I just saw a great question here regarding protein sources in vegan food; the answers summarize the nutritional specifics very well. I want to go in a different direction, so I'm going to reframe this a bit to deal with culinary aspects instead of nutritional qualities.

Most vegetarian/vegan food, from a culinary point of view, is still meat-centric. Veg dishes mostly either:

  1. omit the meat entirely,
  2. replace the protein, or
  3. could just as easily serve as a side/mezze, breakfast, or snack dish, instead of as a main dish.

I'm from Argentina, and anyone that's been can attest that most people there don't even know what the word "vegetarian" means. I still to this day cannot think of a single local dish that does not fall through the requirements above. Funnily enough, I get a similar feeling when I visit vegetarian or vegan restaurants in the US, with all their faux meat.

Dishes like Lo mein and pho could go equally well with or without meat, or replacing it with tofu. Rice and beans, grilled vegetables, and salads, on the other hand, all take a side role when a big protein comes into play.

Similarly, one of my favorite main dishes, a corn stew called Locro, changes its fundamental character when you make it vegetarian; it becomes Humita, more suited as a filling for pies and empanadas.

There are many amazing vegetarian dishes from cuisines around the world, but how many are really meant as main dishes that highlight vegetables? Is there anyone working on this point of view? I'm thinking along the lines of saag paneer, ratatouille, risotto, tempeh. Does anyone here know of any resources or cookbooks that focus on this issue?

  • 4
    "This is intended as a discussion with no right or wrong answers." Alas, you are in the wrong place for that I think. This is not a forum! Stack Exchange likes questions that can be answered, not just discussed.
    – Zanna
    Mar 26, 2017 at 6:03
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    I believe I get the point in your question about vegetarian dishes intended as a main meal, but I think there are too many possible answers and too much room for interpretation. I once had a cookbook called "vegetarian main meals from around the world" which had hundreds of recipes and I think all my cookbooks have at least major sections on main meals, with various degrees of traditional influence and improvisation. I will think about how you might be able to rephrase but I can't think of any way at the moment.
    – Zanna
    Mar 26, 2017 at 6:55
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    @Zanna I recommend Good Subjective, Bad Subjective which talks about how to answer e.g. questions about Parenting (which, you might think, also have " too many possible answers and too much room for interpretation"). The take-away is that "good" answers to subjective question should be based on something, either on references or on personal experience. So although this question is subjective, I think it can be answered.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 13:47
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    There are definitely concrete answers that can be given to the question posed at the end. @amagnasco Stack Exchange usually discourages "shopping list" questions, see for example here and here. Apart from becoming outdated they also attract spam (e.g. you could imagine 100 answers to this question, recommending various recipe books and web sites). For that reason and others, the concrete question at the end was the one part of your question which I didn't to try to answer.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 13:53
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    Also +1 to this question because I think that almost any question worth answering is also worth upvoting.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 13:55

2 Answers 2


The culinary pattern of "having some dense protein along with lighter ingredients" works, both from a flavor/texture and nutrition standpoint, whether it is implemented using meat (as found in both western and asian cuisine) or anything else (as is found mostly in asian/mediterranean/... cuisine, where you will find eg original tofu and tempeh dishes). Arguably, if you see plant and animal based dense protein as equal, adapting eg a beef dish to seitan, or a chicken dish to tofu, is just as "legit" as adapting a beef dish to goat meat.

The dishes that are truly meat/fish centric are those that either rely on natural shape of animal parts (eg a whole fish served in a pool of sauce or meat on the bone), those dependent on the exact texture or taste of a certain fish (hard to "fake"), or those deriving significant parts of their aroma profile (taste, as in basic six tastes, is comparatively easy to adapt!) from animal ingredients. The aroma issue makes eg some japanese or cantonese dishes that seem veg centric harder to adapt than eg szichuan meat dishes that actually derive a lot of their flavour profile from plant based ingredients, though the latter can pose more of a challenge due to the "natural shape" issue.

And since this question has a subtle opinion-flavor anyway: You don't owe anyone or anything not to satisfy your omnivore instincts if you want to - you (at most) owe animals not to involve them in that satisfaction process!

  • This is good! I'm searching for dishes that go directly against this pattern, actually. The problem I find is that most dishes either follow this pattern of dense-protein-lighter-ingredients (like a pho soup), or that they go in the opposite direction of several-equal-dishes (like an Ethiopian platter). I want to find more examples of a style that is specific to vegetable-centric main dishes, like ratatouille.
    – amagnasco
    Mar 27, 2017 at 14:16
  • Beans and nuts are dense protein/fat based ingredients too, just in a different form... adding them to a salad or pure-veg stir fry already makes a huge difference in overall palatibility, even if the salad or stir fry is full of umami and fat... seems to be about texture a lot :) The ethiopian platter, or a sadhya, would probably be very meh if you just mixed all the stuff together - too many similar textures probably :) Mar 27, 2017 at 15:08
  • Oh, and some other dishes hide cheese or similar things doing that function - parmesan in a risotto or pasta dish, on top of casseroles or pizza, paneer dishes (very tofu-adaptable :) , yoghurt (or the soy version :) :) ) in salad dressings or a lot of indian sauces.... Mar 27, 2017 at 15:11
  • I agree with everything you're saying, but do you have any thoughts regarding the specific style I'm looking for? I concur that texture, umami, and other essential components of flavor have to be balanced, but there's something that distinguishes dishes like ratatouille and risotto ai funghi porcini from other recipes with less.. Gravitas, for lack of a better word. There's a certain pomp and ceremony to them. In any case, moving to chat, hope to have your input there!
    – amagnasco
    Mar 27, 2017 at 15:40
  • @amagnasco What might give you a hint: I found the "ratatouille" (actually confit biyaldi) from the movie a bit lacking, probably because I didn't take the vinaigrette serious enough - another experiment using an agrodolce style sauce (imagine caponata bordering but not crossing into american-chinese ;) instead of the piperade ended in gorgeously intense food that just needed some pide with it :) Mar 30, 2017 at 7:43

There are innumerable vegetarian cook books.

I think your question is a matter of perception/opinion though -- I'm thinking of a "spinach, corn, and nut raised pie", as an example of big, central (festive) dish; but you might view that as a meat pie with a nut-based substitute.

I became vegetarian as an untaught young adult, so I went though a phase of thinking as you do: i.e. that "a vegetarian diet is a diet without meat", which (attitude) emphasizes the lack of meat and the substitution of meat. Later (e.g. now) I never think of meat except for other people. On the subject of protein, I view any dish with legumes (beans or peas or lentils) as "the central dish" -- i.e. they are "the protein" and never "take a side role when a big protein comes into play".

You might get some satisfaction from regional cuisines of countries with a Buddhist culture (some schools of Buddhism prefer vegetarianism), i.e. East Asia (China, even Thailand, etc.). I think it's a American-Chinese dish (maybe I met it in Singapore too) that's made with tofu and named "Buddha's delight".

Or "falafel" is an example from the middle-east (which I like as a fast food, but too difficult to home-make because they're deep-fried).

Another possibility is South Indian cuisine. I think (perhaps wrongly, I'm no expert) that North Indian cuisine is Muslim-influenced and often includes meat, whereas South India is sort of natively vegetarian (though also including dairy products like yogurt, so not vegan).

Maybe it's like learning a new language. For example, initially I understand French by translating from English (like, you understand vegetarian cuisine from a carnivorous or omnivorous perspective). Later I understand French fluently without translation (without reference to English), like a native. You wrote, "Rice and beans, grilled vegetables, and salads, on the other hand, all take a side role when a big protein comes into play." If I go somewhere and they give me grilled vegetables and salads then I'm grateful that they're trying to "speak vegetarian". If there's a dish with legumes in then I take that as their being fluently vegetarian.

For example ...

photo of Le Commensal

"This photo of Le Commensal is courtesy of TripAdvisor"

... above is an example of a restaurant (now closed) which I considered as "natively" vegetarian. It did have meat substitutes (some people/customers like those), it also had for example what's probably a lentil dish in the foreground, next to the carrots (and a chickpea dish two to the left of that, and so on).

Don't be too hard on restaurants. I admit that "eating out" is one of the difficulties of being vegetarian or vegan, depending on the country.

In the UK for example, my memory of it is that it used to be (in the 1970s) that the selection of vegetarian fast food was either "fish-and-chips without the fish", or "rice-and-curry without the curry"! Now there's much more choice. I think, I guess, that about 10% of the population (in the UK) is vegetarian, which is too big for restaurants to ignore.

Consider this scenario: a party of several (family or friends) want to go out to dinner. Only one of them is vegetarian. They stop and look at a menu and, if there isn't even a single vegetarian dish, then the whole party goes somewhere else. I guess it's for this reason that almost every restaurant in the UK now seems to offer at least one vegetarian selection.

Now consider the opposite scenario: a party of vegetarians with one carnivore (a guest) want to go out. If the (vegetarian) restaurant doesn't offer even one thing for the carnivore then the whole party must go elsewhere. I imagine (pure speculation on my part) that this is a reason why even an all-vegetarian restaurant offers a simulated meat dish (a "Boeuf Bourguignon" with fake beef, for example).

  • Thank you so much for your well thought out answer! I think we're getting close to the heart of the matter. I've been vegetarian since I was 3, and take enormous delight in every dish you mentioned. My question stems from a chef's point of view, the behavioral and social constructs that revolve around our digestive patterns. I agree with your statement regarding legumes and pies; they are indeed main dishes. But falafel is not, and I can't imagine anything more than a lunch dish highlighting it (believe me, I've worked it into a lot of recipes). I'm looking for a new paradigm, essentially.
    – amagnasco
    Mar 26, 2017 at 15:12
  • Off topic: You don't need to deep-fry falafels. They won't be quite the same, but if you just use enough fat and a normal frying pan they can also be delicious. And rest of the recipe is simple too, basically just chickpea flour, water and spices. Form balls with your hands. Could also go for some flatter shape better adapted to not-deep-frying.
    – Nobody
    Mar 26, 2017 at 20:54
  • @amagnasco Apart from protein, another palatable thing in meat is fat, of course. So for example add some tahini sauce to falafel, or guacamole to a bean burrito, or pesto etc. If you're a "chef", something I liked about Le Commensal was its offering a buffet of 30 cold and 20 hot dishes -- I used to help myself to 6 or 8 different cold dishes, small portions of each, on one plate. No single dish/ingredient was central. That's labour intensive though (to prep so many fresh dishes) unless you're a restaurant.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 26, 2017 at 21:10
  • @ChrisW ah, but that's exactly my point! Sure I can make a couple of mezze dishes, a few curries with naan, or maybe some enchiladas and salad. I can multitask/coordinate well enough that we can factor intensivity out of the equation. I want to see more central dishes, big things like lasagna, but that were designed from the get go to be vegetarian. Point in case: risotto ai funghi porcini. No one sane would make that as a side dish, for lunch, or for breakfast. It's exclusively a main dish for nice dinners.
    – amagnasco
    Mar 27, 2017 at 0:01
  • @Nobody the chickpea flour ones (while so delicious that you can eat a whole basketful) aren't falafel, they're pakoras/pholourie. Falafel are made with shredded chickpeas; I've made them from scratch with the dry beans and it's extremely labor intensive. The prepackaged dry mix comes out just as good and takes 1/10th of the time. Man I love falafels.
    – amagnasco
    Mar 27, 2017 at 0:11

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