Sunday, 12 May 2013

Vegetarian cookbooks (Συνταγές για χορτοφάγους)

I like vegetarian food and can prepare vegetarian meals much more easily than I can meat meals. And all this, even though I am a carnivore. That's another reason why I don't like the vegetarian label in my blog: I am not actively trying to be a vegetarian.

0863180426 BROWN, SARAH, Sarah Brown's Vegetarian CookbookA colleague recently mentioned her cookbook library to me, telling me about one of her favorites, a collection of vegetarian recipes by Sarah Brown, a former BBC TV presenter. As I'm always looking for new ways to present vegetables to my not always so willing family, I asked to view her copy. Sarah Brown's Vegetarian Cookbook (1984) is one of those books that came out when Westerners were only starting out to embrace vegetarinism as a kind of lifestyle choice, and new ingredients that we now take for granted were only becoming known at the time (eg carob as a substitute for chocolate).

Vegetable cookbooks are different from vegetarian cookbooks - vegetables can, after all, be cooked with meat and fish.

The recipes in this book rely heavily on natural food items, with very few processed ingredients being used. An additional taste dimension is provided by Mediterranean and Asian flavourings, eg oregano and miso. The few photos contained in the book show dishes in earthy colours: everything looks cream, beige, orange, yellow and brown; soups are green if they have watercress added to them or red if they contain beetroot. All the food looks natural with a high level of transparency that most mass-produced, store-bought ready-to-eat vegetarian-labelled food does not have in our times.

Cookbooks of this kind (simple recipes, few photos) are no longer written. The book reminded me of one of my own favorite cookbooks, The Amrita Cook Book: Vegetarian Recipes, illustrated by Melanie Walker in a similar way to the famous Moosewood Cookbook. Amrita was the name of the vegetarian restaurant which first presented this style of cooking to highly urbanised people. It was published in Wellington, New Zealand, in the same year as Sarah Brown's, and features similar easy-to-make inspiring recipes based on meatless cooking, at a time when cooking that was labelled vegetarian/vegan (it clearly denotes this distinction) was regarded as an oddity.

The recipes in both books, which are probably now viewed as vintage vegetarian cookbooks, rely heavily on beans and grains for protein, herbs and spices for a savory taste, and honey and molasses for sweetness. They are mainly based on good taste combinations, rather than colour arrangements. In a sense, there is no need for cookbook recipes when you prepare your food in this way, as there is a certain amount of freedom in terms of the final combination on your plate. Apart from the baking sections, the recipes simply provide some ideas that will inspire you to be creative; they are based on easy-to-access ingredients, with use being made of some novel ingredients for the time, which are more commonly available now.

Since there are few or no photographs, it is up to the reader to imagine the final appearance of a recipe, and also what the taste will be like. The instructions for most recipes are sometimes so short and simple that there is no real recipe. They provide inspiration for people to experiment with their own favorite taste combinations. No status is implied in the foods - they are not based on image. This is all a far cry from today's style of cooking, where the reader is enticed into a website by a food porn photography. There is so much to choose from these days that it is difficult to make a final choice. All these points are reiterated by well-known vegetarian writers in more contemporary times:
"So - what do I look for in a top ten vegetarian cookbook? Inspiration, first and foremost: the recipes have to leap off the page and make me want to rush off and cook them. Secondly, the atmosphere of the book: it has to be warm, friendly, accessible. And thirdly, of course, the recipes have got to work." Rose Elliot 
Vegetarian cookbooks like Sarah Brown's and Melanie Walker's are now regarded as old-fashioned, shelved for specific, almost historical uses. In our days, food carries status, it projects an image and it sells a concept. Vegetarianism is not just about healthy eating; it involves ethical choices. A purely vegetarian cookbook sounds like a misnomer these days - it needs to form a part of a book discussing lifestyle choice. The biggest problem with these books is that they lack a cultural base. Even the recipes in books like Sarah Brown's Vegetarian Cookbook and the Amrita Cook Book contain ingredients that are generally not available, not cheap or not commonly used in Greek cuisine, eg miso, soya milk, adzuki/mung beans, horseradish, etc. This isn't to say that they can't be replaced by other more common ingredients, but being a vegetarian means living off a more restricted range of food, so it follows that a vegetarian will seek more variety. But not all ingredients and cooking utensils/techniques are available in all parts of the world, while eating habits differ too. So a vegetarian cookbook can only really be useful in Western countries where the food chain relies on international cuisine and lifestyle choices.
At my workplace, vegetarian meal options are always offered - the pastitsio was made in both a vegetarian version (left) and the classic mince sauce version (right). 
In Greece, a vegetarian cookbook would probably not make the most popular book title list. Our cuisine is moving into global/internaitonal pathways, but it does not yet encompass the ethical nature of eating. We see new products and Western recipes more commonly in use these days, but the idea of fairtrade, organic and vagetarian stull hasn't quite caught on. I don't mind that - I don't believe in image labelling of food (that's something you do for the profit factor). But if you think that many of the most well-known dishes in Greek cuisine are actually vegetarian-based, a book with a title like Vegetarian Greek Cuisine could easily be written. The only problem with that is that Greeks are generally not vegetarian in the first place, making it sound like a contradiction!

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