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Mock Meat and Vegeterianism [split from the California board]

(Note: This thread was split from the California board at: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5871... -- The Chowhound Team).

The problem I have with vegetarian restaurants like Sipz that they a lot of dishes on the menu where they try to mimick meat dishes (e.g. meatballs, chicken, turkey etc.) In a good vegetarian restaurant I want to eat dishes where I don't miss meat but I am impressed with creative ideas around fresh produce. If I want to have spaghetti with meatballs I eat real meatballs not some tofu that presumably looks and tastes like it (and in reality often tastes lousy).

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  1. As a vegetarian -- sometimes pescatarian -- of nearly 30 years, I have two responses.

    First, sometimes vegetarians want something that has the shape and consistency of a food that is relatively isomorphic with a meat analogue. If you want meatballs, then by all means eat meatballs. If I want spaghetti with a chewy protein in sauce, then I'm going to eat seitan or some sort of soy derivative.

    Second, China has a time-honored cuisine centered on "mock meats." Culinarily speaking, there is nothing illegitimate about mock meats. To make them, and then cook with them, requires at least as much skill as working with fowl, or purchasing a slab of meat at a grocery.

    People become vegetarian for a number of reasons. But the mere fact that one choses not to eat the flesh of other animals does not require one to also cut oneself off an entire mode of vegetable preparation -- albeit the mode of "mock meat."

    Now, as for Sipz: I went there last week for the vegan sushi. Such a disappointment compared with how good it was when they first opened the sushi bar. But the pepper pork never disappoints.

    14 Replies
    1. re: notjustastomach

      Some of the fake meat items I've bought at Asian groceries are marvels of texture and flavor.

      1. re: notjustastomach

        "First, sometimes vegetarians want something that has the shape and consistency of a food that is relatively isomorphic with a meat analogue" - Why ? Be honest you vegetarians are missing meat ;)

        "To make them, and then cook with them, requires at least as much skill as working with fowl, or purchasing a slab of meat at a grocery. " - I don't disagree that it requires lot of skills but still for me that it not the kind of vegetarian cuisine I am looking for because it requires a high technical skill set but a low creativity skill set.

        1. re: honkman

          You are mixing critical categories.It's one thing to critique specific ingredients as somehow inauthentic or antithetical to the spirit of vegetarianism. It's another to dismiss a specific restaurant because you don't like its preparations.

          The first is a chauvinism not even supported by we vegetarians ourselves, the second is, of course, a principal function of Chowhound.

          Spread is doubtless the most "creative" vegetarian restaurant in town.And if you ever find yourself wanting to spend a lot of money and time on a vegetarian meal, I recommend you eat there.

          But if you want a quick hearty lunch, or vegetarian comfort food for dinner, then Sipz and Jyoti Bihanga cannot be beat.

          1. re: notjustastomach

            I guess we agree to disagree. We seem to have very different ideas about vegetarian food and its reasoning behind it.

            1. re: honkman

              I once had a girlfriend who held your same prejudice. She had some kind of problem with vegetarians eating fake meat items. At it's heart is the erroneous assumption that people are vegetarian because they dislike meat. The truth is that people choose to be vegetarian for any number of reasons. Sometimes it's for health purposes, it can also be for reasons to do with supporting the commodity meat industry. Since you're not a vegetarian, I'm having a hard time comprehending what forms your ideas about vegetarian food.

              1. re: Josh

                I think Honkman regards vegetarianism as something akin to a cuisine, and thus that there is an internal principle of coherence,a defining characteristic for that cuisine. Since, in fact, he also seem to imagine that the defining principle of vegetarianism is "anti-meat," the use of mock meats -- yuba, seitan, prepared tofu -- must appear to him as a flawed, even illogical, attempt at a fusion cuisine.

                Of course, when one becomes a vegetarian one is not choosing to restrict one's diet to a single cuisine, but rather to be deliberate about allowing certain foodstuffs into one's body, and restricting others from entering. As you say, Josh, just because veggies do not want to eat meat does not necessarily mean that they are anti-meat in all ways.

                All the rest, as they say, is gravy (sans giblets!).

                1. re: notjustastomach

                  My SO is a vegetarian and one of her main complaints is the LACK of fake meat items on menus. Most often the only choice in New Haven is a veggie burger and some places have even stopped having them

                  1. re: notjustastomach

                    I read it as Honkman, being a meat-eater if he is going to eat at a vegetarian restaurant he doesn't want to eat mock meat. From a meat-eaters perspective it makes sense. If he wants spaghetti and meatball he goes to an Italian restaurant, not to a vegetarian. It doesn't come across as him not understanding the purpose of mock meat or having a problem with vegetarians eating mock meat, just that it's not what he wants to eat.

                    But then again I'm only basing my opinion on what he has written on this thread.

                  2. re: Josh

                    No, I don't assume that vegetarians are vegetarians because they don't like meat and notjustastomach has it completely wrong that I regard it as something akin to a cuisine.
                    Whenever I go in any kind of restaurant or cook myself I am mostly interested to find the most creative cuisine possible which tries to make the most out of any kind of ingredients by "understanding" the ingredient and using it in the best possible way. Trying to use it just as a replacement in a dish where it is normally not used is not my kind of creativity (even though some people might like this kind of cooking). For me it would be the same as I go in Indian restaurant and their creativity would be to serve beef korma instead of lamb or chicken korma. Would it be unusual ? Yes. Would it be creative and interesting ? No, because it shows that they haven't really thought about what would be the best way to use it an ingredient. Same for using mock meat. Would it be a decent meal ? Sure. Would it be creative and interesting ? No, because you just replaced one ingredient and even try to mimic it taste. Not what I think about creative cooking. (But again that it just my idea of creative cooking).

                    1. re: honkman

                      Do you expect the same creativity from restaurants that serve meat?

                      1. re: paulj

                        Of course. That's what I tried (obviously not really) to illustrate with the example of the Indian restaurant in my last post. In general I am looking for restaurants that show a some kind of creativity independently what kind of food they serve otherwise it is not very likely that I will visit them very often. Creativity can be on many levels and doesn't have to be fancy.

                        1. re: honkman

                          So if I get what you're saying, you want to go to a veggie place that makes veggie meals in a manner that you don't miss the meat. Not meaty meals with fake meat??
                          If so, I fully agree. You can count me fully in he meat eater category but I've cooked veg and an not against a fully veg meal. Just do something that's gonna taste good. Not something that tastes like something else that's better.

                          DT

                          1. re: Davwud

                            "So if I get what you're saying, you want to go to a veggie place that makes veggie meals in a manner that you don't miss the meat. Not meaty meals with fake meat??"

                            That's sums up my opinion pretty good. Restaurants like Ubuntu in Napa are a very good example what vegetarian should look like.

                    2. re: Josh

                      I've been veg more than a decade, and I'm not a fan of the mock meats you can buy at the grocery store - particularly the ones that reproduce stuff I didn't like in the first place, like cold cuts. And in some cases, I think the duplication is a little extreme: does Tofurkey really need a fake wishbone?

                      But I have no moral objection to mock meat, and I really like the ones I've had in Asian restaurants, although I don't consider them "fake chicken" so much as "wheat gluten chunks." They're a sometimes-food, to paraphrase Cookie Monster.

            2. Yes to continue with the Chinese "Buddhist food" train of thought, there are so many vegetarian Indian dishes that are meatless versions of foods originally made with meat (as they entered the sub-continent from meat eaters like the Mughals or Brits), like meatballs/koftas made from gourd/pumpkin mixed with chickpea flour, or kabaabs with cottage cheese or potatoes mixed with lentils, or things made with "soya vadi" or some rubbery soy protein stuff, or biriani made with vegetables instead of a meat/poultry gravy, eggless cakes, and so forth. What is wrong with appreciating the idea of a dish, but making it within the boundaries of your own dietary restrictions? I mean, that is the height of culinary creativity. Although I love meat, I really love these veg dishes, too. (except the soya vadis, not really my thing). So if you want to find creative ways to enjoy spaghetti with meatless meat sauce, how is that different from making a tikkee or kabaab which is originally a meat item, with veg.? Do we accept the Indian and Chinese examples of this type of thing because in our minds it is "cultural/religious" vegetarianism? Why is it different for Westerners who choose vegetarianism for other reasons, unless we don't feel that their choice is legitimate?

              1. My husband and I are long-time vegans (30+ and 15+ years). We have no interest in fake meat and tend to avoid restaurants that offer it. We didn't like the original stuff, we don't want something else that looks like it. Our only exception in Sunshine burger but they don't look or taste like meat.

                1. My husband is sensitive to soy and I'm gluten-free so it's a good thing we're not interested.

                  1. As a vegetarian of 40+ years duration, I see mock meats as a convenience food. My freezer is full of items from May Wah (on Hester Street in NY's Chinatown) and I use them as the protein element of many a quick meal. My more creative culinary ventures don't require this fakery, and I do look for something more creative in a vegetarian restaurant meal, but I think my use of mock meats in this way puts me in the same place as an omnivore chef.

                    1. There's another perspective and that's from a macrobiotic standpoint. I'm still in transition in eating this way but have been moving in that direction for the past six months due to health reasons primarily. I never thought I'd see the day when I was primarily vegetarian but it's been easier for me when I stick to the foods toward the center of yin/yang. Meat is an extreme and it makes me crave other extremes on the opposite end, and while it's OK to do that once in a while, it's harder to achieve balance that way. So I eat fish a couple of times a week and very rarely eat very small amounts of chicken or pork or beef. That said, I am learning to eat some of the meat substitutes on an every once in a while basis because they serve an important function in the spectrum of this way of eating. Plus, I've discovered that many of them taste a lot better than what I thought they would. Just like with all restaurants, not all dishes are created equal, so to dismiss meat substitutes because you've had a few bad dishes is wrongheaded. Go to a good macrobiotic restaurant or a good organic market and you'll find some really nice examples of delicious and well-prepared so-called mock meat products. I don't always think of these necessarily as meat substitutes, but just as additional welcome ingredients I can occasionally add to various dishes to enhance texture and taste and provide variety. Like JanetG says, they're good to see as convenience food that can add a source of protein to a dish.

                      If you'd asked me a year ago about this same subject, I probably would have given the same kind of response as honkman. But I decided to be open minded and give the foods a try when prepared by people who really know what they're doing. And I was (and continue to be) pleasantly surprised.

                      My blood pressure is back to normal, I weigh 25 pounds less and am back in skinny jeans. Plus my energy level is great and I feel terrific, and best of all I don't feel deprived. So it all seems to be working fine for me. Sometimes it's possible to draw incorrect conclusions about what people are doing based on your own personal set of assumptions and behavior. I've now learned from personal experience that this can be a closed-minded perspective. Do I miss meat? Sure, sometimes. But when I'm craving it, I know I'm needing to go back to center instead of indulging my cravings and just setting up a chain reaction of them. It's perfectly easy for me to be satisfied with foods that don't throw me too far out of balance.

                      1. I'm not a vegetarian, but I do love good versions of the Chinese mock meats.