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Exotic ingredients flavor a wide variety of vegan cuisines

Vegan cuisines can be as different from each other as fast food and fine dining, as varied as the Guac Burger at By Chloe in New York City and the Rutabaga Fondue at Vedge in Philadelphia.

“’Vegan’ isn’t just a single cuisine – plant-based chefs can create incredibly innovative modern dishes or they can prepare simple yet delicious vegetable dishes,” said Ross Olchvary of Sprig & Vine in New Hope, Pa.

Olchvary began his career as a vegan chef 14 years ago, in the days before plant-based cookbooks, restaurants and online resources were plentiful. These days, “plant-based cuisine is always evolving as the chefs involved are constantly discovering and sharing new techniques,” he said.

And with that innovation comes a broader array of ingredients, many of them seemingly exotic foodstuffs that vegan eateries are bringing to adventurous omnivores.

“At V Street, our focus on Street Food from around the world leads us to interesting culinary explorations, and it’s fair to say that the cooking techniques allow us to present new key ingredients to our guests like malagueta peppers from Brazil or marigold powder used in Georgian Svanetian salt,” said Kate Jacoby of Vedge and V Street in Philadelphia.

The trend toward international flavors is also on the menu at Sprig & Vine, where chefs are using local, seasonal produce, Olchvary said.

“We often work with ingredients from different global cuisines and also whatever the local farms are growing. Some of my favorite exotic and unusual and local ingredients include fermented black garlic, cardoon (relative of the artichoke), husk cherry (also called cape gooseberry), kale rabe (flowering kale), shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves) and chile peppers such as lemon drop and fatali,” he said.

Cooking is chemistry and vegan cooking is often more complex science as chefs experiment to find replacements for eggs and dairy in familiar dishes, create plant-based meats and make their own sauces, said Veganizer founder Kiki Adami.

“Take nuts. You don’t find [mainstream] chefs using nuts,” said Adami, whose business helps restaurants go fully  vegan for a night. “Who would have thought a cashew could turn into a block of blue cheese? They’re missing out on an entire world of true creativity.”

Nut-based cheeses, nutritional yeast and other staples of the vegan pantry may be slow in finding their way into many conventional restaurant kitchens, but faux meats aren’t nearly as rare as they used to be on mainstream menus, said Olchvary.  Most vegan restaurants report that most of their guests are omnivores, he said, so plant-based eateries are exposing consumers of all dietary stripes to new ingredients and dishes, he said.

“One I’ve seen lately is seitan and a great example is Philadelphia’s annual vegan cheesesteak competition. It’s been three years so far and this year, dozens of businesses (many non-vegetarian) were competing with seitan cheesesteaks off their menus. This year’s winner, Blackbird Pizzeria actually makes seitan and sells it to many of the competing businesses.”

Additionally, there’s plenty of overlap between vegan and mainstream restaurants when it comes to ethnic ingredients and “health foods,” he said. “You’ll find common vegan ingredients such as seaweed, miso, chia, flax on menus, but I don’t think it’s directly linked to the vegan world, more just natural foods becoming more mainstream.”

Chefs take different approaches when it comes to innovation and new ingredients, said Vedge’s Jacoby.

Some people see a vegan pantry as being very limited, so it’s fair to assert that those limits might force the vegan chef to be more industrious,” she said. “For example, I was pleasantly surprised by the recent flurry of buzz around garbanzo water — it’s true, it whips up just like egg whites.”  

And, even if chefs are using many of the same ingredients, the end results can still vary widely.

“Some chefs are more flavor-driven, some more process-driven.  Some are inspired by culture and dining experiences, others by perfecting a skill set over time.  If cooking is like language, you might say that vegan cooking is sign; it can communicate easily with all the others,” she said.

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