Miyoko Schinner on Indulgence, ‘The Vegan Meat Cookbook,’ and the Meal that Changed Her Life

The cookbook author and Miyoko's Creamery founder discusses what "meat" means in cooking and culture

Photo: Photo of Miyoko Schinner by Matt Lever

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Miyoko Schinner never expected herself to write a cookbook with the word meat in the title – even a vegan one. “I’m an odd person to be writing this book, because my own experience with meat is not that deep,” she says of her new work, The Vegan Meat CookbookThe book is Schinner’s fifth on the subject of plant-based cooking. Her Artisan Vegan Cheese is an essential reference in many vegan homes, and led to the launch of her own vegan cheese and ‘dairy’ product line, Miyoko’s Creamery.

While she may not have eaten much animal meat in her life, she has spent considerable time thinking about how it functions in both cooking and culture. The Vegan Meat Cookbook addresses the lengthy history of faux-meat which, she writes, was the domain of Buddhist monks in Asia a few centuries before Impossible Burgers hit the scene – and makes the case that umami-rich, plant-based meat dishes can function both as a gourmet indulgence for the full-time vegetarian and as a way for flexitarians and omnivores to comfortably transition away from animal proteins.

Vegetarian Times spoke with Schinner about the book, the meal that inspired it all, and the one type of faux-meat that the corporations can’t seem to capture (but she has figured out a way to DIY).

Try the King Trumpet Mushroom Carnitas Tacos Recipe from The Vegan Meat Cookbook

When did you start to think about plant-based alternatives to animal meat? 

I think my first introduction to meat substitutes was going to an amazing Chinese Buddhist restaurant that opened up while I was in my mid-20s and living in Japan. They just had fixed-price meals, which was something you didn’t usually find in a Chinese restaurant, and it was very expensive. It was about 5,000 yen per person for the cheapest meal, which was about $50 at the time back in the 1980s, which was a lot of money then. I was blown away by how they imitated meat with mushrooms and wheat gluten and things like that. I think that was really my first introduction.

What inspiration did you take away from that experience?

I realized that the one thing about vegetarian cooking is that occasionally you want something to chew on. There’s a textural thing that meat has, that unless you prepare vegetables a certain way, you can’t quite capture. There are many, many “meaty” forms of vegetables, but what I discovered at this Chinese restaurant was, “Wow, you can do things with wheat gluten. You can do things with soy. You can make tofu behave in a certain way,” et cetera.

I found that very, very exciting and actually kind of expansive. As a relatively new vegan at the time, it allowed me to explore things that was outside of just the vegetable kingdom. Staying within plants, of course, but really just changing the form factor of plants and expressing them in a different way was very, to me, exciting and creative. For me, the culinary arts has always been about creativity, about, “How much can you think outside the box? How many ways can you prepare a carrot? Can you turn almonds or cashews into something that replicates cheese or butter? How can we look at all of these plants in a different way than we have traditionally, and that’s not bound by culture, and just really just change them?” That was very exciting for me. I became fascinated by it and kind of threw myself headlong into researching different ways to create meatier textures from plants, not just grains, legumes, vegetables, mushrooms, and so on.

Something you write about in the book is that there really is this long, multi-cultural history of making meat substitutes, that sometimes we might lose sight of today. 

I think it really originated with the Buddhist culture where Buddhists were forbidden from eating animal products, because Buddha was vegan and didn’t believe in harming animals. Japan actually experienced about a 1,200 year period where they were Buddhist, and people were forbidden from eating a four-legged creature. It was mostly a vegan diet. It didn’t stop people from eating fish or poultry on occasion, but for the most part, people ate substantially a legume, grain, and vegetable diet.

The Buddhist monks, however, understood that people craved meat, because meat has always represented power. Meat has always been limited to the wealthy and the more powerful to nobility and royalty over the centuries. Peasants and others that didn’t have access to meat all the time. It was a celebratory food. That’s what you ate for a celebration, for example. So the Buddhist monks developed ways of coping with the inability to eat flesh. They came up with these creative ways of making meat-like dishes out of mushrooms, soy, and wheat. That’s really the origin. That’s been going on in Asia for not just decades, but literally hundreds of years.

I know a lot of people think that Beyond and Impossible invented plant-based meats, but it’s not true. Even today, if you go to a really good Asian, Chinese restaurant, for example, you can have meat substitutes that are honestly better than some of the ones that are made by some of the larger companies in the space today.

Where do you think the more commercially-produced meat alternatives like Beyond and Impossible fit into a person’s diet?

I’ve always been about DIY. That’s why I wrote The Homemade Vegan Pantry and I wrote my Artisan Vegan Cheese book before I started Miyoko’s Creamery, because I wanted to empower people. I’ve written six cookbooks because of that. I’ve always been about teaching people, arming them with the tools so they can get in the kitchen and fend for themselves rather than being beholden to the brands that are out there, even though I have a brand. I’m also about educating people. At the end of the day, I think we have to realize that we have physical bodies that have certain needs, and it’s totally fine to indulge once in awhile, but we have to remember that most of these foods are indulgences, and just like meat was an indulgence.

If you lived in the Blue Zone, for example, and you ate meat once in a while, which is how people in the Blue Zone ate, it didn’t mean that you couldn’t live to 100. People in the Blue Zone did eat meat a couple of times a month, but that area has the highest number of centenarians. A small amount of an indulgence isn’t going to kill you, but that indulgence shouldn’t become an everyday thing. I still encourage people, despite the fact that I wrote this book, to eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet, eat lots of greens, lots of vegetables, eat whole grains and legumes. You’re going to feel a thousand times better than if you’re eating a diet of meat substitutes three times a day. But if you are a meat eater, it’s better to sub out your meat with these meat substitutes, because studies have shown that even that is better than eating meat itself, eating animal meat.

Some people will say, “Well, you’re using all these brands in there. It’s not all DIY.” Every single recipe in The Vegan Meat Cookbook mentions brands you can buy as well as your own DIY version. You can make every recipe in here with something that you’ve made on your own. There are some recipes in here that are DIY-only.  There is no vegan lobster substitute that I’ve been able to find, so I show how to make your own. I have a recipe for something called Loving Lobster that’s delicious. There’s a lobster thermidor recipe in here, and then there’s a lobster with mushroom pasta sauce that’s absolutely delectable.

Is there a particular recipe or technique in the book that you think is best at ‘winning over’ people who are currently meat eaters or flexitarians?

I think there’s a lot of recipes in the book that would do that, and everything from the very low-brow, everyday dishes to highbrow things like cassoulet and coq au vin, that I think would please any omnivore. I have a recipe here for boeuf bourguignon, and I have served that at countless parties to unwitting omnivores. That’s one of my go-to dishes when I have a party for 100 people. I just make this huge pot, gallons of this stuff. People are just like, “Oh my god,” and they’re just coming back for seconds and thirds. There’s a lot of dishes in here that I think will satisfy the flexitarian or the omnivore.

One thing about these meat substitutes that you buy at the store is that some of them are really good and tasty on their own. You don’t have to do anything with them to doctor them up. For example, I think the Beyond Sausage is like that. You don’t need to do anything, they don’t need any help. But some of these meat substitutes need help. There they’re either bland or they’re lacking in succulents or umami. They need the right seasonings.  And that’s another reason I wrote this book, because I talked to a lot of meat eaters and flexitarian while writing this book who said, “I tried some of those meat substitutes. I bought some at the store the other day, and it wasn’t that good. It was really dry,” or whatever.

If I’m trying to convert people off of animal products to a plant-based diet, but they really want that sort of meat substitute, they don’t want to just eat kale and quinoa, then I wanted to be able to show them, “This is how you can talk to these dishes up. These are recipes in which these brands work. They’ve all gotten a little bit of extra juice and flavor to give it some kick and satisfaction.”

Animal meat, when it cooks, adds a certain amount of flavor to a dish. Many of these meat substitutes don’t add flavor. They themselves have a certain flavor, but they’re not oozing out juice and imbuing your dish with more flavor. How do you add that flavor? That’s why these recipes were created in this manner, through the combination of all the different seasonings and really umami-filled things like miso and soy sauce that imbue the dish you’re making with that flavor that the meat would have added. It makes for an easier transition for people.

The Vegan Meat Cookbook really was written not just for vegans, but it really was written for those people. It really is trying to reach out to the flexitarians and the omnivores that have an open mind.

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