The Vegan Dilemma: How Latinx Embrace Their Heritage Through Veganism

In the past few years, even my non-vegan friends have expressed their worries about all the negative aspects of the meat and dairy industry. Some have told me that they’ve reduced their red meat consumption while others are trying to make the change for good. But there’s one thing that they all agree with: going vegan means “giving up” a huge part of their culture.

Mofongo con Carne Frita, Ceviche, Tacos al Pastor … you name it. Every Latinx culture has dishes that are key to celebrate our identity through our delicious ingredients. But, sadly, they contain non-vegan elements. In my case, an Ají de Gallina makes me feel close to home. My mom would make it for me growing up knowing it was my favorite. Today, I consider myself a vegetarian who tries her best to be vegan, but it’s really hard for me to connect to my Peruvian culture without having a “cheat day.”

This is why I asked around Twitter if people could relate to this and, to my surprise, I received hundreds of replies from Latinxs who where trying to find the perfect vegan recipe of their favorite dish and others sharing how they’ve “veganized” a traditional recipe from their culture. I connected with some of them to find out how they started their vegan journey, the reaction they had from their family when they started it, and some details of the recipes they mastered.

From an Argentinian making a coconut milk-based dulce de leche and a Salvadorian that swears by her “chicken” tamales to a Puerto Rican who mastered her vegan corn beef recipe and a Peruvian with a vegan Ají de Gallina recipe (OMG!). It’s time to get cooking!

Norma Pérez, Owner of The Salvi Vegan

Are you fully vegan? When did you decide to cut meet/animal byproducts from your diet?  Yes, I am fully vegan since 2015. I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis on my lower back, which ended my 20+ career as a choreographer/dance instructor and found out that meat consumption contributes to arthritis. I did a lot of research and when I saw the documentary “Earthlings.” That did it for me.

Was your family/close friends skeptical about your decision? How did they respond?      Oh, absolutely at first they were. They thought it was just another fad or diet I was getting into and had to explain to them that this was a lifestyle not a diet. They did tell me about needing protein as many usually do, “Yo necesito mi carne pa’ la proteína.” But I’d answer about the protein they are eating, that I am eating the protein their protein is eating so they are in actuality eating recycled protein. Also they’d say vegan food was bland but… when I’d bring food to gatherings, they’d stay quiet and eat my food

Do you think being Latinx and vegan is challenging when it comes to connecting with your roots through food?  I feel it is not as much of a challenge given that many of our dishes are vegan. At least in El Salvador, many can be easily veganized. If you think about it, our ancestors ate mostly plant-based. Our first pupusa to exist in El Salvador was called a pupusawa, half moon shaped and ingredients being squash flowers, mushrooms, chipilín herb, salt & other plants. It wasn’t until the colonizers came into El Salvador that they introduced the meat and cheese, which is what is popular now. It has always been there and if anything I’m trying to bring back our food to how our ancestors made it traditionally but bringing it forward in a new way. I want to show that you don’t have to loose the authentic sazón in our foods in order to be Latinx and vegan. I’ve been able to break that barrier by now having veganized close to 50 Salvadoran dishes and my 82-year-old non-vegan mamá approving of my food. That’s why my slogan is “It’s Mamá Approved.”

Can you share one of your traditional recipes from your culture that you veganized? 

One of the recipes that I first veganized was my mom’s Salvadoran chicken tamales. Mi mamá was always told to sell her tamales because they were good, but my mom has always been humble and shy so she would always decline. I remember asking her how much of each of the seasonings she would put on the salsa roja or other things for the tamal and she would say, “Ay, ¡yo que sé! Tú nomás pruébalo y échale y ya. ¡Déjame de estar preguntándome!” So I had to literally eyeball it as she’s putting her condiments and ingredients. Well, at the end of it, 13 ingredients she used and, once I veganized it, I only took 2 ingredients out to veganize it. I wanted to make sure to retain her sazón. Sure enough, when I made it asked her opinion, & she said, “Wow, mija, te quedo bien rico.” It’s her soul & my ancestors I’m trying to channel through when I make this food.

Jade Salzano, Full-Time MBA Marketing Student

Are you fully vegan? When did you decide to cut meet/animal byproducts from your diet? 

Yes, I am fully vegan and made the switch about a little over two years ago, after having a lot of difficulty with acne and bloating. I was actually, at the time, dating a Cuban guy who had suggested I go vegan to help with those issues. Seeing how open minded he was, too, was encouraging to make the switch.

Was your family/close friends skeptical about your decision? How did they respond?

My immediate family was definitely a bit more understanding than the rest of my family since they had seen all the struggles I was having with my skin and bloating and had heard me mentioning wanting to make the switch for health reasons. The rest of my family, though, was completely shocked, especially once the holidays came around and we had family fly in from Argentina. It was the first time they heard about me becoming vegan and I was so nervous about what they would think. So much of the culture is based around meat dishes and, obviously, most of our famous desserts have dulce de leche. There were a lot of comments and criticism about how I wouldn’t be able to get my protein and that I was going to turn into a “crazy animal rights activist” and start “attacking them for how they eat” and [they’d say] we were “born to eat meat.” And of course, “You’re Argentinian, how are you going to be Argentinian and not eat meat?”

Do you think being Latinx and vegan is challenging when it comes to connecting with your roots through food? How have you been able to break that barrier?  

 Absolutely, especially when so many Argentine dishes are centered around meat or even cheese. For a while, I felt like my diet was becoming very Americanized because I would really only eat things like avocado toast or veggie burgers. It’s also been a challenge finding cookbooks or recipes from Latinx culture since, for the most part, I’ve noticed there’s an overwhelming amount of white vegans. Obviously, I experiment a lot by myself as well. I’ve perfected pretty much every type of empanada recipe I would’ve needed, and of course dulce de leche which is a staple I make every week and keep in a jar in my fridge. Having the time off from work to really look into different substitutes and experiment has been helpful. I cook now for my family too and they’re very impressed!

Can you share one of your traditional recipes from your culture that you veganized?

Dulce de leche! For as long as I can remember, dulce de leche is the best thing you could have when you’re craving something sweet. When I was younger I would have them with vanilla flavored cookies, eat it out of the jar, make alfajores with my sister together too (we have the best recipe). The recipe I use to make it is 1 can of coconut milk, 1 can of coconut cream, 2 cups of brown sugar, and a little salt and vanilla extract. All you have to do is boil those ingredients and stir it every 20 minutes or so until thick and store in a jar overnight in the fridge. It’s really easy to make so it’s become a staple again in my life and you can use it on just about anything. My vegan dulce de leche is my favorite thing to have at the end of the night even if I’m just eating it out of the jar!

Nicolás Alfonso

Are you fully vegan? When did you decide to cut meet/animal byproducts from your diet? 
I remember eating a meal that had steak, chicken, and pork while I was watching “What The Health” and thinking to myself “What are you doing?” So, from that moment on, I started weening off and eventually became fully vegan in 2018 when I moved out of my parents home. 

Was your family/close friends skeptical about your decision? How did they respond?

The common trope for vegans is that we don’t get enough to eat, or that we eat grass. It’s quite the opposite; I feel like we eat A LOT. My parents often worried that I was not eating enough, or that I would be deficient in some nutrients. I was pretty informed and knew that with adding fortified foods to my diet, I should be okay. It’s been almost two years now, and I feel great! 

Do you think being Latinx and vegan is challenging when it comes to connecting with your roots through food? How have you been able to break that barrier? 

I remember when I first went vegan, I didn’t think I would be able to eat Peruvian food anymore and was overcome with sadness. I’m undocumented, so my Peruvian culture means a lot to me, and for Peruvians, food is like 99% of our culture (just kidding, but not really). I couldn’t live in a world where I wasn’t enjoying some delicious Peruvian food, so I decided to change that. I recently started my vegan Peruvian food Instagram (shameless plug @plant_based_inca) and wanted to make vegan Peruvian food more accessible to people.

Can you share one of your traditional recipes from your culture that you veganized?

My vegan Ají de Gallina was my first creation, and I was very proud of it. Ají de Gallina brings me memories of stealing the shredded chicken from the bowl, which would upset my mother. Instead of chicken, I used pulled jackfruit, and it came out so tasty. I eventually invited my mom to my house, and also my girlfriend’s family, and they enjoyed it.

Karla Alverio, Licensed Dispensary Technician and author of VeggieJeva

 When did you decide to cut meat/animal byproducts from your diet?

I started transitioning in 2011, while I was still in high school and it was a 7-year process. It all began when my English teacher sent our class individual assignments giving us the liberty to present a topic that we were passionate about. Two girls in my class presented topics within the vegetarian/vegan community; one presented the different types of vegetarians/vegans out there, and the other presented the classic slaughterhouse videos. To say the least, I was traumatized; got home and refused to eat any meat for a week! It wasn’t until 2015 that I moved out of my house for my 2nd year of university, and got my own groceries that I was finally able to cut-off all sorts of meats. During the rest of university, I tried multiple times to transition to veganism but it just didn’t stick. I promised myself that I would go vegan as soon as I graduated and moved back home. And I did.

Was your family/close friends skeptical about your decision? How did they respond?

Oh my god, yes! My family was extremely skeptical and non-supportive at first about that decision, I think that’s one of the reasons why I moved out. Although, surprisingly enough, my grandmother was the most supportive of all. I definitely don’t blame them, or hold any grudges. Back in 2011 to 2014, there was very little information out there about veganism; we’ve all been fed the stereotype of vegan/vegetarian hippies and that we only eat lettuce. And I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I knew absolutely everything about veganism back then. It wasn’t until I educated myself, that I could educate my family about the lifestyle that I wanted. Today, my family is way more understanding and accepting. For health reasons my mom became a pescatarian, and grandmother always recreates the vegan versions of my favorites (pasteles and alcapurrias). Everyone in my family loves everything I cook; they were my first fans of the blog. 

Do you think being Latinx and vegan is challenging when it comes to connecting with your roots through food? How have you been able to break that barrier?

As a Latina, I can say that food is really engraved in our culture. I cannot even begin to explain how challenging and bleak those first few family gatherings were. Even though my close family members got used to my way of eating, some of my other relatives/family friends just didn’t want to get it. In Puerto Rico, food is the center of every single event. It wasn’t until I started the blog and went full vegan in 2017, that I learned how to fuse Puerto Rican cuisine and veganism. I’ve been so lucky to have my grandmother help me explore that side; she’s the mastermind behind the vegan alcapurrias, vegan pasteles, and vegan arroz con dulce. Once that barrier was broken, I started getting more and more into it, and creating #VeganizedPuertoRican recipes that I never imagined to be possible: Arroz con SalchichasJackfruit “Pernil”, BacalaitosChicharrones de Pollo, and my most recent breakthrough, Vegan Puerto Rican Corned Beef.

Can you share one of your traditional recipes from your culture that you veganized?

I’ll give you my top three: Vegan BacalaitosVegan Chicharrones de Pollo, and Vegan Puerto Rican Corned Beef

The Vegan Bacalaitos were my first breakthrough; this is a recipe that I had never seen or heard before. There were some variations of vegan bacalaitos, but nothing like this recipe. At first, I couldn’t get the hang of the batter consistency and I insisted on adding turmeric for some reason… don’t do that, it will literally turn the bacalaitos red! The end result had everyone shook; somehow I made jackfruit taste like codfish and even I couldn’t believe it. To this day, I still wish that I would’ve filmed everyones reactions. The Vegan Chicharrones de Pollo hold a very special place in my heart. I grew up with a restaurant called Los Gorditos, right next to my mother’s small business. Their mofongo with chicharrones de pollo was my go-to, and being able to recreate the vegan version of that recipe whenever I want to eat something that reminds me of my childhood, it’s just incredible to me. 

The idea for Vegan Puerto Rican Corned Beef, literally came out of nowhere. Corned Beef hasn’t been part of my family’s diets for years. So it’s kind of understandable why it wasn’t immediately at the top of my head. A couple of weeks ago I was in a bit of an emotional rut combined with a creators block; I couldn’t figure out what my next recipes were going to be and I wanted to make another #VeganizedPuertoRican recipe ASAP. After days of thinking and trying to come up with something, I sat down and typed on google “traditional puerto rican recipes,” and there it was– corned beef. “Why didn’t it occur to me before?” That night I went to bed (well past my bedtime) writing a rough draft of the recipe; trying to figure out how I would get the perfect consistency, color, smell and taste. The next day I went out, bought the ingredients, made the recipe and nailed it on the first try. So, moral of the story, when you’re stuck trying to figure out something, sometimes you just have to google it.

Andrea Devoto

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