Making the Transition from Vegetarian to Vegan in Colombia Where Vegan Alternatives Are not Always Easy to Find.
When I came to Colombia more than seventeen years ago I had no idea where the journey would lead me, and now when I look back I can safely say it has been interesting and without doubt I have changed enormously. Apart from the physical changes, more weight, less hair and more wrinkles, I guess the main transformation has been the spiritual side of my life as I have slowly moved towards Buddhism and vegetarianism. Both of these I think, link back to my deciding to start meditating soon after arriving in Colombia.
Prana, the new vegetarian restaurant in Envigado, and the importance of learning to adapt to change.
Yesterday I went to have lunch with my wife and daughter in a new vegetarian restaurant that has opened in Envigado. The restaurant offers a set menu for $9,500 Colombian pesos, about £3.00, so it’s certainly not expensive. The food they offer is vegan.
The set menu yesterday was a soup made of carrot, tomato and beetroot with some puffed quinoa floating on top in place of croutons. The main course was cannelloni stuffed with a mixture of basil, tomatoes and soya protein served with a salad of yellow courgette, mushrooms, watercress and carrot with some soft cheese made from soy milk sprinkled over the cannelloni.
The food was served with oats liquidised in soy milk, a drink which here in Colombia is called avena, though it is usually made with cow’s milk rather than soy milk. They also have some freshly made juices available. After the main course we were given a delicious herbal tea. The food tasted delicious, was beautifully presented and the service was excellent. For non vegetarians they offer the option to have either chicken or fish to replace the soya protein.
While I was walking from Envigado to Manizales in January, one of the complications for me was my being vegetarian. In the city where I live it's not really a problem, as many restaurants now have at least one vegetarian option, plus it is easy to buy a wide variety of vegetarian products in the main supermarkets which can later be prepared at home. In the small towns it is not so easy, especially when staying in hotels, the majority of which are very small and quite basic.
Though one can find a variety of vegetarian food in the small towns, such as fruit, vegetables, lentils and chick peas for example, it's not common to find these in the small restaurants, and often if you do, they are invariably cooked with meat making them out of bounds for those wishing to follow a vegetarian diet. Breakfast is not usually a problem, it's lunch and dinner which are more complicated. I tended to eat the same dinner most evenings, red beans with white rice, a simple salad and chips. It got boring towards the end, but then I knew I was close to returning home so it was bearable.
In this post I want to give you an idea of the most common fast foods available in this area of Colombia, whether in cafes or on the street. One thing to bear in mind is that the majority of this food is fried, and so is not necessarily the healthiest, though what it lacks in healthiness it makes up for in taste.
Pictured above are empanadas, these come in small and large sizes, both vegetarian and non vegetarian. Usually the small ones are vegetarian, being filled with potato, and the large ones normally have a minced meat filling, but always check first if you are vegetarian.
The potato filled empanadas are often referred to as empanadas de iglesia- church empanadas, as they are frequently sold to the faithful (and the not so faithful like me) outside the churches as they pour out of mass. They are also sometimes called empanadas Vaticanas-Vatican empanadas, as they only have potato - the word for potato in Spanish is papa and the Pope is El Papa in Spanish.
The pastry for the empanadas is made from maize flour mixed with some starch and water.
I remember when I was 14 my mother asking me what I wanted for Christmas and my reply being, “An Italian cookery book.” She bought me a beautiful, hard-backed one with coloured photographs of the recipes and that was where my passion for cooking began. I would delve into the book and try out some of the recipes on family members, some came out well and others were a disaster but slowly I improved. I still have the book.
When I was sixteen I wanted to be a chef, but my mother talked me out of it, saying that working in damp kitchens wouldn’t be good for my asthma. Maybe she was right, but deep in my heart I believe it would have been the best choice for me as I adore cooking, and I think I would have put my heart into it and thus made a success of the craft. Who knows, maybe by now I would have my own books, DVD, television series and exclusive restaurant?
As it was, I studied Land Surveying and Cartography, travelled to Iraq four times to work as a Land Surveyor, then took a sabbatical, and travelled round South America becoming a travel agent on my return, and now here I am in Colombia working as an English teacher. The common trend throughout my life appears to be that of change, and I’m sure there are still more twists and turns waiting in the future.
Anyway back to the cooking, gradually over the years I added to my recipe book collection and now have many. However, my favourites were, and still are, those based on Indian food and as I grew up I found myself cooking more and more Indian recipes, many of which were vegetarian. At the time I never considered being a vegetarian, it was just that I liked the taste of many of the vegetarian recipes I found in my ever growing kitchen library.
When I moved to Colombia, one of the first things I did was to start learning to meditate, I didn’t have lessons, just read some books about it, sat in a dark room in silence and closed my eyes. Over the years I have developed my own method which may not be perfect, but which seems to work for me. It was immediately after a meditation session that the question, “If I had to kill the animal myself, could I do it,” sprang into my mind from nowhere, and without hesitation my response was no, I couldn’t, and that was it, I became vegetarian.
That was about seven years ago and I haven’t looked back since. At the beginning I thought it was going to be hard to keep it up, but it has been extremely easy and I don’t miss meat in any way. I started as a lacto ovo vegetarian, one who eats dairy products and eggs but no meat, now I am a lacto vegetarian, and I’m sure I will one day become a vegan, and that change will happen when the time is right.
For me being vegetarian is one of the few things in my life that I am 100% comfortable with, and certain about its correctness. There are many things I’m unsure about in life, such as the existence of a God, reincarnation, ghosts, and why I have premonitions to name but a few, however, vegetarianism is totally clear in my head as being the right path to take. I wish I could be as clear about other aspects of my life, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Welsh, Photographer, Vegan, English teacher and translator from Spanish to English.