28 April 2008

Interview from someone who found me on the googles ...

Why is your book called Alternative Vegan? Are you implying that there is something ‘alternative’ about eating a wide variety of produce?
You hit the nail on the head. When I first went vegan, my diet was basically taking what I used to eat (standard South Indian Brahmin diet), and cutting out the dairy and eggs. It was mindlessly simple to get a variety of food, because Indian food in general is very vegan friendly. On top of that, I also have a strong understanding of other International cuisines, and I must say that most of the planet eats as I do: mainly rice, with some form of vegetable, some legumes, some nuts, and fruits. Most of it is prepared in such a way that you know what it is you started with.

Suddenly, however, when sharing my recipes with my other vegan friends, I got some very surprised looks and comments, which started my vegan cookbook reading. All of a sudden, a lightbulb turned on for me. Most vegans in the USA and Europe don't really bother with actual vegetables, and foods that are easy to prepare at home. Instead, it seemed to me as if they were trying to replace something from back in their SAD (Standard American Diet) days. Alternative Vegan is so named, because it provides an alternative to your typical vegan cookbook, where it seems like soy and other meat/dairy analogues are so pervasive that non-vegans often feel that you can't eat a vegan diet without them!

Why did you choose to avoid soy-based recipes?
Others have covered it thoroughly, and well. Frankly, when I'm at home, and hungry, I'm going to choose something that follows one or most of the following:

- it's cheap. This means that if I'm going to spend $2.50 for a pound of something, it had better be sufficiently substantive enough to feed a family of four. That is, I'll cheerfully spend a dollar a pound on dark leafy greens. If I make it into a soup or stew, I can stretch it very easily with some split peas (less than fifty cents per pound), some spices (fairly cheap, when you consider that you only use a little bit), and maybe a little dash of nuts (again, not using that much, so ends up costing little for a lot of flavour and nutrition), and make it feed around ten people or so. Spending $2 a pound for tofu, on the other hand, will leave me with just enough food for abut two, if you ask a typical vegan cookbook. I've watched my husband demolish a block of tofu's worth of food all by himself. Ditto this with soymilk, or other non-dairy milks that you don't make at home. I can make cocoanut milk at home, because a fresh cocoanut will cost me less than a dollar, and provide enough cocoanut milk for a large pot of food, along with the grated cocoanut for a pot of rice, or other vegetable dish. Spending $2.50 on a carton of soy milk isn't so economical for me.

- I can recognise what it is I'm putting into the pot. I prefer that other people don't fuss with my food. I'd rather do that myself! I've found that the more processing you let a food endure, the more chances people have to put either really pointless, idiotic, non-vegan stuff in there (who needs WHEY in bread!?), inject it with weird ingredients that I cannot pronounce, much less ensure the source of, or just end up giving me a really crummy (nutritively) product. I've seen some of those meat analogues boast comparable sodium and fat levels to the animal products they mimic!

- I can make it fairly simply. I don't consider adding more vegetables to the pot to be an extra step. I do, however, consider any food that's going to involve more than an hour or so in preparation work (bread doesn't count, because you just let it sit there; ditto on beans) is too fussy and involved for me.

I'm sure there exist soy based recipes that meet all these criteria. I have yet to find them. Frankly, I'm not bothered.

Do you eat soy? Do you like it or hate it?
No. I'll eat it if it's in something, and it's the only thing there. Otherwise, I'll choose the vegetable option.

How is the cookbook doing? Do you find purchasers just don’t like tofu, or are they allergic to soy, or are they aware of the toxicity of soy products?
So far, people are just enjoying the recipes, because it's all food that's accessible, easy, and fairly cheap. The results are coming out very well in their kitchens, and they're liking that a lot. Additionally, I like to play around with the cuisines of different cultures. I wouldn't call it fusion, per se, because most of my stuff is strongly influenced by the Indian way of doing things. Instead, I'd consider it artful borrowing.

Most of my readers aren't really all that concerned about soy, and just like simple, tasty, healthy food.

Are you aware of the soy controversy? Are you familiar with the environmental disaster of soy production, and the 20-plus alleged health risks?
As a biologist, I have yet to see a study that convinces me. The environmental disasters, as I understand them, are from the whole growing super soy beans to feed animals.

What’s your take on this? What do you believe?
I don't like to use the word "believe" when it comes to scientific data. Upon examination of the sources of the soy scare, I sincerely question
- the motives
- the research methods
- the data collection methods
- the statistical analyses that they have been using
- the funding organisations

Have you heard of toxins called phytates, lectins, saponins, protease inhibitors?
Protease inhibitors inhibit the action of a class of enzymes called "peptidases," which are involved in the hydrolysis (breaking apart of, involving water) of amino acids. The class of inhibitors is being used in AIDS research.
Saponins are those bitter, soap-like compounds that are responsible for breaking apart red blood cells. Again, the high levels of saponins is found in the feed for dogs, but hasn't been really linked to human food. The amounts haven't really been shown to conclusively be harmful to dogs in a demonstrable way. If I were to get scared of everything with saponins, I'd also be avoiding yucca, tomato, grapes, fenugreek, alfalfa and anything from the capsicum family (chilly peppers, etc.). In fact, concentrations of up to .2% solutions are used in the lab to stain cells when studying live cells, because it doesn't harm them.
Lectins, in animals, are most commonly used to recognise binding glycoproteins. They really haven't proven conclusively to do much in plants.
Phytates are an issue that face the digestive systems of ruminant animals. Again, we're back to animal agriculture being to blame for the toxic garbage they pump into the earth. It's not the bean at fault; phytates can come from feeding the animal any legume, wheat, barley, or oats. All of those are commonly found in animal feeds.

Do you believe soy has health benefits?
Any food plant that's eaten in reasonable quantities should have (at the bare minimum) the benefits of giving your body protein, minerals, vitamins, and fibre. We're back to basic biology there! No reason to bring beliefs into situations of factual data, right? ::Wink::

Why do you think vegans or vegetarians see soy as a food group?
To be honest, the information out there available about nutrition is severely lacking. People are so caught up in the minutiae of diet scares (am I getting enough protein? fat? vitamins? micronutrients?), that they forget to remember the bigger picture: regardless of what your diet is, you should be eating as much variety of plant foods as possible for optimal health. This goes for those who eat animals, those who eat animal products, and those who choose compassion equally strongly. However, when the first question (and concern, to be honest) for a vegan in the USA/Canada/Europe is "where does one get one's protein," it's easy to see why so many people run to soy as a quickie protein source.

To be honest, it's also really easy for some. Coming home, and throwing a tofu dog or veggie burger in the microwave, slapping it on a bun, and calling it a meal is a lot quicker than cooking a meal. Throwing a glass of soy milk onto a bowl of cereal is loads easier than cooking up oatmeal (or any one of the other hundreds of delicious hot cereal grains out there). Having a cup of soy yoghurt with some granola on top is way easier than cutting up some fresh fruit, and tossing in some muesli. Frankly, when the typical person barely has the attention span or patience to even microwave his/her meal, it's quickly apparent that convenience will often trump health, low cost food, or taste.

Do you ever observe that some meat eaters- certainly those from South Asian heritage- eat and use way more vegetables than most vegans? What’s going on with that?
I remember going to the market with my mother in Chennai. We'd carry her basket, and walk the one or two kilometres that it took to get to the market. I can remember the boisterous shouting of the vendors, the spirited haggling, and the sheer amount of colours and smells that surrounded me. I also remember the stunning variety. Spinach did not mean a selection of one or two types of leaves; it meant more like ten or fifteen. Each. Season.

The fruits on sale were always seasonal. You'd look forward to different fruits as the seasons changed. Green beans were something like six or seven varieties. Squashes and gourds abounded. Jackfruit, lychee, mango, papaya, guava, grapes, tomatoes, berries of all shapes and sizes, and more types of bananas than you can count! You'd have the long bananas, the short, squat, fragrant ones, the short round ones, the short skinny ones. The banana flower. The plantains, both green and ripe. Every farmer had his or her own variety. The citrus wasn't just lemons, grapefruits, limes, and oranges. It was dozens of different types of each one.

You had the choice of tender or mature cocoanut. You could choose seven or eight different types of aubergine. There were so many different varieties of grains, pulses, and legumes that you didn't know where to start! And that's just the fresh ones. From the North, you had the preserved lotus root, the chestnuts, the root vegetables. All these things would be there at the market. The lady of the house would buy just enough food for that day. She would go home, and make three fresh meals a day. The food was consumed in its entirety.

With that variety of freshness, and choice, who has time for anything else! By the time you even get to the animal product, you don't need but a scant little bit for a seasoning, even if you eat it. Buddhism and Hinduism both encourage adherence to vegetarianism, and those religions account for a large portion of South Asia. Meanwhile, you have the cost. To grow an animal, and use his body, or the products of her body, you have to expend considerable amounts of land, water, and food. These are all things that you could use for immediate food, by growing plants. Why waste your time on feeding a cow a field full of greens, when that same field of greens will fetch a day's wages at the market?

Because most people can't own animals to use their bodies or secretions, the cost of those "products" comes at a high price. This means that the poor cannot afford it. In most religions, especially in Asia, there are various days throughout the year when meat is either proscribed all together. These religious fasting days are most often observed by the wealthy, to whom it actually means something to "give up" eating animals or their secretions for a day. In Hinduism alone, there's a fast every month for the full moon, one for Ekadasi, one that's done weekly, and other random holy days and ceremonies that come up, which require that the devotee be spiritually clean, meaning no eating of animals.

So while the poor can't afford, the rich tend not to eat it on random days. Even when the rich do eat it, they are also mindful of the extreme cost of animal products. Unlike the US/Canadian/European government, the government is not too keen on subsidising the efforts of animal farmers, when their primary concerns are to get enough grains and legumes to feed the populace. They would have riots in the streets if they sent money to support a wealthy man's habit, rather than the needs of the whole country.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there are many reasons for it, and I'm only nicking the iceberg, because (as much as I wish I were) I'm not /that/ smart!

If not soy, in what ways do you get protein? What do you recommend in your cookbook?
Actually, all food contains protein in varying amounts. Get enough calories, and your protein will take care of itself. The person with a diet truly deficient in protein will end up with a condition known as kwashiorkor. If you've ever seen those little children in those horribly heart-wrenching "save the children" adverts with the little bloated bellies. I have yet to see that in the West. Eat a varied diet, including lots of whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat berries, millet, quinoa, amaranth, etc.), dark green leafy vegetables (mustard greens, kale, collard greens, radish greens, wild spinach), fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, and some beans, nuts, and legumes to round out your meals.

If you're eating the vegetables in their original form, rather than juices or whatever, you're never going to be able to overeat, because the chewing alone would tire out your jaws. You will, however, feel full, because you'll be chewing (rather than inhaling down) your food properly. It's pretty much how my family lives (even those who eat animals or animal secretions). You eat different foods, and you'll never grow bored, or have dietary issues.

Finally, for what reasons did you become vegetarian, vegan, and where are you now philosophically?
I was raised lacto ovo vegetarian, because that's how my parents were raised. Seriously. I'm totally not kidding. When I asked my mother, that's the answer I got! However, after years of muddling along thinking that I was somehow doing something moral by "well at least it doesn't kill the cows ... directly ... ish. Except the veal calves. And the spent cows ..." (you see why I eventually crossed over?), I kicked myself in the behind, and went vegan. It was the easiest thing I've ever done, and, I'd say, the most important decision for me. I feel great, and I don't really miss anything I ditched from my life.