Maybe you’re thinking about the safety of plant workers, animal welfare, cleanliness or costs.
That leads to the following questions: What should a newbie eat? How do you get enough nutrients? And importantly — how do you make the food taste good?
Indian, Indonesian, Ethiopian and Nigerian cooks could teach novices a thing or two, since they’ve had meat-free eating down pat for hundreds or even thousands of years.
For many countries, it’s a way of life rather than a lifestyle choice: Some are following religious mandates that respect some animals as sacred or that adhere to principles of nonviolence. Some lack the funds or access to meat.
These cultures have a tradition of making produce, grains and legumes the stars of their meals, all appreciating the varieties of flavors, textures and ingredients that make a good vegetarian dish.
“I would go 50/50 for two weeks and then I would go 60/40 and then 80/20,” he added. “I would ease myself into it.”
If you’re trying to shift from eating meat and have no clue what to do, these chefs and recipe developers can help.
The country with the most vegetarians
Many Indians eat a vegetarian diet because of access to ingredients, cost and religious beliefs.
People who live in the countryside only have access to grains, legumes and different fruits and vegetables, Naik said. “Vegetables have always been a focal point of our meals, and the way we prepare vegetables is very, very creative,” she added.
Priyanka Naik is an Indian vegan celebrity chef and food personality.
Courtesy Priyanka Naik
“Hinduism is probably the most prevalent religious belief system in the country,” Naik said.
“Animals are mainly considered religious beings, and there’s an animal representation of almost every type of animal within the Hindu religious belief system.”
Religion limits when meat can be eaten here
It’s not just economics in Ethiopia, either. Religion influences the consumption of meat and when — and the types of animals permissible to eat.
Because of this custom, a lot of Ethiopian food “is vegetarian-based to begin with,” said Samuelsson, a restaurateur of eateries around the world, including Red Rooster in Harlem, New York.
Marcus Samuelsson is an Ethiopian and Swedish chef and restaurateur.
c/o Angela Bankhead
“Meat costs a lot of money,” he said. “A lot of cultures didn’t have a lot of animals but had to survive through greens, through legumes, through other ways. And then you still want it to be delicious, so the cooking techniques evolved from that.”
Meat isn’t the focus in this country
The cuisine isn’t articulated as vegetarian, she added. Those who are strictly vegetarian follow that lifestyle because they have the privilege and ability to eat globally imported foods along with their local diet — lessening their reliance on a little bit of meat here and there.
Nigeria doesn’t have a “factory farm system, nor a food system that is dominated by large-scale producers,” Komolafe said. “Farms are small scale, and food is local, in a way that most people in the West may find difficult to relate to.”
Therefore, in other regions, animal products are more of an ingredient in a meal than central to it.
Some Indonesians eat more from their own land
Indonesian chef Siska Silitonga (right) poses with Malaysian chef Tracy Goh (left).
Courtesy Aron Pruiett
Eating meat is less feasible to village and countryside communities, Silitonga said.
They eat what’s available from the land, and don’t have as much meat as the cities do, which results in a diet higher in produce. Meat is also more expensive, and because the homes in those communities are smaller, there’s minimal refrigeration space for storage.
“It’s not a cool, hip thing in our country,” she said. “It’s more like, is this part of our day-to-day offerings?”
What you should know before you eat less meat
It’s worth checking with your physician and a registered dietitian nutritionist about changing your diet to ensure you’re getting all of your nutrients.
Salimatu Amabebe is the founder-director of Black Feast and chef-owner of bliss house.
When you’re thinking of what foods to include in your diet, try foods with the most nutrients, Amabebe added.
Lessons on flavor and texture
If you’re worried about whether vegetarian food will taste good, think about all of the different spices and ingredients you can use, Naik said.
Key spices and ingredients for vegetarian dishes in Maharashtra, the Indian state where Naik’s family is from, include black mustard seeds, kati patta (curry leaves), cumin seeds, peanuts, fresh coriander (cilantro), turmeric and coconuts.
Black mustard seed brings warm spice to a dish, while curry leaves contribute savoriness. Turmeric produces aroma and color. Fresh coriander brings freshness and maybe bitterness. Cumin seeds are savory and smoky; peanuts can be sweet or savory and they contribute good fat. Coconuts do the same and can taste very indulgent, Naik said.
Avocados add healthful fattiness to a meal, Samuelsson said. The spice blend berbere adds heat, and beets provide sweetness. Lentils and chickpeas chime in with richness and umami flavor.
Coconuts are multipurpose in Indonesia; home cooks there use the flesh, milk, sugar and water, Silitonga said. Cassava leaves or kale add variety in texture. Browning foods, then adding sauce, builds layers of flavor and heartiness.
Traditional Nigerian ingredients include Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers for spice; bitter leaf for bitterness and complexity; and smoked African nutmeg for smokiness, Amabebe said.
Marinate other forms of protein so the flavor is infused throughout instead of only on the outside. Depth of flavor is important so “all your senses, all the parts of your mouth, are excited,” Silitonga said.
For varying textures, try different cooking techniques: For sweetness and creaminess, simmer rice in coconut milk instead of water. You can roast, bake, braise, sear, fry and steam.
“We eat based on how we want to feel, right?” Samuelsson said. “So it’s important that it looks great. It’s also important that it tastes great and that there [are textural and flavor surprises].”
The importance of variety
Explore the multitudes of spices and produce in your grocery store, Naik suggested. Pick a vegetable weekly and make it the star of a meal. Get creative — saute vegetables with different spices, or add ingredients typically used for dessert to savory dishes, like shredded coconut, for example.
Toast nuts with spices in hot oil, then add vegetables, potatoes and beans to make a hearty vegetable saute, Naik said.
Try roasted cauliflower tacos with avocado salsa, Samuelsson recommended. Eat chickpeas and beans in different forms for protein, maybe the former simmered with ginger and garlic then mixed with roasted beets and collard greens.
Think of meals you liked before and incorporate a non-meat protein like tofu as a substitute for meat, Silitonga advised. For example, smoked tofu in ramen instead of pork belly. Tempeh, a fermented soybean food with Indonesian origins, can take on any flavor. For added flavor, fried shallots are crispy savory toppings.
You could make desserts with black beans, Amabebe said. Beans and dodo (fried plantains) can be eaten with rice or toast. Mbanga soup, made from red palm nut cream, can be topped with crispy fried tofu instead of meat.
What to cook
If you’re ready to embark on your vegetarian journey, there are several recipes you can start with.
Priyanka Naik’s Indian stuffed French toast is a family favorite.
Courtesy Priyanka Naik
Salimatu Amabebe’s beans and dodo is a beans and fried plantains dish.
Siska Silitonga’s eggplant in basil sambal is spicy and hearty.
Courtesy Phi Tran
“It doesn’t matter what you’re making. Just focus on the balance of your ingredients, your spices,” Silitonga said. “Then you can make anything delicious, but you need to learn the techniques first.”
That doesn’t mean you need to attend culinary school, Silitonga added. Just learn the basics of cooking different foods and balancing flavors with the help of simple cookbooks or food blogs. Find the foods and dishes that excite you, and you’ll be on the right track.