Friday, September 14, 2007

The Veggie Challenge

Inspired by a recent visit to the 2007 Vegetarian Food Fair held at Harborfront Centre two weeks ago, I signed up for one week veggie challenge.


It all started six years ago. I was watching an episode of the X-Files and eating leftover shiu mai for dinner. As the events of the episode unfolded, merely the opening sequence before the show intro, I spat out the suddenly offensive dim sum and cringed. Somehow the image of a 300 hundred pound man sitting atop a blood-soaked motel room bed, his body having housed a child-sized Indian man simutaneously experienced with the taste of pork fat drippings in my mouth created a sudden realization: you are eating dead flesh.

Disgusted by anything flesh, I went almost vegan for 2 weeks (eggs completely grossed me out), but I continued to consume dairy. I eventually went the lacto ovo route finding it too difficult otherwise because at that time I thought salty beans were disgusting (I was used to red and green bean soup desserts) and soy cheese at that time tasted like solid margarine (although I have yet to try today's non-dairy cheese products).

Then I moved to Taiwan.

Quite popular are the "veggie buffets" scattered throughout Taipei. Due to the prevelance of Buddhism, many Taiwanese will occasionally eat vegetarian meals; the restrictions similar to a yogic diet. The Chinese Buddhist vegetarian diet is exclusive of meat and seafood (of course), dairy, garlic and onions. This was important to remember when dining out at "western" style places when I requested a dish be vegetarian. They would ask if you ate "complete vegetarian" or "healthy vegetarian" because if you agreed to the prior, they wouldn't serve you anything with garlic or onion. Hence, asking for a veggie pizza at Domino's, you might get your pizza sauceless or substituted with ketchup!

Most of the Vegetarians I met were usually westerners. It seemed the Taiwanese didn't really understand why one wouldn't want to eat animals, especially since they eat every part they can including ears, tongues, feet, and eyes. Not only would mention when you ordered that you didn't want "meat", you'd have to specifically say you don't want cow, pork, chicken, or fish. It seemed to be true in most Asian countries I'd visited. Once in Seoul, I asked my friend to order me something as he read and spoke Korean. The only thing I could have was the noodle dish. We reconfirmed with the waitress that it didn't have meat. When I dug in, I immediately knew something wasn't right. It was noodles alright, but jammed in an intestinal casing. Ew. We complained, but they still insisted, "it isn't meat."

It seemed difficult for people to understand unless you brought in the religious context, or they assumed you were doing it for that reason. It was believed that you could pray for things you wanted or wished to happen, and in exchange make a sort of bargain to eat vegetarian for a certain duration. Let's say, "I'll eat veggie for a week in hopes I get this new job." So, some restaurants will serve mock-meat dishes whimsically, painstakingly putting a glutin protein on a real bone to simulate a drumstick. Since a majority are part-timers, they didn't find this offensive or contradictory.

I frequented these restaurants often. They are buffet style in that you serve yourself, and then pay for your food by weight. Sometimes they offer all you can eat after prime time for the steal of a mere 2 or 3 dollars. Although my favorite was deep fried oyster mushrooms with spicy basil, I did choose the mock meats having acquired a taste for soy meat from many a packet of Yves Veggie dogs. (I once found them at with glee at a high end grocery store to pay an exorbitant $8.30 Cdn!)

Not having a real kitchen to cook for myself, and tired of eating the same things, I started to eat seafood. Then I broke down one day and ordered a steak. I blame it on the fake meats!

For two years, I could easily detect even a whiff of chicken broth used in a seemingly meatless dish, and couldn't stand it. How was I able to go from that to 10 oz steaks?

I think it was the mix of being around former veggies who raved about going back to meat due to the difficulty of eating right in Asia, and the scandal that 70% of all mock meats in Taiwan had meat juice or oils as flavouring agents.

In any case, I always promised myself when I moved back to Toronto that I'd be veggie again because it was one place you could do it quite easily and affordabley.

I was hoping for new ideas from the annual Vegetarian Food Fair held by the Toronto Vegetarian Association. They provided helpful pamphlets, guides to local eateries and restaurants, as well as a starter kit for those willing to try their 1 week vegetarian challenge.

When I signed up, I thought, sure no sweat. Maybe it will be a good way to kick start a true lifestyle change. Sampling the various products (or trying to, as they had quite a turn-out), I discovered many new foods that I hoped would be readily available at your average grocery store.


Tofurky line of slices and sausages: absolutely delicious and makes Yves taste like cardboard (although, some might say it doesn't need the help, as one vegan disdainfully said to me, "I'd rather eat a real hot dog than a veggie dog!)

So Soya trail mix: crunchy, nicely spiced with variations that include chocolate chips. Even better than the soy, black bean, raisin, pepita mix you can find at Chinese grocers.

Chocolate mint soy cream: the strong flavours masked the soy (unlike the limp mango flavour) and had a rich smooth texture.

Not soy good

Tofu kebabs: Shrink-wrapped marinated tofu slices (they have a store at St. Lawrence Market) which were a bit too salty and really not worth the price. You can buy your own firm tofu and marinate it yourself for a fraction of the cost. However, the wrap with curry flavoured tofu, lettuce, red onion, and poppy seed dressing was super delish.

Food Stalls:

The Indian and Hare Krishna were surprisingly bland. There are loads of restaurants throughout Toronto that serve standard dishes like chana masala or various dals. Maybe they were vegan though, and missing the ghee? Except that the HK halava (my first taste of this buttery semolina and raisin concoction) was rich and addictive.

There were many more I didn't get a chance to taste: sushi, dim sum, Jamaican patties, not to mention the plethora of sweets: cakes, cookies, bars. Also of interest were specialty services such as weekly deliveries of organic groceries, or gourmet vegan prepared meals.

With this seemingly vast array of tasty, heart-healthy options, wouldn't it be easy?

As I poured over the Vegetarian Starter Kit, I noticed that what they were promoting was more of a vegan diet, suggesting that you also go dairy and egg free. If you've read my blog before, you'll note that the only thing I order for brunch is Eggs Benedict. And as I've mentioned, I love cheese.

Looks like this isn't going to be as easy as I thought. Good thing I like beans now. As I slowly make the transition to first, a L-O level, (baby steps!), I will be trying out and rating veg products.

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