Vegan and vegetarian diets have exploded in popularity over the past few years. On social media, in the news, in grocery stores — even in fast food chains — vegan recipes and products are attracting more people than ever to this health-conscious way of eating.
In addition to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, which have been well-documented, a growing number of vegans and vegetarians in Latino communities are also embracing this way of eating to reconnect with, and reclaim, their precolonial heritage.
You see this trend most often in restaurants from California to Florida, where chefs are offering veganized versions of Mexican, Puerto Rican and other foods, gently steering Latino cuisines toward their ancient, mostly-plant-based roots. You’ll also spot it in cookbooks, like Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing and ¡Salud! Vegan Mexican Cookbook.
(If you’d just like to get to the food, skip to the bottom of this story for a delicious jackfruit taco recipe.)
Honoring Latino heritage
Among modern-day Latino communities, choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet is a (health-focused) way to connect with ancestral knowledge and honor the ancient eating patterns that fell prey to conquest, colonialism and assimilation into other cultures.
For example, many recipes that we think of as “traditionally” Mexican – rich in meat, dairy, lard and other animal products – have roots in the Spanish conquest. Before the Spaniards arrived, bringing meat and dairy from domesticated cattle, pigs, chicken, goats and sheep, Mexico’s indigenous population ate a primarily plant-based diet.
A more ancestral eating pattern, common throughout the region known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica), includes:
- Fruits and vegetables like papaya, jackfruit, prickly pear, avocado, plantains, nopal, jicama, calabacitas (zucchini), tomatillos and chayote.
- A variety of beans, peas and lentils.
- Amaranth (a versatile grain), wild rice, barley, maize and other grains.
- Chili peppers, coriander, allspice, bay leaves and other fresh herbs and spices.
- Chia seeds, quinoa, cacao, spirulina, acai and other items known to us as “superfoods.”
“With a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, there's typically a decrease in the saturated fats found in animal products, which could help promote heart health,” said Samantha “Sam” Spain, a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville, North Carolina. “There’s also an increase in dietary fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and decrease the risk of diabetes.”
This is especially important in Latino communities where traditional cuisine has grown increasingly Americanized, often resulting in rising rates of obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Latinos in the U.S. are also 50% more likely to die from diabetes than non-Latino whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Plant-based diets can lower the risk of these conditions, reduce the likelihood of developing other chronic illnesses, decrease reliance on prescriptions, and possibly reverse advanced coronary artery disease and Type-2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Also, vegan and vegetarian diets offer a more budget-friendly way of shopping,” Spain said. “Animal products like meat are expensive. So plant-based eating decreases your food budget, for a positive impact economically and health-wise.”
Reworking traditional recipes
Reworking traditional recipes using new, plant-based meat alternatives like tofu, seitan, and tempeh, which mimic the texture of meat, is an easy way to “veganize” favorite Latino foods. A stroll around most regular grocery stores reveals ready-made options made to replace chorizo, ground beef and cheese and sour cream.
“Many of these foods also take on flavors really well,” Spain said, “so it’s very easy to incorporate them into traditional flavor profiles.”
Meat alternatives can be helpful, but many traditional recipes are already based on healthy, whole ingredients like beans, rice, quinoa, plantains, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.
“These foods are naturally vegan, vegetarian and sometimes even gluten-free, and they provide significant nutrients and fiber,” Spain said. “So, you can easily transition to using these natural ingredients in tacos, arepas, empanadas and other items that are usually filled with meat.”
In Mexican and other Latino cuisines, animal products also appear in the form of lard and butter. While vegetable shortening is a simple substitution, according to Spain, it offers no nutritional value. Instead, she suggests using avocado or olive oil as a more flavorful, health-conscious alternative. Air fryers are another option for healthier crispy foods.
Dietitians help us figure things out
Despite the benefits, changing to a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern can be challenging for Latino people whose families often cherish traditional meat recipes like carne asada, mole de pollo and meat-filled enchiladas.
“Change is hard, no matter what,” Spain said. “But in Latino communities, moving to a plant-based diet is really a way to naturally embrace more traditional ingredients. It may be different, but the food can still be just as tasty and satisfying.”
Vegans and vegetarians who find it difficult to enjoy family gatherings due to their eating preferences often find it easiest to bring a few plant-based dishes to share. This way, no one goes hungry. And who knows? Meat-loving family members may reconsider when they taste a delicious, truly traditional Latino recipe.
Interested in trying vegan Latino fare? Start with this delicious recipe, which calls on green (unripe) jackfruit as a stand-in for carnitas (pork).
Best Jackfruit Tacos
For the filling:
2 15-ounce cans green (not ripe) jackfruit in water or brine
1/2 cup yellow onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons adobo sauce from a small can of chipotle peppers in adobo (optional, but adds spiciness and contributes to the “meaty” color)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
For the tacos:
8 corn or flour tortillas, or whatever variety you prefer (or more small, street-style tortillas)
Fresh cilantro leaves, removed from stems and torn into smaller pieces
Salsa (fresh, if possible)
Other toppings as desired (avocado, tomatoes, vegan cheese or sour cream, etc.)
Vegan- or vegetarian-style refried beans (made without lard)
Rinse and drain jackfruit in a colander. Press to remove as much water as possible. Use fingers to shred the pieces (to resemble pulled pork).
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté for about 3 to 4 minutes until tender and fragrant, but before garlic browns.
Add jackfruit and remaining ingredients (use 1 tablespoon of adobo sauce for a mild flavor, or up to 2 tablespoons for a spicier version). Cook for about 5 minutes on medium low heat until saucy.
If desired, char the tortillas by placing them on an open gas flame on medium for a few seconds per side, flipping with tongs, until they are slightly blackened (or warm as desired in frying pan or microwave).
To serve, place the jackfruit in a warmed tortilla and top with romaine, salsa, and cilantro. (Add other toppings as desired.) Serve immediately, with a side of vegan refried beans for additional protein.
Nutrition (serves 8): 145 calories; 5.4 grams total fat; 2.9 grams fiber; 8.8 grams sugar; 2.8 grams protein
Adapted from A Couple Cooks: https://www.acouplecooks.com/best-jackfruit-tacos/