Friday, May 18, 2007

Veganism and Mexican tradition

Many people in South Texas, once they find out what a vegan is, are likely to say that veganism isn't compatible with the Mexican culture. Look at the food. Some of the main meat dishes include menudo, barbacoa, carnitas, cabrito, tripas, fajitas, carne asada and chorizo. There's also chicharrones, queso fresco, migas, frijoles charros, tamales, chili rellano, nopales, arroz mexicano, quesadilla, refried beans, pepitas and many more. Some of the Mexican classics, such as menudo and tripas, came from less-than-desirable cuts of meat. My friend, who was raised by a Mexican immigrant who was a butcher, said poor families utilized what they could afford. The less-than-desirable cuts of meat were the cheapest. The higher quality cuts of meat where reserved for holidays and other special occasions. So, things like cow stomach and intestines were being made palatable by enterprising cooks. To me, Mexican food is not about the obscure cuts of meat you may get. It centers itself around its spices. It's the limes, the chilies, oregano, epozote, cumin and even chocolate. The exact flavor of menudo can be achieved by using the same spices normally used to season it. The tripe provides an unpleasant odor that turns off many people. Leaving it out would only make many happy. Fajitas can be made by frying strips of tofu and seasoning it the same way you would the meat. My father-in-law had some difficulty coming to terms that there was no meat in the fajitas I made because the flavor he associated with fajitas was the spices, not the meat. Lard, chicken stock and pork fat are examples of products that extract the most out of slaughtered animals. These can overwhelm the flavor of what they are cooked with. Frijoles charros, or cowboy beans, are made with leftover scraps of fatty pork. Something as nutritious and tasty as beans is turned into something that is far from being healthy. In my opinion, if you like beans, don't eat frijoles charros. It's really a pork dish. It would be easy for chefs making tamales to leave out pork filling and lard. I use extra amounts of lime in the masa, and my wife makes bean fillings with lots of Mexican spices. Not only are they more healthy for you, meat-eaters are even grabbing for seconds. Arroz mexicano, or Mexican rice, doesn't need chicken stock added to it. Vegetable stock is more than an adequate replacement for the chicken stock. Mexico has a wonderful tradition of food, and much of it isn't meat, such as corn, chili peppers, pumpkin seeds, tortillas, masa, citrus, avocados, potatoes, tomatoes, salsas, many moles, mangoes, plantains and tomatillas. The flavors and richness of Mexican food are only enhanced, not brought down, when you leave out the animal ingredients, which can take over the flavor of a meal. The Rio Grande Valley and much of Mexico is suffering from many diseases connected to the consumption of meat, such as diabetes. Giving up the meat doesn't mean a sacrifice of Mexican traditions, but what it does mean is a longer, healthier life.

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