why I don’t buy vegetarian cookbooks; a vegetarian cookbook I’m madly in love with.

I haven’t eaten an animal product in 17 years, but I try to keep my distance from the vegan world.

It’s mostly a bunch of well-meaning, cute, tattooed people preaching to the choir and cheering each other on. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not exactly my scene. I’m not into clubs—I pretty much adhere to Groucho Marx’s view of them—and I prefer to market my business more toward those who eat animals, so they can be persuaded to stop or reduce their consumption not by ethical arguments or sad photos but by the sheer delight of how superior vegan food can be.

When I was in college and cooking school, I kept my distance from the vegan world because its food was so dreadful as well, but, happily, veganism has become much tastier in the last decade or so.

Most of the sad sprout-sandwich restaurants have shuttered, and in their place are vibrant, glorious places cooking up an amazing, and amazingly diverse, variety of food. My favorite restaurant in the universe, Kajitsu, is a completely vegan Japanese shojin ryori (traditional, centuries-old Buddhist temple cuisine, always vegan because of the Buddhist belief in the sanctity of all life) restaurant—the adorable chef, Masato Nishihara, (who I’ve made my BFF by plying him with chocolate boxes every time I visit) serves breathtakingly beautiful multi-course meals, each one a miniature masterpiece on a plate and on the tongue. There are gems like this all over the country, and the world. (Mostly in New York City though, which is why I’m always so happy to live so close by.)

Likewise, the vegan cookbook world has improved tremendously in the past few years. Gone are the bland, 2-color paperback cookbooks with lentil loaves and endless stir-fries (We’ve finally mostly thrown the Moosewood books under the bus, thank heavens.), and in their place is a whole new crop of colorful, mainstream-friendly cookable cookbooks by a new crop of chefs and authors. My favorites are the ones I worked on, of course, the Best of Bloodroot cookbooks, and the lovely Isa Moskowitz’s ever-growing empire of friendly books, whose rise marked a sea change in the vegan cookbook world—she made vegan food look better than its meaty counterparts. Which it is, of course.


To my taste, the veganverse is still way too jammed with vegan versions of crap supermarket birthday cakes overflowing with sickening margarine, artificial colors, and so much sugar even a chocolatier like me can only handle one bite; baby cookbooks with overly simplistic knock-offs of “real” classic dishes (french onion soup without beef broth and miles of cheese cannot be veganized by substituting store-bought vegetable broth and a nutritional yeast-sprinkled crouton); and way more style than substance. Many lovely and well-meaning bloggers who have endless glorious camera techniques up their sleeves but almost no kitchen experience (more savoir-faire than savoir and saveur) are writing fluffy little books with precious little real information.

Wanting, as I do, the entire world to become vegan, this doesn’t really bother me.

I mean, it bothers me in the sense that I am personally only interested in quality work, but how many mediocre non-vegan cookbooks are out there? In a vegan world, we have to prepare ourselves for lots of vegan crap.

Worse, to me, 99% of vegan cookbooks (a number I just made up, but if it’s not accurate it’s only because the actual number is around 99.5%) are written by white people, and contain recipes for food that has traditionally been eaten by white people. I’m just not all that interested in what white people have to say, particularly when it’s about white people’s food. I am a white person, and this is why I know that white people, by and large, eat really boring and stupid food.

All these factors are why I rarely buy vegan cookbooks. I’m a cookbook fiend, but unless I can learn from a cookbook, I don’t want it. When I buy cookbooks, I buy what is usually (and extremely insultingly) called “ethnic” cookbooks—books by people of color from all around the world. My absolute favorite genre of cookbooks, one that doesn’t exactly exist, is books that describe what poor people around the world have eaten for centuries. Poor people have typically eaten little meat, so that’s a bonus, and I like food borne out of ingenuity.

I lugged a giant coffee-table cookbook with me on vacation, and I’m happy I did—I knew from the minute I heard about it that I wanted to savor it slowly, which can only happen on vacation. My sous chef Stephanie (of the amazing Halloween costume, yes) went to dinner at Kajitsu one night and came back with a flier about an event they were having to promote a book called Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, by Elizabeth Andoh, whose reports from Japan in Gourmet I’d enjoyed over the years.


THERE WAS AN ENTIRE BOOK ABOUT THE VEGAN FOOD OF JAPAN THAT I HAD MISSED HEARING ABOUT? Me, who is so obsessed with Asian food that my friend Than calls me Lagusta Ye? Me, whose name on Facebook is “Lagusta Umami”? Would it have recipes for nama-fu (a seitan-like protein made with rice flour), for tofu made from sesame (goma-dofu), for sweet red bean desserts, for exquisite soba noodle dishes and the clear soups that I am so obsessed with at Kajitsu? Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes. The next time I was in the city (to go to Kajitsu, coincidentally [not exactly coincidentally, since going to Kajitsu is pretty much the only reason I go to the city these days), I made a beeline for St. Mark’s Bookshop and picked it up. At home, I put it in my suitcase. After a few days spent with it here in Hawaii, I can confirm that it’s every bit as good as I had hoped it would be. What a treat.

It makes me wonder though—why didn’t I hear about this book before? As much as I try to stay my distance, I have a pretty accurate pulse on the digital vegan world, though Facebook and magazines and blogs I quickly skim for trends and news. I hadn’t come across one mention of the book in my daily travels through the digital veganverse, and that right there exemplifies the problem with the state of veganism in 2011.

It’s OK though. I’m a secret elitist (well, as much of an elitist as an anarchist can be), not in that I want to sit around eating gold leaf-covered truffles all day, but in that a fundamental belief of mine is that most good stuff never gets the press it deserves…and the mainstream world is so horrifyingly uninterested in good stuff that this is probably as it should be. It’s up to us, the elites (thanks, Sarah Palin, I’ll wear it proudly) in an intellectual (not class or financial) way, to find our own treasures, those the mainstream (even the vegan mainstream) has ignored.

Kansha means “appreciation.” I’m wildly appreciative and thankful this wonderful book has entered my library, and I can’t wait for its techniques and recipes to enter more of my everyday cooking style.



32 thoughts on “why I don’t buy vegetarian cookbooks; a vegetarian cookbook I’m madly in love with.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention why I don’t buy vegetarian cookbooks; a vegetarian cookbook I’m madly in love with. « Lagusta's Luscious! -- Topsy.com

  2. Oooh, that book looks amazing! Have any other recommendations? I love buying cookbooks, but I have way too many of those unfortunately not very exciting books that I bought just because they’re vegan. I feel like a lot of them would be great for someone just starting out being vegan and/or learning to cook, but for someone who’s been vegan for almost 12 years and spends an above-average amount of time on cooking and thinking about food some of them can be a bit…uninspiring. Not that these books don’t have their place in the world, just not sure that place is my limited shelf space. I’ll have to check out the Bloodroot books, somehow I’ve missed them entirely!

  3. Glad to know someone shares my feelings on this topic. In the early days of my veganism, I used a lot of vegan recipes and a lot of the them were so annoying & so convoluted compared to the original food. Sweets were particularly frustrating as it was almost impossible to find something without several processed ingredients that I would have to substitute out to keep my dignity. Who puts fake yogurt in a blondie recipe, and must everything be made with silken tofu?! Not to mention the unfortunate ubiquity of the margarine whose name I won’t mention. I don’t know what process a lot of these vegan cookbook writers use to develop recipes, but how complex is it to take a blondie recipe from a trusted cookbook author with 1 egg and a stick of butter in it and convert it using flax seeds and coconut oil?

    I eventually found myself eyeing non-vegan cookbooks almost exclusively at the bookstore and the library, always feeling somewhat guilty holding, say, a middle eastern cookbook with a lamb shank on the cover. But the wealth of vegan or almost recipes within – traditional, straightforward recipes based on legumes and fresh vegetables, without weird things like TVP or soy mayo, in my opinion, is worth it. Heck, just not having to see the word “margarine” on every 4th page alone is probably worth it for me.

    Coincidentally, I also just recently came across the Kansha cookbook and it is definitely on my wish list. I hate to be cynical, but my guess is that it hasn’t made a splash in the vegan community because they have their heads too far up their own asses to notice it. The established vegan-written cookbooks get most of their attention. This cookbook, written by an expert on Japanese culture who happens to be writing this time on vegan traditions in Japan, previously wrote a more comprehensive book of Japanese cuisine (I just flipped through it in google books and while there are no recipes in the preview, the photography and details on Japanese pantry staples are a delight ). She’s exactly the kind of writer whose vegan cookbook I would buy, yet she’s also the kind of writer most likely to be off the radar for most mainstream vegans. Sigh.

    Anyway, I do have one point of disagreement regarding your oversimplification of all white people’s food as being boring. Though I do adore and often prefer the food of people whose skin is a range of pigments darker than mine, I do think there are plenty of fair-skinned cultures with (even if just a few )delicious and animal-free food traditions. Being Polish myself, I have long ago eschewed the motherland’s beloved pork dishes and tripe stew, but I still delight in barsch czerwony, pierogi
    & kapusta z grzybamy (stewed sauerkraut & wild mushrooms – makes a delicious pierogi filling as well), for example. And most other European countries contribute at least a handful of lovely foods.

    Anyway, I’d better leave it at that before my comment becomes longer than your post! Thanks for reinforcing my desire to get the book.

  4. Heya Jen! Yeah—definitely check out the Bloodroot books! I’m on vacation right now and am having a total blank on other favorite cookbooks–ahh, I am too relaxed! What’s happening!! More to come!

    Hello Marta! Yes, the silken tofu! I’ve written many a screed against the old Earth Balance on my other blog, I’m on a crusade against the stuff: http://blog.lagusta.com/2008/07/02/of-earth-balance-and-the-state-of-veganism-in-2008/…and many other rants. Man, I can’t stand it.

    Yep, totally agree with you about the cookbook thing–I subscribe to a bunch of food magazines, and as horrible as it is to get those November turkey covers, they blow Veg News, etc, out of the water.

    True about white people’s food–for sure. I should have said maybe something like mainstream assimilated American crap supermarket white people’s food or something. Oy.

    And fivefootwo: Yay! Oh man, I love that Liz Phair song.

    • You sound like a racist. Why don’t you go live in Africa or China, if finding good food in USA is such a bother, what with all those dreadful white people’s recipes. I’m White and I love white people’s food – not to the exclusion of other people’s food, but anybody who hates her own people and traditions has some challenges. And that’s you and the owner of this site.

  5. Lagusta – you may not remember me, but before i moved i was part of the food-co-op in gardiner w/ youko.

    anyway – i have been cooking from andoh’s washoku (not vegan) for sometime, and got kansha as soon as it was available. i love her recipes because they are the closest thing i’ve had to the homestyle food my japanese friends cooked for me!

    good luck and have fun w/ the new book – you will find it amazing – even just to read.

    • Hi Kim!

      Of course I remember you!! Yay for another Andoh fan! It’s funny you say that, because her recipes remind me of Youko’s food, which I’m so lucky to have so nearby…yum.

  6. ditto – it was the first cookbook that echoed quite a few things that Youko taught me. if i was still living there, i would be a regular at her restaurant (i’m jealous of all northeasterner in general now, albuquerque is really behind in the way of my food likes, but they are trying! i got spoiled growing up where i did).

    i love, love reading you blogs and your food pics are inspiring 🙂

    much love, kim

  7. ps – i am signed up w/ andoh thru her website, and you may want to check it out, she periodically sends out a newsletter with recipe, and she is doing a very relaxed “cook along” at her kansha and washoku sites (i think she has 3 sites all together).

    here’s the link to kansha: http://www.kanshacooking.com/

    • Oh cool!!! Thanks for the tip. Ah, Albuquerque! My driveway is covered with ice as we speak….and I bet you have the most glorious chilies!

  8. Thank you for reading my mind and telling it like it is about the storm of vegan cookbooks hitting the markets. I stopped buying them right after macrobiotic culinary school where I learned how to not eat crap. So many vegans are thrilled that they can now eat and have access to vegan junk food (crap). And more and more authors with no nutrition knowledge continue to push this junk in cookbooks and people continue to eat it, while their health continues to decline. Woah, I’m rambling now.

    Thanks for spreading good food!

      • I went vegetarian because of chest pains I got when I ate meat. I’m vegan now for ethical reasons but since even 2009, there’s been a LOT of new vegan junk foods made available. I swear, I felt healthier before I learned of Gardein, Tom’s Hot Fries, and the Vegan Doritos. I’ve been moving more to Japanese style cuisine in an attempt to eat healthier and to acclimate to the taste of the food because I want to at least visit there someday.

        How good is this cookbook for beginners? I try to buy digital ebooks and I use Kobo but they want nearly $19 for it(Walmart has a price tag of only $12 online but I avoid them like the plague and feel like I need a scarf, large brimmed hat and big shades when I go into one)

      • I went vegetarian because of chest pains I got when I ate meat. I’m vegan now for ethical reasons but since even 2009, there’s been a LOT of new vegan junk foods made available. I swear, I felt healthier before I learned of Gardein, Tom’s Hot Fries, and the Vegan Doritos. I’ve been moving more to Japanese style cuisine in an attempt to eat healthier and to acclimate to the taste of the food because I want to at least visit there someday.

        How good is this cookbook for beginners? I try to buy digital ebooks and I use Kobo but they want nearly $19 for it(Walmart has a price tag of only $12 online but I avoid them like the plague and feel like I need a scarf, large brimmed hat and big shades when I go into one)

  9. WHOA! I am so happy that I read this today! I checked Andoh’s Washoku cookbook from the library last year and was so OBSESSED that I turned it in late. I veganized everything I could (that wasn’t already vegan,” using her taste principles. It also snowballed me into an internet search obsession to find more authentic vegan Japanese recipes, because, let’s face it, I am so white, I need help. I don’t know how many times I googled “vegan Japanese cookbook.”

  10. I’ve got a cookbook called Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. I love it. It was written by Menonites who collected “traditional foods” from all over the world and yes they include a meat section (which gave me a few new ideas for seitan) but I found lots of great simple vegan foods. The More With Less Cookbook is it’s companion.

    As for the Moosewoods, Laurel’s Kitchen etc. I love them like I love my aunts and uncles. The recipes feel out dated but they are super healthy and emphasize whole foods cooking, unlike lots of newer vegan recipe books which teach you how to make trash. I certainly can’t use these old school books exclusively but I have learned a bunch by reading them.

    One more thing, since I’m commenting, this is perhaps one of the best blogs I’ve found. It’s really well done. It is, however, supremely elitist. It reminds me of a white friend of mine who only hangs out with brown poor people and talks trash about white hippies who are snobby. She goes on rants about them but little does she know that her trash talking makes her sound like she thinks she is superior to them. I’m kind of an anarchist vegan person too but I’ll admit that I think that my way of eating is better than most, so I guess that makes me elitist. I know I know I know that cooking veggies can be cheap and it makes more sense etc. but the amount of cultural capital required to know about red quinoa, blackbean tempeh and tahini miso dressing is astronomical. I think.

    • I really don’t understand your comment whatsoever.
      First you admit you’re a food elitist, then you call me one like it’s an insult?

      So you’re saying that since it takes some knowledge to know about things like red quinoa (eaten by Peruvians since the dawn of time, perhaps the ultimate working-class food) black bean tempeh (ditto with Indonesians) tahini (ditto Middle East), I shouldn’t mention them? What exactly are you saying?

      This Sarah Palin-inspired crap with the “e” word has to go. Yes, I’m an elitist. Proud of it.

      I’m insanely smart, educated (with the debt to show for it, but most of my education has been self-taught on the job, to be honest), and I eat really, really well. I’m not ashamed of it, and I want to change the food subsidies and corporate handouts to giant agribusinesses to lower food prices on real food to all.

      Let me tell you a little bit about my path to my proud food elitism.

      I grew up so poor, we ate bread cereal every morning–bread and milk, in a bowl. And that was when we had any food whatsoever to eat. My brother and I would make “sandwiches” with white bread and brown sugar, with some margarine if we were lucky. We foraged in our neighborhood before we knew what the word meant—all we knew was that we were HUNGRY, and if our neighbor had tangerines, we were going to steal as many as we could. My mom had a good job, but my father was a drug addict and a drug dealer, so all of my mother’s salary plus much more went up his nose. I went to a school so ridden with gang-violence that we couldn’t have lockers, because kids would bring guns to school. I’ve worked my ass off as well as gotten straight As since I was 14, because I wanted to escape my situation.

      And I did.

      My father went to federal prison, I earned a scholarship to college on the East Coast. I worked my ass off there, while also maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, and then I went to cooking school, while I worked full time. And now I built my own company where I regularly work 15-hour days. I work hard because I want a good life. I own my house, I own my car, I own my life. I’ve eaten so many cans of Goya beans and generic cereal that now my heart soars when I order heirloom beans and heritage grains. I glory in every minute of it. My heart pounds when I open my walk-in fridge at work. FOOD. I can eat as much as I want. It’s a miracle I’m never not grateful for. I work my ass off, and I am so proud of how I spend my money–on nourishment, on sustenance on the deepest level.

      I spend my money on expensive food because I believe that food is political—that no one should suffer because others need to eat. I buy chocolate not made by child slaves. It costs more. I can pay more. So I do. And I believe that if people can’t afford my ethical chocolates, they should go without chocolate, instead of buying Hershey bars made under unspeakable cruelty. Is that elitist? I don’t buy tomatoes in February picked by actual human slaves in Florida. I pay $5 a pound for heirlooms grown by friends of mine in August, so they can work to buy their own farm and maybe take a day off now and then too. Is that elitist?

      There are structural problems that create food shortages in this country, there are structural problems that we must fight to fix that ensure that poor people—people like me, because if you grew up desperately poor, there’s always a part of you that’s always poor—have access to something other than trash food. There wasn’t a supermarket in the neighborhood I grew up in, but there sure were liquor stores. I grew up next to one, and my taste for Snickers and potato chips was cemented way before my taste for mangosteens and the finest Criollo cacao beans.

      I worked damn hard to know what I know, to be able to afford what I afford, to have this immense privilege of eating actual real food. It’s pathetic that that’s a privilege in this society. That is something that must change. But I never want to change rewarding smart people, people who have worked astonishingly hard for what they’ve accomplished, people proud of their accomplishments.

      We must fight to get food stamps taken at our farmer’s markets, we must support small companies working to bring real food to all communities, we must wrest control of our food system from corporations.
      But I’m sure as hell not going to shut up about real, quality food just because people who have no idea what they’re talking about think it’s elitist to pay a fair wage for real food.

      • nobody – and I mean nobody – considers every aspect of her business as much as you do. If that is elitist, then YAY for elitist people. Every bite of one of your chocolates is like being transported to another world. The bonus is knowing that everyone along the way was fairly compensated. I am going to check out that cookbook -thank you for sharing truly phenomenal food with us.

      • Your philosophy is brilliant. Your passion is sensational. Your strength to overcome adverse circumstances as a child is admirable. Your profound food knowledge and desire to share it can provide a positive influence the world needs and will be undoubtedly better for.

        Your haughty tone, however, is what will turn off many non-vegans (one of your supposed target audiences) who might otherwise listen to the valuable insight on offer here and use it for the betterment of their diet.

        Being “elite” isn’t a crime, especially when you’ve worked hard for everything you have built. Nothing excuses the rank condescension and the contempt in both this article and your response above though. (No, I don’t expect you to agree, care or change this attitude).

        In any case, keep up the good work.

  11. Vegans are notoriously elitist it’s no secret. It sucks but it’s true. Anyway, I tried re-writing my post so that it makes more sense but it just became too much of a project. Ultimately, I like your blog and I hope you check out the world community cookbook.

    • I’ve talked a lot about the elitism of the vegan world at large, particularly in my review of Sistah Vegan. (http://blog.lagusta.com/2010/06/25/book-review-sistah-vegan/) Sorry to be a grump, but it’s just not helpful to state “vegans are notoriously elitist” to a specific vegan. Yes, there are class issues in the vegan movement. Let us address them together, instead of tarring every individual vegan with the same very broad brush.

  12. Pingback: The frugal simple singleish gourmet: Japanese-style simmered turnips. Also: the tale of a peel. « Lagusta's Luscious!

  13. Not sure if you’ll read this post since this entry was a couple years ago. Ran into your blog while looking up Kurihara Harumi. Perhaps a bit harsh on the (white) vegans…maybe it’s because I have a sister who lives in Portland surrounded by the stereotype you just described. Even if I’m thinking it (yeah, I’m in agreement with you for the most part) it’s not worth getting into a fight with my sister! For the most part I don’t own vegetarian cookbooks but I can make an exception for some of the Follow Your Heart recipe books. I did get a good laugh about white people’s food sucking. I’m also white (well, half Japanese) and vegetarian, and my husband is Indian. He makes the joke about never trusting a recipe from a white person when it comes to eggplant…at first I was offended when he would say stuff like that, but holy cow…he’s pretty much right on that…ESPECIALLY after trying his mother and aunt’s eggplant recipes! Between the two of us, however, we have concluded that the best “white people” contribution to cooking is probably breakfast–thank you for the omelets, waffles, sausages, etc. Anyhow, getting back to your topic on vegetarianism and Japanese cooking, you should check out Nobu’s Vegetarian Cookbook as well: http://www.amazon.com/Nobus-Vegetarian-Cookbook-Nobu-Matsuhisa/dp/4894449056

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