A few weeks back, my friend Elin sent in a challenge: Can I try being vegan for a week? My rule for challenges is that I accept them unless there’s a legitimate reason not to. (e.g. it’s gratuitously embarrassing (walk to the store in your underwear) or the physical risk is high. Perceived risk is different. So I could easily see myself rappelling down a building but not base jumping from it, for example.)
And so I booked a week and made plans to give up all animal products for that week. No meat, no eggs, no dairy. Some vegans also don’t eat honey as well though I never needed to make that decision – I don’t generally eat honey.
In a lot of ways this won’t be a huge challenge for me. My normal diet is mostly vegetarian though there are eggs and a limited amount of dairy in it. Not too much dairy, though, as I don’t deal well with it in quantity. That said, there are some staples in it that will be challenging. When we are lazy, we will often order out. As the majority of our restaurants in the neighbourhood are kebab shops this usually means chicken kebabs. The other big challenge I expect will be at breakfast. Nearly every morning my breakfast is the same: two egg omelette – usually plain, sometimes a masala omelette. Sriracha on top, toast or English muffin on the side with peanut butter.
Sage wants to start this with a bang so on Sunday night we have reservations at Planta, a fancy vegan restaurant in Yorkville. I do feel a little out of place as Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruise the street outside the restaurant. We order a lot of different things as we want to try everything we can.
I start off with a kombucha made from lemongrass and lime juice. Kombucha is a lightly fermented tea. It isn’t usually fermented enough to have more than trace amounts of alcohol but it’s fizzy, delicious and refreshing.
Next up are the “cauliflower tots”. They are deep fried, likely aiming for a consistency like ‘tater tots’. They’ve got a creamy sauce on top with almond-based Parmesan cheese with truffles that is remarkably convincing. On the downside, this is somewhat boring. The outside is crispy and tasty like any deep fried food. Inside, though, is a little gluey. I’d be happy with it at many restaurants but my expectations are high for this place and this dish hasn’t met them.
Next up is a “coconut ceviche” – ceviche is usually a sort of raw fish salad from Latin America with lots of tart lime juice in it. The traditional version is tart and fresh tasting. This one manages to be just that. The coconut strips are surprisingly fishy in texture. This is my favourite of the night. Unfortunately it is also one of the smaller plates. There is just enough for 2-3 bites each.
One of the staples of fancy restaurants is beef tartare – seasoned raw beef. This is the same sort of idea but made with beetroot and avocado. There are crunchy elements in it and creamy elements and placed together on a taro root chip it’s all very delicious. The earthy taste of the beetroot has an umami taste that makes me think of meat as well. Sage is not fond of this at all – but she’s not a fan of beetroot. I am really fond of it though.
Sage is intrigued by the “Crab Cakes” on the menu and so she orders this. The cream sauce is a little bland and it suffers from the same problem as the cauliflower tots do. The fried exterior tastes good in the same way that most fried things do but the insides are gluey. The capers and dill make me think of fish a little bit by association but in the end we both feel the flavours are blunted – dulled around the edges so as to not challenge the diner.
We have been watching MasterChef Australia for years now and always see these ridiculous desserts and wish we could try one. So when we saw something called “Chocolate Terrarium” we have to order it.
We are NOT disappointed. The “chocolate soil” is a delicious chocolate mousse. A few espresso bean pebbles can be found in the soil. On top of it are bits of honeycomb, strawberry, and even a few dill leaves. It is one of my favourite desserts I’ve ever eaten, vegan or otherwise and it is particularly amazing with coffee.
After a dinner like that the bar is set pretty high for the rest of the week.
(Sage and I recorded Instagram stories as we went that day. Watch them here.)
Added to the challenge of eating no animal products for the week is the fact that I’ll be riding my bike to and from work a few times. It’s about 18 kilometres there but my route home is 25. I’m going to need lots of energy to manage that.
I’m a bit out of sorts at breakfast. Normally I would eat a few eggs and toast – maybe even an extra egg for more protein on the way to work. I didn’t really plan for what I would make so breakfast becomes like an episode of Chopped. What’s in my mystery box for the breakfast challenge? Cauliflower, pinto beans, and a box of salad greens.
The result is cauliflower rice and pinto beans with Mexican seasoning served on top of a bed of greens. Salsa and guacamole finish it out. I eat it and am really happy. It tastes good and is really filling. I’m not the least bit hungry until long after I have arrived at work.
Another day I make this:
Tofu scramble with green chillies and onions, sriracha on top and English muffins. It’s the closest to my usual breakfast and it tastes excellent. I eat this one two days in a row.
One morning I wake up and I’m really unsure what I’m going to make. It feels like there’s really nothing that will do. But I’ve got no escape hatch. I can’t just scramble up some eggs and go. And so I stare in the fridge until something jumps in to my mind.
This ends up being one of my favourite breakfasts of the week: fried plantain with chillies and onions, pinto beans and cilantro. It was really good – spicy and sweet at the same time.
Another big hit comes from my childhood. My dad was in the Army and much of our usual meals came from what would be served in the mess hall. One of them was called “Shit on a Shingle” or usually S.O.S. for short. Traditionally it’s beef in cream sauce served over bread or biscuits. I have some imitation beef, some almond milk, vegan margarine and flour and so I give it a shot. It’s quite tasty and close to what I remember. But our cat, Tenzin CLEARLY does not approve at all.
At lunchtime I’m at the mercy of what’s at work in the cafeteria. A couple of times I eat a salad with chickpeas for protein. One particularly good day I am lucky in that they’ve made baingan bhartha and it’s vegan. Another day I have a veggie burger and fries. None is particularly satisfying. Mostly the work veg options are very cheese-heavy so I often feel disappointed in my lunch.
Sage makes a couple of attempts at paneer-based dishes with tofu substituted for paneer. The first she’s not happy with but I like. The second we all agree is good.
One of my favourite restaurants – vegan or otherwise – does what it calls “rice bowls” – a very simple way to make a quick healthy dinner. Put brown rice in a bowl, toss in a protein, some veggies of your choice and top with a sauce. Sage made a delicious sesame-based sauce a few days before and so it was easy, filling and delicious.
This night, though, there was something special: dessert.
In the early 90’s we were briefly vegan before – until a poorly timed add for Domino’s Pizza attacked our willpower in a terrifyingly effective way. We found a recipe for what was called “Chocolate Silk Pie” in Vegetarian Times. We made it as a pie once but in the end found we liked it better as a chocolate mousse. And this may surprise some of you: it’s core ingredient is soft tofu. It is more delicious, in my mind, than any non-vegan chocolate mousse I’ve ever had in my life: hands down.
I know you want the recipe now so I have you covered. You can find it here. We didn’t feel the honey was necessary as it may be too sweet but you may have different preferences. So maybe add it a little at a time.
Last night is our last official “vegan week dinner” and we have one of our usual staples: refried bean burritos. This time we really do it up, though. Inside is seasoned ground imitation beef along with the beans. In addition there is guacamole and imitation cheddar cheese. On top is salsa, coconut yogurt and cilantro. It is delicious and satisfying.
So after seven days without animal products, what are my thoughts?
Other than some of the lunches at work, particularly salads, I was always very satisfied and happy afterward. I rode my bike twice that week, each day about 40-50 km and never felt short of energy and in fact I broke many personal speed records on my ride home on Friday.
I like that I was forced to be a bit more creative with breakfasts. I came up with some really great dishes I was happy with and enjoyed. I can’t remember any of my breakfasts from previous weeks but I definitely remember every morning’s breakfast. That’s telling.
I did notice also that lots of my favourite dishes are already vegan in many cases. Today’s lunch, for example, was delicious and vegan.
I did find the reaction on social media a bit irritating at times. Some questioned whether things were or weren’t vegan, a couple of times there was bickering between vegans in my feed and non-vegans. One time there was even a vomit emoji reaction to something that they thought didn’t look tasty (it was, though). I definitely prefer it when a post of something I made or something delicious I ate is met with simple positive reaction or silence. I’m really not up for politicizing my meals and try to avoid online conflict like the plague. It’s most definitely NOT worth it and rarely results in anything better than irritation (and often far worse).
I love that it did change my routine a bit. I found I was naturally looking harder at what’s in my food – seeing ingredient lists and bypassing the meat-containing dishes at lunch entirely. It made me realize I could easily change my routine to a new default. Instead of starting with the non-veg menu to see what looks good and using veg meals as a backup, I could turn that on it’s head. Start with the simplest, vegan options and deviate from there if the recipes don’t look satisfying.
So going forward I see the longer term outcome of this as being a big reduction in animal product consumption. And I am also inspired to eat more interesting breakfasts. Sure, eggs are quick and easy but they don’t have to be the default. The other options I made this week were delicious, satisfying and didn’t take a great deal more effort.
But the big question, of course, is: “Will I give up animal products?” The short answer is “Not today.” But I also know enough about my own life to know to never say never.