My vegetable love

Going vegetarian is a healthy choice that’s easier – and tastier – than you think, explains Franka Philip

Eggplant and seaweed accras. Photograph by Cynthia NelsonTaymer Mason. Photograph by Jacky Gotin

One Saturday morning in 2004, after 12 years as a vegetarian, I succumbed to the aroma of venison and bacon burgers at London’s Borough Market, and since then meat has remained on my agenda. But I try as far as possible to source meat that was humanely raised and slaughtered. And I make sure to balance my diet by eating a number of protein sources, like fish, seafood and legumes.

It’s not difficult to eat less meat, especially in the Caribbean, where it’s easy to get fresh fruit and vegetables. Despite this, lots of people still say they don’t know how to make interesting vegetarian meals. Help is at hand: one of the most exciting sources of vegetarian and vegan recipes in recent times has been the book Caribbean Vegan, by Barbadian food scientist Taymer Mason.

Mason, who now lives between St Martin and France, became a vegan almost six years ago. “After making and eating about four pork pies one day at work, I found myself sick of eating meat, and overnight went vegan. I was at a point in my life where I needed to change, and diet was the first step.”

In the Caribbean, the first kind of vegetarianism that comes to mind is the ital cookery made popular by Rastafarians, Mason noted.

“In many of the English-speaking Caribbean islands vegetarianism is accepted by many who see it as a healthier diet. Many may have tasted vegetarian food from Rastafarian establishments or other Caribbean vegetarian food establishments and liked it. Many Caribbean dishes are already vegetarian, like steamed pudding and pickle sans the pork, so it is not a foreign concept.

“After going vegan I had to learn new ways of cooking, like making my own protein sources for seitan, which is vital wheat gluten, and how to bake without eggs and dairy products, and that was a learning curve.

“After doing this I wanted to eat the same things I grew up eating in the Caribbean, like macaroni pie, Christmas ham, pudding and souse, coconut turnovers – so I decided to develop meatless Caribbean recipes for all of my favourite things. There was no book like it out there, so I knew I had to do it, and do it right.”

Caribbean Vegan has been well received. Popular Trinidadian food blogger Sarina Bland, aka Trinigourmet, wrote on the Amazon.com website: “This book successfully translates veganism into the Caribbean culinary vernacular. Clear instructions and pictorial guides will help even more seasoned cooks, and devotees of dishes that previously would have been off-limits, such as souse or black pudding, will be amazed at how effortlessly Mason is able to reproduce familiar meat-based tastes and textures using commonly available vegetables.”

Mason sought to dispel some of the more common myths about vegetarians and vegetarian cooking.

“People think we are all skinny, which is not true! We all have different body types, and one can make the wrong food choices as vegetarian and, by extension, vegan.”

Whether you are omnivorous or vegan, she said, it’s important to make the right food choices, like avoiding simple carbohydrates and sugar.

“They also believe that being vegetarian is a lot of work in the kitchen. But if you plan your time wisely – like soaking your beans in advance, or making a big pot of stew the night before – it is not very time-consuming.”

Recipe: Eggplant and Seaweed Accras (from Caribbean Vegan)

Serves 10

Eggplant (aubergine/melongene) stands in for the fish, seaweed gives the fritters their characteristic flavour, and the Scotch bonnet gives it a spicy kick.

Ingredients

1 eggplant, peeled and cut into short, thin strips
2½ tsps salt
1 tbsp canola oil or another neutral-flavoured oil, plus more for frying
3 to 4 nori sheets, toasted and crumbled, or any other dried seaweed
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 – 4 green onions, minced
1 Scotch bonnet or habañero pepper, seeded and minced
2 tsps chopped fresh thyme
½ tsp black pepper
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¾ – 1 cup water

Method

Sprinkle the eggplant with 1½ tsps of the salt and let it sit for 10 minutes to draw out any bitterness. Squeeze the eggplant strips to remove excess liquid; they should turn brown.

Heat the tablespoon of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and sauté gently for about 5 minutes. Cover and continue to cook for about 4 minutes, until the eggplant is tender.

Transfer the eggplant to a bowl. Add the nori, onion, green onions, Scotch bonnet, thyme, black pepper, and the remaining 1 tsp salt. Stir until well combined.

Add the flour, baking powder, and water and stir until well combined. At this point, the mixture can be set aside in the refrigerator for a few hours or fried immediately.

To deep-fry the fritters, heat about 6 inches (15 cm) of oil in a deep, heavy pot over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes. To test whether the oil is hot enough, drop a teaspoonful of the batter into the oil. (Do not forget to remove this piece of batter.) If it gets too brown, turn down the heat.

Carefully spoon the batter into the oil, using about a heaping teaspoon for each fritter.

When you drop each fritter in the oil, make sure the spoon gets coated with oil. This will make the next fritter slide off the spoon more easily.

Fry the fritters for 4 minutes, turning them as they bob to the surface. The finished fritters should be golden brown and crispy. (You may need to add more oil to the pot.)

Drain on paper towels and serve warm.

Tips

The batter tends to turn dark if left overnight before frying.

It’s best to make it no more than three or four hours before you are ready to fry the fritters. It is possible to shallow-fry instead of deep-frying, but note that this will affect the shape of your fritters.

Can they be baked? Yes. Just portion the fritters onto a greased baking sheet and bake at 350°F (180°C) for 20 – 25 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking.