It seemed to be an extremist choice that in my head makes vegans and vegetarians such radically miserable people—deprived of the glorious joys of foie gras and a medium-rare finely-marbled slab of steak.
However, I’ve long harbored an internal conflict about the routine slaughter of animals for food. But I pushed it away. Like everyone else I grew up with, I forced myself to believe that the lives of cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks don’t matter. People need to eat good food.
Being a Filipino also makes vegetarianism and veganism close to impossible. Filipinos love pork adobo, beef kaldereta, pork kare-kare, chicken tinola, crispy pata, and more. Vegetable dishes? What vegetable dishes? Dishes like pinakbet, gising-gising, and bicol express also get pork mixed into them. Because the Filipino plate just has to have meat.
Living independently for years steered me to choose and control the food I would habitually eat. And while this led me to choose non-Filipino dishes more and more, the meat mentality was still at the core of my eating choices. In fact, I had been a staunch advocate of the Paleo diet because of CrossFit, and it worked for me most specially when I cut white sugar out.
My eating was “balanced and healthy” enough, according to me. I was going to stick it out and no change was necessary.
Something happened along the way. In 2016, for the love of Cory, I braved the scary kitchen and learned how to cook. I discovered a new language of love—eagerly used for him, our families, and friends.
Cooking took me to exciting journeys where a need for challenges eventually led to some daunting vegetarian dishes like veggie meatballs, zucchini casseroles, spicy ratatouille pasta, etc.
Originally, I cooked a lot of vegetarian dishes for international school friends whose eating preferences we wanted to honor at home when we had them over. But in the process, I discovered a way of healthy eating that was not just about boring salads and a plate of sad-looking greens.
We stopped buying beef and pork for our own kitchen, but would occasionally indulge in them when out at restaurants or in my relatives’ homes.
A recent trip to the Gili Islands near Bali, Indonesia made us seek out the best vegetarian and vegan restaurants around for our vegetarian friend. Cory and I were looking forward to eating more vegetarian dishes during that trip, but we were surprised about the incredible quality of vegetarian food that saw us visiting the restaurants at least twice more.
In many places around the world, vegetarian and vegan food is remarkably more delicious and celebrated. It is not just a token salad bowl or a corn and carrots side dish. We saw so much extraordinary creativity put into preparing and making vegetarian food that we didn’t feel it was a prohibitive eating choice. On the contrary, it re-inspired me to attack vegetarian cooking with the intent of breaking the mold: to show that these dishes can be gloriously inspired culinary creations.
There are three main reasons to look at this kind of eating with new eyes: two of which are anchored on selflessness, and these are (1) compassion for animals, (2) compassion for the environment, and (3) compassion to self.
Compassion for Animals
Gary Yourofsky’s March 2014 video is one of the most moving speeches I’ve ever listened to. I recommend absolutely anyone to set aside 45 minutes to hear him speak. He talks about how we have convinced ourselves that animals are commodities and inanimate objects and we don’t feel any guilt about how billions of animals are slaughtered each year to satisfy meat eaters all over the world (currently 96% of the 7B people in the world).
I couldn’t un-see what I saw. The reality of slaughter is so inhumane and this is not changing with the growing meat production industry. A recent USA Today article revealed that an average meat eater consumes (and is responsible for the slaughter) of 7,000 animals in his lifetime.
I asked myself how I can possibly love and obsess about dogs and pandas and treat pigs as a lesser animal, not worthy of my emotion. The Telegraph’s Alex Proud writes about why we need to eat less meat here, and it is a good read without the tragic images and videos of the slaughterhouse.
Compassion for the Environment
Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary on Netflix, Cowspiracy, is a riveting documentary exposing the truths that we don’t talk about. I never knew that meat consumption is a major cause of climate change, and I humbly got schooled. The data are out there from Happy Cow, The Guardian (another one here), BBC, Time, Scientific American, and of course, PETA.
Sadly, the meat industry has an agenda and a whole lot of power to go with it. A lot of truths are being hidden behind myths that humans supposedly need animal meat to get the protein and iron necessary for proper nutrition. Research reveals otherwise.
Compassion for Self
This leads to the third reason which is simple: a vegetarian and vegan diet drastically reduces risks of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases. This is an important reason, but one I could hardly use to sustain this paradigm shift. After knowing what I know from the videos, articles, and documentaries, it is hard to cook with blood on my hands, or to eat without feeling serious guilt.
I will confess easily though: I am still a hypocrite. If I cared so much about animals, I would go all-out vegan and stop using real leather goods. If I cared so much about the environment, I would radically eliminate the use of plastic, not drive the car or ride any transportation, and stop using the a/c a lot. I am not there, and I am highly dubious if I could get that far.
The Reducetarian Solution
Not all vegans embrace this (in fact, at least some frown upon it) but a practical solution for those who are making a mindful shift to compassionate eating is The Reducetarian Movement. It is “composed of individuals who are committed to eating less meat – red meat, poultry, and seafood – as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree or motivation. This concept is appealing because not everyone is willing to follow an “all-or-nothing” diet.”
I proposed a working equation with my husband, and this is 80-15-5. This equation makes us happily seek out and create wonderful vegetarian and vegan dishes 80% of the time, particularly at home. We are pescetarians 15% of the time most specially when we go to Japanese restaurants for sashimi. The 5% is for our carnivore choices when we’re with family and friends. As a sacred rule, we don’t turn down food that is made for us by a host, by family, or friend. We will neither preach nor argue, but we will kindly explain our reasons when people ask, without the intent to push people in the same direction.
(It makes me feel less crazy to know that there are actually a lot of vegetarian and vegan eaters in the world.)
There is a lot of bad news about veganism and vegetarianism, and somehow, reading deeper revealed how the power of the dairy and meat industries hide even the real science that humans can be totally healthy and strong without meat. Ask famous vegans like Morrissey, Stevie Wonder, James Cameron, and Al Gore. Or we can turn to famous vegetarians if it helps like Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, or fine, Beyonce. A number of Olympian athletes are also in the list of famous vegetarians and vegans when I looked.
I wish that more chefs, restaurants, and even fast food chains, would embrace diversity in the types of food they offer. I wish we can stop relegating vegetarian food to a boring salad and glorify it because so many flavors can be created with vegetables and spices that my mouth actually waters just thinking of them. We need more people to treat vegetarian food with culinary flair, and not keep it as an afterthought.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons that makes me feel better about migrating from the Philippines is that I get to enjoy more vegetarian options outside my own country. I am happy to note though that the veganism and vegetarianism shift seems to be growing. People are schooling themselves and are responding to their own need to do good. I joined the Manila Vegans on Facebook where I have found a great deal of help on where to buy vegan barbecue, vegan lechon, vegan hotdogs, vegan ham, etc. (Yes, I’m sorry. I need my fake meat supply to follow the equation. And I’m so relieved to find out that I have a lot of options that I can get delivered to me.)
There is a collective state of mindlessness and apathy over issues we choose not to see and talk about.
I can start little and start at home with my husband, and follow the lead of our good friends. From wherever I am, I can keep pushing the bar for vegetarian and vegan cooking to give it a good name, at least within my circle of influence.