food / travel

Discovering Exquisite Vegan Food In Beef-Loving Bogotá

Colombians love their carne. But in the capital city, there are plenty of options too for top-end, meat-free dining.

A drink from the De Raíz restaurant in Bogotá, Colombia on February 22
A drink from the De Raíz restaurant in Bogotá, Colombia on February 22
Michelle Arévalo Zuleta

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.

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.

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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