May 26, 2022

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Vegan restaurant trend shouldn’t put global cuisine on backburner

The restaurant industry as a whole has never garnered as much attention as it has through the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a rare day when the news cycle did not include a story on restaurant shut downs, loss of labor, food shortages, a shift to takeout and the debate over which restaurants should receive financial assistance, why and how.

But if a trend across restaurants has emerged during the pandemic, it would be the move toward vegan-focused restaurants, which even the most meat-centric cuisines are incorporating into their menus.

Veganism — the act of eating no animal products or foods that rely on animal byproduct, like wine filtered with oyster shell — has taken hold in the Capital Region restaurant scene, with a huge influx of plant-based restaurants flourishing under this business model. In Troy, Burrito Burrito turns the Tex-Mex staple into a meat-free option and Meadowlark offers vegan-exclusive catering, while The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany has served as proof positive that a vegan-focused restaurant can flourish. The result is a new cache of vegan restaurants in Albany — Bar Vegan, Wizard Burger, Healthy on Lark, Subculture — that play to the no-meat crowd. Others (Troy Beer Garden, Herbie’s Burger) have incorporated vegan items onto their menus to serve all palates and dining preferences.

Eaters and food writers herald the move toward plant-based cuisine as new and innovative, but in reality, veganism is as old as the act of eating itself, even here in the Capital Region. That point gets overlooked when focusing solely on the surge of new restaurants offering vegan options. 

“For thousands of years, Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern foods weren’t vegan as a fad. It’s something we’ve always done,” said Aneesa Waheed, chef and owner of Tara Kitchen Moroccan restaurants in Schenectady, Troy, Guilderland and Wildwood, N.J. At her restaurants, her menu is mostly composed of vegetable-focused dishes that eschew animal products for the native ingredients used in Moroccan cooking. While fish, chicken and lamb is available in certain preparations, the menu is largely vegan and vegetarian as true to traditional North African cuisine.

This pattern repeats itself elsewhere locally. While Lark Street and North Pearl Street in Albany have become hubs of vegan dining, long-established restaurants merely steps away have been serving vegan cuisine as staple menu items. At Mamoun’s Restaurant on Washington Avenue, most dishes are made in a vegan style, although they are not promoted as vegan. Nearby, at Umana Yana, a collection of recipes focused on the global south incorporate veganism not as a principle, but as an homage to the traditions surrounding those recipes.
            
“This is an issue of representation in veganism. Inclusion is really important,” said Andrea Shaye, operations manager for Capital Region Vegan Network. The organization offers a restaurant guide that includes establishments not typically included in the conversations about veganism, but Shaye said that including those restaurants is vital to offering context about the long, robust history of vegan food and culture. The network also organizes the annual VEG OUT festival. 

“There is so much strength in the history of veganism, especially in religions like Buddhism and Jainism, that is not always seen in the media. It needs to be sought out,” Shaye said.

Politics, economics, the environment and religion dictated the eating habits of a culture. For most of history, meat and animal byproducts were a rare commodity. While cheese and dried fish emerged as a means of food preservation, what we modernly coin “peasant food” stems from the limited or non-existent use of animal products in cooking. Environmental conditions also limited the availability of meat, while some religions (like Buddhism and Hinduism) bar or discourage the consumption of animal products. The recipes that developed from these cultural restrictions form the basis of vegan cuisine. 

“Vegan food culture, from a practical sense, dates as far back as human time. The practice of not eating meat, culturally across the world, is one based on poverty. Unless you were extraordinarily wealthy, you never would have eaten meat. It just wasn’t attainable,” said Kristen Hartke, a vegan-focused food writer and recipe developer based in New York City.

We see these recipes still on local menus: falafel. Greens and beans. Stewed lentils. Beans and rice. Braised bok choy. Nearly every ethnicity represented in Capital Region restaurants offers, in some part, vegan dining options.

The marketing power of veganism has caused these restaurants to be overlooked as part of the greater vegan scene. As much as six percent of American eaters report to be vegan or follow a mostly plant-based diet, and the 2019 global plant-based industry has a valuation of $4.5 billion, according to reports from Plant Based Food Association. That number continues to increase, fueled by lab engineered products designed to mimic the utility and texture of animal-based foods.

“What’s interesting is we are seeing this paradigm shift. There is a lot of money being put into technology-based food. Like other forms of technology, it is only accessible to those with wealth and access,” said Hartke, adding that many forms of modern veganism defy the roots of vegan culture.

Vegan dishes, as much as any meat- or dairy-based item, have as much of a history and prominence in our local dining culture as any other cuisine. The new vegan-focused restaurants, that are primarily white-owned, overlook the deep history of non-white ownership of veganism, both as a cultural tool and as a business endeavor. To have conversations about the rise of veganism, as though it is a sudden faddish trend, without establishing the context of global veganism in our restaurant scene, could be considered cultural repression.

https://www.timesunion.com/food/article/New-vegan-restaurant-trend-may-put-global-cuisine-16682612.php