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As a vegan, I spend a lot of time assuring people that vegan food is just food. If someone tells me that he or she wants to eat more vegan meals and doesn’t know where to start, I always ask what his or her favorite foods are. Chances are, there’s something—if not many things—in his or her diet that are already vegan; be it spaghetti marinara, bean chili, morning oatmeal, or PB & J. People don’t always realize how many everyday staple meals are actually vegan, or could easily be made vegan with a tiny subtraction or swap.
But there's a downside. Trying to normalize vegan food like this makes me feel bashful about embracing the things about veganism that are actually unique: the specialty ingredients, the insider tips and tricks, or the products that are specially marketed to vegans. My experience has been that it discourages people to think that veganism must entail special trips to the health food store for obscure ingredients: Going meatless and/or dairy-free is already a big adjustment, and it’s asking a lot of new vegans to restock their pantries to boot. But the truth is that there are some specialty ingredients—like nutritional yeast (for cheesy sauces) or tempeh (for faux-bacon)—that make vegan living a lot richer and easier and more fun, and in some ways, it’s a disservice not to advertise them.
I also sometimes find myself fighting the urge to tell non-vegans all about the great new vegan products that have hit the market in the last few years, from dead-ringer, small-batch nut cheeses to new and improved non-dairy milks to the best vegan “chicken” strips I’ve ever tasted. On the one hand, I know a lot of vegans who credit these products with having made their transition to a plant-based diet easier and more sustainable—and I myself love to cook with them—so it’s hard not to sing their praises. On the other hand, I know that the very idea of alternative meats is a turnoff to people; the line I always here is “if I want chicken, I’ll just eat chicken.” That makes a lot of sense if you’re a person who is reducing meat consumption—if you eat plant-based meals regularly, but enjoy animal products at your own discretion. It doesn’t apply to long-time vegans who have, for whatever reason, embraced a lifestyle that is completely free of animal foods. For us, a little chicken or cheese every now and then isn’t an option, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the taste for those foods altogether. Vegan specialty products allow us to savor familiar textures and flavors within the lifestyle choices that feel right to us.
So why shouldn’t we be proud of those foods? It’s taken me a long time to realize it, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the dishes and products that are vegan with a capital V—marketed to vegans, aimed at vegans, most appealing to vegans. I spent the better part of a decade touting meatless recipes that “just so happened to be vegan,” hoping that this would be a universal selling point. I’m finally at a point where I can also sing the praises of dishes that are unequivocally and unabashedly vegan—meaning that they may or may not feature alternative meats or take some liberties with nomenclature (in this dish, for example, “chorizo” is used as a cue about the flavors the dish is trying to capture; I don’t mean it literally). Regardless of whether they speak to everyone, they speak to me, and they speak to other vegans.
These vegan tacos feature marinated seitan, which in my mind makes them quintessentially vegan. It’s not that seitan is so obscure; it’s a flavored wheat gluten product that has actually been used for centuries in China and Japan (it’s thought to have been created by vegetarian Buddhist monks, possibly as early as the 6th century AD). But it’s less mainstream than tofu, and unlike tofu—which has a distinctive texture of its own—seitan really does work best when you’re specifically trying to replace, or evoke, meat. That’s its strength: the surprising “meatiness” of its texture. It holds up beautifully to marinating, grilling, or sautéing, but you can also find it in a pre-ground variety, in which case it makes a killer vegan meat sauce for pasta.
Seitan isn’t difficult to make from scratch, and homemade seitan is on my bucket list of kitchen projects. For now, I go with pre-made seitan. It’s easy to find at well-stocked grocers these days (usually wherever the tofu is stored) or in health food stores. I tend to buy what’s labeled as “traditional” seitan—a spongy mass that I can then chop into strips or even tear into pieces and use in recipes—but I buy the ground seitan sometimes, too.
In this recipe, the seitan gets a bold, spicy marinade with some familiar chorizo seasonings. It’s pan-sautéed and then added to a simple taco that also includes a cool, crispy, simple slaw. This is a familiar formula in my kitchen, a meal I can whip up quickly on a weeknight so long as I remember to marinate the seitan for a little while. Chorizo-flavored seitan isn’t hard to find from numerous name-brands nowadays, but I still enjoy flavoring the seitan my way. I use soft tacos because I prefer them, but crispy tacos work nicely, too.
There’s a time and a place for vegan food that just-so-happens-to-be-vegan. But I’m happy to have developed the self-assurance to embrace meals that may or may not appeal to everyone. It gives me a lot of pleasure that my mom, for example, has fallen in love with seitan in spite of the fact that she has no intention of going vegan. I have other friends who aren’t remotely interested in seitan or nut cheeses, but I can win them over with a great vegan pasta or bean dish. The nice thing about being vegan these days is that there are so many approaches and options available, both for vegan eaters and for the people they’re sharing food with.
For the Chorizo-style Seitan
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
- 1 teaspoon tamari
- 1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider or red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Crushed red pepper flakes
- 2-3 tablespoons water, to thin the marinade
- 8 ounces seitan, shredded, chopped or ground
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
For the Tacos and Slaw:
- 4 cups shredded purple or green cabbage (or a mix)
- 3/4 cup packed, fresh chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- drizzles of agave or maple syrup (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 8 6-inch soft flour or corn tortillas (use 100% corn for a gluten-free option)
- 2 cups cooked brown rice (optional)
- avocado wedges and thinly sliced radishes, for serving