Karen Page’s latest book, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, is a novel concept, offering readers not recipes, but the tools and resources they need to elevate their plant-based cooking. The book wasn’t written to preach; it is here to educate and enlighten. Including a historical timeline of vegetarianism, flavor profiles of hundreds of foods, an alphabetical list of dish ideas, and even a color-coding system for vegetables, this book is a true celebration of plant-based cuisine.
We have been making our way through the book, learning something new on almost every page! When we heard Karen was willing to chat with us for a Q&A we couldn’t wait to share the conversation with all of you!
OLDWAYS: What is the biggest way your cooking has evolved over the years and how has this evolution changed the way you write about food?
KAREN: I’m a lifelong hedonistic food lover. Having eaten meat at least two or three times a day for a half-century, I thought it would be even more of a radical change than it turned out to be when I shifted to a plant-based diet in May 2012. What was radical was how much better I felt as soon as I did -- and how easy it actually was! I still cooked and ate most of the same things I always did – whether pasta or burritos or curries – and just shifted toward meatless versions of them, which often featured more vegetables. The lesson that hit home through my new way of eating is that the flavor profile of a dish is not rooted in its animal protein – it’s really rooted in its vegetables, herbs, and spices. Take my love of bacon – I learned that it was not the bacon itself that I craved, but rather its smokiness, its richness, and its crispiness. And I’ve learned that I can satisfy those cravings through plant-based options that are just as delicious and even more healthful. Especially given America’s current health crisis and the frustration out there – in that 52 percent of Americans would rather do their taxes than figure out what to eat to be healthier -- I’m happy to be able to share what I’ve learned through writing and speaking.
OLDWAYS: In the book you talk about your own transition to a plant-based diet. For someone thinking of taking a similar journey can you share some recommendations or insights to get them started?
KAREN: Start with what you love. If you love pizza, eat pizza – just introduce yourself to its pleasures without meat. My husband Andrew Dornenburg (who provided the book’s beautiful four-color photography) and I shifted from our usual sausage pizza to mushroom pizza with roasted garlic – and also shifted to half-cheese and eventually to no-cheese pizza. If you love Ethiopian food, don’t give up the pleasure of those deeply-flavored stews and tangy injera – just order the vegan combination. But even though vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower cholesterol levels and BMIs, a meatless diet isn’t necessarily a healthful one – so learn some basics of nutrition. If you think about eating one-quarter vegetables, one-quarter fruit, one-quarter legumes and one-quarter whole grains at an average meal, you don’t have to count calories or grams of protein or anything else. And be sure to eat a variety of plant-based ingredients so that you’re also getting a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.
OLDWAYS: In researching the history of vegetarianism, what surprised you the most? And what are a few interesting facts you learned?
KAREN: I had initially thought of writing a brief overview of vegetarianism in the United States starting in the 1960s or 1970s, but found the research so enthralling that it carried me away – so much so that the book’s historic timeline starts with the founding of Hinduism in ~3000-2000 BCE. I wasn’t previously aware that so many of history’s greatest geniuses – including da Vinci and Einstein – endorsed vegetarianism, and that those who abstained from eating meat were often known as “Pythagoreans” (named after the famed mathematician and philosopher) before the term “vegetarian” was coined in the late 19th century. It was also fascinating to see how distinct threads of influence – including religious, ethical, environmental, agricultural, nutritional, and even gastronomic – started being woven together to create today’s majority (54 percent) of Americans seeking to reduce (47 percent) or eliminate (7 percent) meat from their diets.
OLDWAYS: We truly love your idea of eating in a different country most days of the week. Can you explain this cultural eating concept and its health benefits?
KAREN: Not only are vegetables, herbs, and spices the heart of the flavor profile of any dish, but they are also the most nutrient-dense elements of any dish – that is, they deliver the greatest nutrition for the fewest calories. But even though leafy greens are among the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, you can’t get the full range of nutrients your body needs from eating kale or other leafy greens alone – so it’s important to eat a variety of different vegetables. I’m fortunate to live in Manhattan, where I can literally have food from more than a dozen different countries delivered to my doorstep in less than 30 minutes – and I often do! And I discovered that enjoying a wide variety of cuisines also enables me to eat an equally wide variety of vegetables – from the bok choy, long beans, and snow peas of Chinese cuisine to the celery root, eggplant, and leeks of French cuisine to the cauliflower, chickpeas, and spinach of Indian cuisine to the avocados, beans, and squash of Mexican cuisine – providing a cornucopia of nutrients.
OLDWAYS: Can you talk with us about the basic principles of flavor and how understanding them can elevate one’s cooking?
KAREN: During our research for THE FLAVOR BIBLE (2008), we strove to clarify the difference between flavor and taste – two terms often used erroneously as interchangeable. So we developed our Flavor Equation: FLAVOR = TASTE + MOUTHFEEL + AROMA + THE X FACTOR, which reflects that fact that flavor is all-encompassing of what is experienced via the tongue and the mouth as well as the nose – not to mention via all our other senses, plus our hearts, minds, and spirits. The point is simply that the more deeply you think about flavor, the more you can bring to every dish you make.
OLDWAYS: What is the best way for a reader to approach reading (and using) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible?
KAREN: Readers should know that this book isn’t a celebration of me or my creativity; it’s intended as a celebration of them and their creativity. As the creative process can start with literally anything, they’ll find list after list of possible inspirations – cuisines, seasons, flavors, ingredients, techniques, and more. One inspiration (say, summertime) will lead to another (say, grilling), which will lead to the selection of an ingredient (say, eggplant). That primary ingredient will lead to a secondary ingredient (e.g., basil, bell peppers, chiles, garlic, olives, tomatoes) which should be compatible with the first. Any tertiary ingredient added to a dish (e.g., capers, cilantro, curry spices, dill, ginger, soy sauce, tahini) should be compatible with the first two selected – and indeed, every subsequent ingredient should be compatible with every other ingredient. The Vegetarian Flavor Bible helps to steer the reader toward compatible flavors and flavor affinities that will enhance their successful experimentation in the kitchen.