What Is the California Vegan Vibe?
California Vegan: Expert Interview with author, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian.
What is so special about California vegan eating?
Sharon: California has a long love affair with plant-based eating. From the first peoples who harnessed the power of wild plants, to the waves of diverse populations from around the globe that found their promised land in the Golden state, to the original Blue Zones population of forward-thinking health influencers, to the flower children hoping to create a more peaceful place, to the revolutionary new food industry helping the country re-think “meat”, California has always been a place where plant-based eaters thrived. The culinary aesthetic in California is based on so many things—the variety of amazing produce available year-round, infusion of global influences from around the world, Mediterranean climate, and fresh attitude about food. These are all encompassed in the California plant-based vibe. Yet, this eating style can be inspiring wherever you live! Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, or just dabbling in plant-based eating, this eating style can inspire your life with a fresh, globally-inspired, healthy, downright delicious way of eating.
What are some of the cultural influences that are part of classic California plant-based eating?
Sharon: California has welcomed people from all over the world for a long time. Before that, the first peoples lived an abundant, prosperous life, eating from a cornucopia of wild and cultivated crops. In my bioregion in Ojai, the Chumash enjoyed greens, seeds, acorns, and herbs. The sunny climate and fertile soils were soon discovered by wave after wave of immigrants to California, such as from countries in Asia and the Americas. There is a long historical and culinary attachment to our southern neighbors in Mexico. And a thriving economy has invited people from all over the world to contribute to fields like technology, entertainment, and engineering. These elements mean that you will find a sophisticated appreciation for cultural foods, such as Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Peruvian.
What is the quintessential California vegan food aesthetic?
Sharon: While there is no one, single way of eating plant-based in California, there is a dedication to amazing, local, seasonal high-quality produce, with an abundance of farmers markets scattered across the state. California plant-based eating is also clean, light, and healthful—it’s not weighed down by gunky sauces and additives. And you will typically find an infusion of cultural appreciation in dishes, with flavors from a variety of food cultures woven in—either directly or indirectly. You might have a hint of kimchee in a kale salad, or a full-on global dish, such as Tofu Bibimbap (featured in California Vegan) on your plate.
How does the Mediterranean climate in California impact the food vibe?
Sharon: California is one of the few locations around the world that enjoys a Mediterranean climate, which means we can grow a variety of really important plant foods, such as citrus, avocados, nuts, olives, grains, pulses, and vegetables. California is the salad bowl of the country, producing the lion’s share of its fruits, vegetables, and nuts. With its sunshine, overall mild climate, and diverse geography, there are many micro-climates throughout the state, bringing locations that are particularly suited for certain crops, such as berries and lettuce in the cooler regions, and nuts, citrus, avocados, and olives in the warmer regions. This means that California vegan cuisine has a generous Mediterranean spirit—olive oil is the primary cooking fat, avocados find their way into everything, and all types of nuts are embraced.
How can you infuse a California plant-based spirit into your own cooking style, no matter what your location or diet?
Sharon: You can eat like a California vegan with just a few key tips:
- Become familiar with global, plant-based food cultures in your region, and try some of the ingredients and dishes in your own kitchen. Ask people from diverse backgrounds to share some of their favorite cooking tips with you. Some of my beloved foods include those from Indian, Thai, and Ethiopian culinary traditions.
- Follow the seasons for produce. Try to prioritize purchasing produce in season, growing some of your own food, and enjoying preserved foods (tomatoes, beans, pickles) during the off season. This means you will get high-quality, delicious, sustainable fruits and vegetables, rather than those shipped from far away.
- Use a light touch of extra virgin olive oil as your main fat, for cooking, salads, marinades, and even baking!
- Go heavy on fresh herbs, spices, and citrus to season your foods, and light on added salt and sugar.
- Pile on pulses (beans, lentils, peas) and whole grains in home-made veggie-burgers, side-dishes, salads, and power bowls.
- Make your eating style downright delicious, satisfying, and addictive. No need to waste a single meal eating something wimpy as a California Vegan.