“Isn’t vegan eating expensive?” I get this all the time. And it’s understandable. Kale, quinoa, chia, berries, almonds—these superfoods take center stage in those pretty vegan dishes that we see in feeds, with the growing interest in eating healthier and kinder, but they do not come cheap. Even vegan pantry items become specialty ingredients and come with hefty price tags. Meanwhile, those mainstreamed into major supermarkets such as almond milk or soymilk (the ones without added dairy milk powder) cost twice or thrice versus their non-vegan counterparts. No wonder people think eating vegan is expensive, turning off the veg-curious, which is sad.
Shifting to a vegan diet can be one of the kindest things we can do for our bodies. There is a mounting body of evidence that vegetarian and vegan diets provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of diseases. A nutritional update for doctors states that plant-based diets are actually “cost-effective, low-risk interventions” that “may lower body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol levels,… [as well as] reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and… heart disease mortality rates.”
Embracing the Kind Diet
There’s more. Called the “compassionate diet,” veganism is part of a way of life that “seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” (Vegan Society ) Vegans believe, and science already backs this up, that animals are sentient life forms, capable of feeling pain. “The question is not, ‘Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?’” says philosopher, jurist, and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. Thus, if animals can suffer, “there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration,” ” writes Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. Unfortunately, the rising demand for animal-based products worldwide has led to cruel practices (Warning! Content in link is graphic) that cause intense suffering (Warning! Content in link is graphic) ) on innocent animals so that meat is cheap and profit margins are wider. This ethical dimension is what differentiates veganism from vegetarianism.
Then there’s the environment. Meat, in particular beef, is considered “the new SUV” and for a good reason—animal agriculture contributes 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the total contribution of the entire transport sector (13%). Increasing demand for meat also means extensive land clearing worldwide; in the Amazon, 80% of the deforestation is because land is converted for cattle-raising. It’s water intensive too: for example, around 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce a pound of beef. Beans, peas, and soy, the foundation of vegan eating, has the least environmental footprint of the food lot.
The Low Down on Low-cost Vegan
These benefits are to little avail if eating vegan is unaffordable and people don’t explore going plant-based. It doesn’t have to be. Veg-curious? Here are tips to test the vegan waters on a budget.
Buy dried beans. Beans bulk up thrice their original size after soaking, cutting your cost by a third. Stock up on different beans, store them in clear containers for a pretty kitchen backdrop, and start exploring global flavors like Mexican chili, Indian dals, and Spanish fabada Asturiana simply by tweaking your spices.
Buy seasonal. While vegetables are grown year-round, those in season tend to be lower priced (and better tasting) so cook dishes that highlight them. Summer is the perfect season for ripe tomatoes, so make a large batch of marinara for pasta, pizza, stews, and more.
Sub fearlessly. No kale? Use kangkong! No vegan police will arrest you. Rule of thumb: sub with what’s available, affordable and does the same thing as the original ingredient. Want the nutritional punch of kale? Use malunggay. Use unripe jackfruit for its pulled-pork texture to veganize meat dishes. Ripe saba gives smoothies a creamier texture comparable to store-bought nut milk when blended with some liquid. No agave to sweeten? Muscovado will do.
Hooray for homemade. Vegan specialty foods cost little to make. One of the first things I did after becoming vegan is to learn how to make my own vegan staples. I make my own milk (recipe below), mayonnaise, sauces, sour and dessert creams, granolas, cheese spreads, and mock meats at a fraction of the cost and I know that there are no preservatives and other nasties in my version.
Explore umami. Ultimately, vegan food has to taste good. Says cookbook author Bryanna Clark Grogan, “Umami elements can add a powerhouse of flavors in meatless dishes, where it supplies the robust element that meat or poultry often give non-vegan dishes.” Some vegan umami sources include soy sauce, mushrooms, tomato paste, and fermented black beans. Our Bolognese recipe below uses soy sauce, tomato paste, and mushrooms to boost umami.
Basic Non-Dairy Milk
1 part nuts (e.g., pili, almonds, cashew) or grains (e.g., oats, cooked brown rice)
3 parts water
- If using nuts, soak overnight, drain, then rinse. If using oats, soak in the blender for half an hour. No need to soak cooked brown rice.
- Blend everything for a few minutes, scraping the sides of the blender with a spatula. If using a regular blender, you may need to strain the liquid for a silkier texture. (If making almond milk, you can use the strained pulp as a nasties-free face/body scrub.)
- Store for 3-5 days. Shake before use.
Munggo: The Little Bean that Could
Munggo is such an underrated, under-explored bean. Here are two dishes that go beyond the guisado. What I usually do is cook a big batch of munggo and then store it in the freezer for different dishes.
This is a versatile sauce. Used as is, it works as a meatless pasta sauce. Seasoned with Mexican spices and it becomes chili. You can also just add your favorite greens and serve it with brown rice.
1 cup dried shitake mushroom, soaked in 2 cups of water for 30 minutes with soaking liquid set aside
1-2 T oil
1 red onion, diced
4 garlic, minced
1 can, whole tomatoes
3 T soy sauce
2 T miso
2-3 T tomato paste
2 c cooked munggo
1 tsp fresh oregano
salt and pepper
- Divide the mushrooms in half. Pulse one half with all the soaking liquid in a blender 2-3 times to form a chunky slurry. Dice the other half. Set both aside.
- Sweat onions in a large pan with the oil over low heat for 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a minute until fragrant.
- Increase heat to medium. Tip the tomatoes into the pan, including the juice. Crush the tomatoes using the back of a wooden spoon.
- Add the mushroom slurry, soy sauce, miso, tomato paste, and munggo. Stir to combine and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, adding the oregano around 5 minutes before turning off the heat.
- Season to taste. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil before serving.
Note: Add a teaspoon of muscovado sugar if the canned tomatoes are a little sour. Alternatively, use the equivalent of 2 cups of fresh ripe tomatoes.
¼ c + 1 T extra virgin coconut oil
¾ c cacao powder
1 ½ c cooked munggo
½ c muscovado sugar
1/8 tsp salt
¼ c cocoa powder
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
- Blend ingredients under “Balls” in a food processor until thick and well combined. If you don’t have a food processor, you can mash this by hand using a fork or a whisk, although the texture will not be as smooth.
- Transfer the munggo-cacao mixture to a sealable container and put in the freezer for 1-2 hours.
- While waiting, prepare the coating by combining the “Coating” ingredients in a bowl.
- After 1-2 hours, remove the munggo-cacao mixture from the freezer. Using a teaspoon, scoop some of the mixture and roll it in between palms to form a ball. Roll the ball quickly in the coating and set aside in another sealable container.
- Repeat until all mixture is done, working fast so that the mixture does not melt.
- Place the coated truffles in another sealable container and let them chill in the fridge or keep in the freezer. Let it thaw a bit before serving.
Caption for photo: Truffles with different coatings/flavors: 1) Cocoa-cayenne (see recipe), 2) Toasted coconut, 3) Candied ginger
Mabi David has been vegan for two years now. She is training to be a professional plant-based cook and works with low-income women to mainstream affordable vegan dishes in the Philippines. For questions, you may DM her at Instagram (@mabidavid).