BOGOTA — I confess that I've tried several times to stop eating meat and animal products, all for various reasons. A love of nature and for animals. I want to help the environment. Above all I'd like to improve my eating habits. But giving up things like fried fish, or ending a 20-year relationship with chicharrónes (fried pork), isn't easy.
Living in Bogota certainly helps. Because as much as Colombians love their meat, the capital city also offers a surprisingly ample array of exquisite, mouth-watering vegan options.
One commonly thinks of vegans or vegetarians as confined to eating lettuce — like rabbits, as my father used to say. But that's a myth, one I've personally debunked. As I searched out Bogota's vegan offerings, I encountered edible vegetables with a vast variety of flavors and textures. The options are so good, I realized, that even meat-eaters can be seduced.
Who, for example, would want to deprive themselves of the vegan version of the bandeja paisa, the traditionally meat-rich platter from Medellín that has been reinvented by Eddie García, a U.S.-based Mexican chef who will be coming to Colombia soon to show us how to improve our health without sacrificing taste.
Even some bodybuilders are now vegan, as is tennis star Venus Williams.
García saw in this hearty country dish an opportunity for herbivores to enjoy the same, crackling sensation of pork scratchings or the taste of spicy sausage. The bandeja paisa traditionally comes with eggs and sausage. And people who've tasted García's version would swear it includes them. But it's 100% vegan, and a real crowd pleaser in Los Angeles, where the innovative chef hosts a weekly non-meat day as part of an effort to seduce Latinos and Californians to join this lifestyle.
Another adventurous vegan option is Healthy Food Gourmet, in northern Bogota, which serves meatless hamburgers in purple or fluorescent green buns. This restaurant uses ingredients like octopus ink, chlorophyll or spirulina (algae extracts) to color its bread, which is milk and egg-free. The tastes of beetroot hummus, lentils and radishes burst in my mouth, leaving me wanting more. The hamburger recipes are original, and at 19,000 pesos a piece (6 euros), it's just all so good.
VG-Tal restaurant in northern Bogota, April 23 — Photo: VG-Tal Instagram
Then there's De Raíz, which serves a varied, all-day menu in a welcoming environment. For 16,000 pesos (5 euros) I tried a tortilla dish with crushed tomatoes and mushrooms (chilaquiles orellanos) along with my favorite — the kale and quinoa salad. Taste alone makes it a winner. But there's the added satisfaction of knowing just how healthy the food is. I also love their tiramisu, a mix of chocolate mousse, bits of coffee-laced cake and whipped cocoa cream.
For anyone still in need of convincing I recommend the Ciervo y el oso (Deer and Bear) in the mid-town Chapinero district. The eatery serves regional dishes for both meat eaters and vegetarians. I really like the ahuyama campesina — pumpkin (7 euros) grilled with beans — with guarapo (sugar cane drink), crunchy tofu and avocados. And for dessert there is ciudad perdida (lost city), a banana cake with coconut flour, cocoa flakes and chocolate sauce from the northern mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Yet another sure bet is VG-Tal, also in northern Bogota, where Solange Suárez has created a community atmosphere in which customers can try pies and desserts without milk, eggs or butter from 10,000 pesos. Her pastries are well-known, as is her mushroom risotto with porcini, which aren't cheap or easily found but are well worth a try.
De Raíz restaurant in Bogotá, Dec. 26, 2017 — Photo: De Raíz Instagram
It is no secret that the vegan lifestyle is winning adepts in our country. Still, a battery of socio-cultural obstacles remain, from scarce and expensive vegan products in supermarkets, to bad jokes, ignorance and the pervasive belief that vegan eating is deficient and bad for your heath.
And yet, even some bodybuilders are now vegan, as is tennis star Venus Williams. And as studies show, their carbon footprint is half that of meat eaters. So for those in Bogota, at least, know there are some excellent dining options. Go ahead and try them. I dare you. Because once you've had a taste, I'm fairly certain you'll return for more.
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