Vegetarians grill themselves some barbecue love
Summer barbecues are tough on self-described foodie Zarifa Andani. Originally from East Africa, she and her family brought their love of meat—including great chunks of cubed, skewered animal fat—to Canada. And meat is what they expect off the grill: chicken dripping with hot peri peri sauce; beef ribs smothered in garlic and chilies; and grilled fish with tamarind sauce, lemon juice, and spices.
At barbecues, Andani grills for her vegetarian husband, but it’s a problem. Though succulent home cooking is her specialty, she just hasn’t found a way to transform eggplant over a grill in the same toothsome way she can, say, a rack of ribs.
“He doesn’t get it,” Andani told the Georgia Straight in an interview at an East Vancouver park. As a vegetarian, she explained, “Barbecues are just not the same kind of fun for him.”
For non-meaties, it’s easy to be stumped by what to put on a Weber. Tofu dogs, veggie burgers, assorted chopped vegetables and tofu on a skewer—for many, these are not meals fit for a sensuous summer’s eve. In fact, the king of Vancouver barbecue, George Siu, thinks grilled veggies can never measure up to slow-cooked meat that falls apart with fat and is layered with flavour.
“It’s not the same,” the co-owner of Memphis Blues Barbeque House told the Straight. “Meat over coals—in every culture, there’s something great about it. Even a plain old burger is better on the grill. And then you name it—suckling pig, or spot prawns—that would be good. Watching tofu grill just does not have the same effect for me.”
At least one Vancouverite knows that grilled veggies can be as good as grilled meat. The chef and owner of Ashiana Tandoori Restaurant (1440 Kingsway), Rick Takhar, recently added some vegetarian dishes cooked in the traditional, charcoal-burning clay oven to his menu. These dishes are easily replicated on a typical back-yard grill, he said, even using propane, although he prefers charcoal.
“Even in India, it’s hard to find vegetarian tandoori,” he told the Straight at the restaurant. “Chefs don’t go that way. I don’t understand why.”
In Takhar’s kitchen, cauliflower is transformed into a filling, aromatic meal by a dense marinade of yogurt, spices, and chickpea flour. You marinate it for half an hour, load the cauliflower pieces onto a skewer, then barbecue.
His skewered aloo bharwan (stuffed potatoes) resemble spicy maki rolls. And his corn seekh kababs are like delicious little sausages—minus the off-putting thoughts of sad, mechanically separated mammal. He also does bitter gourd and stuffed okra, along with paneer, in the tandoor; all can be done on the barbecue instead.
He said that there are two keys to cooking delicious meat-free food over coals or a flame. First, you must know your spices and be sure not to over-spice. Second, he noted, “Cooking is about nurture. If you’re not happy, your food is not going to turn out good. When you’re cooking with love, with confidence, then you’re happy.”
At Les Amis du Fromage (various locations), co-owner Alice Spurrell also recommends grilling paneer or halloumi (a Mediterranean cheese). Neither cheese contains rennet, a common ingredient in many cheeses, made from the mucus of young calves’ stomachs. And both cheeses hold their shape when heated. Spurrell suggests cubing the cheeses, marinating them, and grilling them on skewers with vegetables.
“They’re firm, keep their shape, and are quite filling,” she said. “Even people who eat meat like them.”
At retail store Veggie Favour Vegetarian Food Store (3296 Cambie Street), owner Dickie Lam is pushing the boundaries of what can be made from soy protein and soy fibre. Lowly Tofurky would cower before his house-made veggie mutton, veggie ham, veggie chicken, veggie tuna and salmon sashimi, veggie bacon, and even veggie abalone and sea cucumber. He even makes a whole veggie fish, shaped like a fish, which can be grilled. All of his 100 items, which he sells frozen and serves at his nearby restaurant, 3G Vegetarian Restaurant (3424 Cambie Street), are preflavoured, so they can be heated and served. But they can also be marinated or glazed for a richer barbecue experience.
“Some nonvegetarians are highly resistant to vegetarian food,” Lam told the Straight. “If you give it a meat name, the door will be opened a bit, and they may change their beliefs and their thinking. They may even buy it again.”
Andani likes 3G’s offerings because she can use the same sauces on them as on the meat she cooks, creating a uniform meal. She described the veggie ham as “juicy, succulent, and awesome”. She suggests coating soy-based fare with sweet sauces such as honey and teriyaki before grilling.
Andani said she doubts the rest of her meat-loving family will be lured to vegetarianism, even with the help of the likes of Takhar, Spurrell, and Lam. But for the rest of Vancouver’s meat eaters, vanquishing rubbery veggie barbecue offerings might mean a few more cows sleep better at night. And a few more vegetarians eat better by day.