching across the dinner table. It flies in the face of traditional western etiquette, flagrantly breaking unspoken rules against this literal power grab while in the presence of others. Yet, far from the supposed faux pas I’d been raised to view it as since birth, this is simply the expectation at any of the meals presented by Free for Real Kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no knives, no chopsticks. Hell, no napkins, unless you get into a truly desperate mess.

Crafting a family-style Filipino Ilocano feast featuring vegan versions of traditionally meat-heavy fare, it’s a feat of modern cookery that such bold flavors could even exist in plant-based form. Dinardaraan, also known as “chocolate meat,” would be made with offal and pig’s blood anywhere else, but comes to life here with tofu, preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and fermented black beans instead. Agar-based salted eggs posing as Itlog na Maalat could make anyone do a double take, based on both the uncanny appearance and sulfuric salinity. Jackfruit makes an appearance of course, not as a meat alternative but paired with banana blossoms in the Adobong Langka at Puso ng Saging, a naturally vegan preparation that dazzled with the unassuming combination of tamari, garlic, vinegar, bay leaf, and coconut milk.

More beguiling than the food, however, is the experience of sharing such a feast in such a visceral way with your neighbors. Strangers awkwardly shift around at first, pawing timidly at whatever mysterious mound lays closest, afraid to fully engage. With a few bites comes greater confidence, whetting the appetite for more. Conversations grow louder and deeper, hands fly farther and faster, and the whole room moves and sways in a different kind of dinner dance before long. Dropping formalities to boldly share space allows a world of new flavor in, along with an experience unlike any other.

Kamayan, eating with your hands, fills your heart perhaps even more so than your stomach. No matter how stuffed you end up after heartily partaking in over a dozen delicacies and dessert, warm memories of this communal event still last much longer.

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Here’s the Beef

I’m not afraid of controversy, but I’ll avoid confrontation at all costs. I like to think of myself as a peacemaker, but also a rebellious troublemaker deep inside. It’s within this bundle of contradictions that I was both thrilled and appalled by the announcement of a fully vegan burger going on the permanent menu for McDonald’s Germany. Yes, the very same golden arches that can’t seem to make room for animal-free french fries back home in the US. The Big Vegan TS is another daring response to super meaty patties popularized by Beyond and Impossible, made with soy and wheat, swaddled by a sesame seed bun, lettuce, tomato, pickles and red onion. Not just meatless, not just vegan with modifications, this assembly automatically omits any and all cheese, mayo, or animal-derived additives. It’s even prepared in a dedicated deep-fryer, rather than the standard griddle smeared with beef fat. No matter how you feel about the clown at large, this is big news.

Even crazier than its mere existence was the coincidence that I would be abroad just about one week after the initial launch. I had to get one. I couldn’t possibly get one. It went against every shred of nutritional common sense instilled in me, every consideration for supporting small businesses and shunning a conglomerate otherwise responsible for some of the most egregious animal abuse in the world.

Curiousity, inevitably, will be my downfall one day. Believe it or not, however, this was not that day.

Arriving at the table at speeds that only a well-oiled fast food operation could hope to achieve, it looked and smelled every bit as meaty as anything else on the menu. Crisp on the outside, charred and smoky on the nose, while the interior remained juicy, hauntingly pink as promised. Sinking my teeth in to the soft, squishy white bread, lightly stained with grease, it struck me that I had never actually eaten a burger at McDonald’s before in my entire life.

I hated it. I loved it. It was everything I wanted it to be and better, but still worse. It would have been easier just to hate it on principle, but no one can deny that carefully engineered combination of fat, sugar, and salt designed to hit all the pleasure centers of the brain. As my omnivorous dining companion pointed out, the original tastes so minimally like beef in the first place, you could likely swap the two without noticing any difference.

That’s the ultimate point here. The Big Vegan TS is not an entree made with me or the vegan population at large in mind. Forever pandering to millennials and younger generations more concerned about healthy eating, it’s a smarter alternative to red meat for someone who might otherwise indulge without a second thought. Providing a lower cost, mainstream meatless meal in places where accessibility might otherwise be a barrier, it’s a huge step in making real change across an entirely different demographic. Though hardcore vegans may still raise hell about the purveyor, it’s a move that should be celebrated for the overall impact on animal lives.

Hopefully the success of this bold new innovation will encourage McDonald’s worldwide to follow suit in short order. While such decadence would be an admittedly rare indulgence for me, I can’t lie; I’d travel anywhere for those crispy, iconic fries.

 

 

 

Purple Prose

Setting the table for Passover with the good China, the candle sticks from generations past, the weathered old Haggadot that still bear politically incorrect gender pronouns, the trappings of the holiday are almost as ancient as the occasion itself. The millennia-old story of attaining freedom in the face of impossible odds resonates in a renewed tenor, filtered through more contemporary events. It begs the question, why not update the script for a modern audience?

Honoring tradition while revitalizing the predictable Passover Seder with a colorful new twist, I’m throwing a splash of purple onto the table with an unconventional first course. Deviating from the original offerings of lamb shanks and eggs on the Seder plate to begin with, as roasted beets and avocados are perfectly acceptable alternative symbols, it’s not a far stretch to consider more diversity on the menu itself, too.

I wouldn’t dare suggest replacing the irreproachable matzo ball soup. Perish the thought! Rather, I think there’s room at the table for another dumpling darling. “Kneidlach” is generally accepted as merely another word for the unleavened flatbread staple, yet it carries none of the weighty connotations. These doppelgangers might be made of potatoes or even almonds, and most scandalously, there might not be any matzo in the mix at all. Such is the case with my purple potato dumplings, making them suitable for gluten-free diners as well.

Delicious well beyond the scope of Passover festivities, their heftier chew is more reminiscent of gnocchi than fluffy matzo balls, which means they’re prime candidates for side dish servings as well. Boil as directed and then saute briefly in a bit of vegan butter and onions for a real savory treat. The hint of herbaceous fresh dill is like a kiss of spring sunshine, paired with the very subtle sweetness of the purple potatoes. You could also use regular orange-flesh sweet potatoes in a pinch, to create a more golden glow.

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Going to the Dogs

If you build it, they will come. If you shake the treat bag within earshot, they will come with tails wagging and tongues panting, too.

The push for alternative proteins isn’t limited to just the human diet; behind the scenes, toiling away in laboratories and kitchens, the race is on to develop a more sustainable, ethical, and wholesome way to nourish man’s best friend. Wild Earth is growing their blend, and their business, from the ground up with koji, a type of fungus used in soy sauce and miso.

Higher in protein content than steak (24 percent protein by weight), these cultured mushrooms contain over 45 percent protein by contrast. Though the nutritional numbers are impressive, to say the least, what matters the most to my guy is the fact that these healthy spores impart a unique umami flavor to the treats.

Luka and I were early adopters of this innovative concept, well before the Berkeley-based company revamped their packages, added different flavors, and made a big splash on Shark Tank last week. Now pet parents nationwide can’t stop buzzing about the brand, which successfully secured a $550,000 investment on the show.

Treats are truly just the appetizer to kick things off. Coming soon, proper dog food will be made of the very same savory stuff, providing a completely vegan, fully vetted (AAFCO-compliant) main meal.  That may come as a surprise to those still wedded to the notion that dogs are obligate carnivores, but with more research supporting the possibility of raising healthy, happy canines without the need for meat, Wild Earth is making it not only feasible, but enjoyable for the pups in question.