On being vegetarian in a land of meat eaters
By Quade Hermann Original Print Publication: May, 2007
When I was a growing up meat was the center of every meal in our house. Vegetables were arranged around the pork chop or slab of meatloaf, mere sideshows to the main event. My mother’s experimental couscous and legume dishes were met with suspicion and reproachful looks.
Finding great fresh vegetables is easy in Mexico; what's hard is finding protein-rich meat alternatives that actually taste good, like this Green Corner tofu burger (right).
Attitudes toward meat-free meals have changed in Canada, but not so much in Mexico. A meal without meat of some kind is still considered incomplete and unsatisfying. This wasn’t exactly a surprise. After nearly twenty years – and twenty countries – as a vegetarian, I have very low culinary expectations.
Finding great fresh vegetables is a cinch in Mexico. What’s hard is finding protein-rich meat alternatives that don’t taste like scrub grass and tree bark. Especially if you’re a lousy, lazy cook like me. At home I came to rely on readily available pre-fabricated soya burgers, hotdogs, sandwich ‘meat’, ground ‘beef’ and, once in a while on a special occasion, a little Tofurkey.
When I moved to Mexico City I expected the obvious: beans, beans and more beans.
Happily, my low expectations haven’t been met. It seems two forces are slowly introducing vegetarianism to the Mexican mainstream: poverty and wealth.
At the ISSSTE, the government-run supermarket, you can buy half a kilo of plain dehydrated soya for 10 pesos. For twenty pesos you can get chicken or beef flavored soya to mix in with the taco meat so that all the cousins go home with a full belly.
For a bit more you can buy ready-to-serve chorizo flavored soya at the Superama or Bodega. But none are really considered food in and of themselves. They are filler, which is why it all tastes like mealy sawdust sprinkled with sulphur.
On the other end, if you look hard enough, it’s possible to find veggie burgers, tofu and tasty Milanesa or Italiano-flavoured dehydrated soya and TVP (textured vegetable protein) in some of the specialty organic and health food stores around town.
And best of all, the delicious veggie versions of Mexican classics made by VegiMarket. For less than four dollars I can take home spicy poblana, carnitas and chorizo verde, among others. I’ve walked a lot of miles out of my way to find these little bagged bonanzas; my freezer is full of them.