West-Centrism and Why Vegan is Not a Cuisine

Posted on August 13, 2010

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Walk through San Francisco or Boston or any urban center and you’ll come across a variety of veg*n (vegan or vegetarian) restaurants.  Walk into any establishment that claims to serve “vegan delights”  or “delicious vegetarian cuisine” and examine the menu.  It will invariably contain some salads, soups, interesting pasta dishes involving seitan or tempeh, usually a certain combination plate of North Indian food, and several types of sandwiches.  The selection will be eclectic, yes, but the message is clear: veg*n restaurants serve Western food.  It may be multi-ethnic Western food, and yes, it may be delicious, but the implication is that since Western food is normative, the only additional descriptor needed for the cuisine is “vegetarian” or “vegan”  (and sometimes “delicious”).   Restaurants that serve other types of food that is exclusively veg*n, however, must declare it: “vegan Indian food” or “vegetarian Thai cuisine.”  I have heard several folks on the street ask their friends whether they would rather “have sushi or vegan tonight.”  Vegan is not a type of cuisine.  Veganism is a set of guidelines.  Accordingly, a tempeh reuben is not anymore of a vegan staple than dosa and chutney.

Now what are the consequences of this kind of marketing? For one, it alienates people of color who consider their own food culture distinct.  Why should these folks feel unable to reclaim a healthy/sustainable/vegan form of eating from the cuisine they grew up with?  It also renders veg*ns of color somewhat invisible.  Fortunately I was too stubborn to be dismayed by the normative framework in the vegan-sphere, but the same doesn’t go for everyone. Still, even I am tired of seeing these assumptions at work everywhere.  How do we disrupt them?  We start naming accurately, for one.  We acknowledge that we are not eating “classic vegan food” when we try a boca burger, only a boca burger.  We cook dishes informed by other cuisines–trust me, our taste buds will be happier for it.  We support restaurants that serve plant-based food from cuisines we haven’t yet encountered.  And we celebrate the work of veg*n activists of color, like the following:

And so, the revised, slightly less catchy catchphrase for responsible foodieing: Eat plants, with the acknowledgement that your way of eating plants is not normative.  (I suppose I can’t write best-selling non-fiction with that one as the epigraph ;))

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