How A Meat-Free Challenge Turned Me Into A Lifelong Vegetarian
Do you have a love affair with food like I do? Would you believe me if I told you that my devotion to food stemmed from my reluctant decision to give up meat? This simple change helped my palate mature in ways I never knew possible. This slow evolution of my tastebuds allowed me to find much more value and enjoyment in my life. Who would have thought that eating only plants could do all that?
What is a palate? You may have heard the expression of someone “having a mature palate.” To some, this sounds like some sort of magical power bestowed to well-to-do wine experts, or Michelin Star restaurant goers. That sounds awfully limiting to us average folks who couldn't name a Michelin Star chef, other than that angry guy on TV whose name sounds like Bordon Hamsey.
As unapproachable as developing your palate may seem, it's important to stress that those “chosen” ones with extraordinary tastebuds weren't simply born that way. Do you think anyone with the capability of telling the difference between grape varieties in Napa, California and varieties in Alsace, France came out of the womb with this ability? No, of course not. Like most things worthwhile, developing a palate requires commitment and curiosity.
While the following confession is embarrassing for me, I owe it to you to be as transparent as possible. Once upon a time, the writer of this Elite Daily article was a fast food, gummy bear eating, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups junkie. Sadly, this addiction continued through high school and college. I was still eating this way while living in southern California and earning a master's degree.
I can try to blame this kid-like diet on my rural Iowa background, or simply claim I just didn't know any better. The real reason I continued with these poor eating habits, however, was because I have a high metabolism, and my absurd lifestyle wasn't visible from the outside. I was oblivious to the damage I was doing, and kept reminding myself I was that skinny girl who could eat whatever she wanted.
So, I continued to eat high-fat, sugar-saturated and salty foods, and I never understood why I didn't feel great. Skinny was fine and all, but every day I woke up groggy, bloated and perplexed. I began to ask myself, “Why do I feel this way? Is this normal?”
Out of the blue, my boyfriend at the time suggested we try meatless Mondays. I laughed at him and said the idea of meatless days was stupid. The actual words out of my mouth were, “I can't NOT eat MEAT.” Simply put, he was relentless and I was closed-minded.
After coming to my senses, I tried his “part time hippy diet.” Then one night, a few days after Christmas, he challenged me. “Libby, next year I want to try being vegetarian, and I think we should do it together.”
I thought, “A New Year's resolution to be a vegetarian?” Is he kidding?” Reluctantly, I agreed to his lifestyle change. I struggled in the early stages of giving up meat. My mindset was all about how I didn't have meat in my life, and less about all the new and interesting foods I was eating.
With time, I became excited about meat alternatives like tempeh bacon and Tofurky for Thanksgiving. The more I explored eating fresh fruits and vegetables, the better I started to feel. My energy level rose, I felt less groggy and I began to feel the unexpected joy of discovering new foods. Before I knew it, I was introducing more whole foods into my diet and stopped reaching for veggie junk foods, like soy burgers and Oreos.
Once I started becoming a veggie-loving weirdo who didn't eat processed foods, my palate finally began to develop. All those years of putting sodium and sugar rich foods in my body had harmed my palate. Sodium and sugar masks the true flavor of food because they overstimulate your tastebuds, and create dependencies.
Every time you put food in your mouth, and the digestive process begins, the signals in your brain says, “Hey, the party isn't here until salt and/or sugar arrives.” Even though the salt and sugar get together may be fun, it's a bad crowd to mingle with. Curb the habit, man. Just say no.
I remember the first time I really began to taste my food. I ordered a soup in a small, family-owned Thai restaurant in Thai Town, LA. This life-changing soup is called Tom Kha and it will forever have a place in my heart. When I took a spoonful of this seemingly uneventful soup, an explosion of flavor erupted in my mouth.
With one sip of soup, I could taste the savoriness of coconut milk, the sourness of lime, the delicateness of lemongrass, the zing of ginger, the hearty shiitake mushrooms, the aromaticity of kaffir lime leaves, the spiciness of red Thai chili peppers, the bursting sweetness of tomatoes and the freshness of cilantro.
How could I have lived so long without really tasting my food? This exchange was a major breakthrough for me. Not just for my palate, but for how I viewed my food and how I found something that gave me so much enjoyment out of life.
I was now hooked on this euphoric state, and I began trekking for new exotic cuisine around Los Angeles. Lucky for me, LA has some of the best, most diverse food in the country. My foodie adventures led me to discover bibimbap in Korea Town, spongy injera bread in Little Ethiopia, vegan sushi in Little Tokyo, raw cuisine in Santa Monica, soul food in Inglewood, plant-based pizza in Los Feliz, Vietnamese in DTLA, Chinese in San Gabriel Valley and jackfruit “pulled pork” burgers in Eagle Rock.
Let me tell you, if you have an interest in developing your palate, you have to try as many new ingredients as possible. Your palate won't develop if you continue devouring the same dishes week after week. Venture out of your comfort zone, and dabble in the funky side.
While on the hunt for incredible food around the greater LA area, my expeditions presented another valuable practice in advancing my palate. When I would finally have the meal in front of me after driving in excruciating traffic and placing my order, I would sit there looking at my dish and give it my full attention and ate it slowly. That meant no flipping through my Instagram feed, no texting a friend, no listening to a podcast.
My steadfast focus and slow eating meant I would become mindful of all aspects of my fare. From the smell, temperature, texture, nuance of flavor, to my physiological and psychological triggers, I was focused. Smelling food before tasting it is a crucial step. Our taste buds (all 5,000 to 10,000 of them) can only focus on distinguishing chemicals that have a sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami taste.
Smell, on the other hand, is much more complex, as it helps communicate signals to our brain allowing us to taste more of our food. For instance, remember the last time you had a nasty cold with a stuffy nose, and you couldn't taste your food? Bingo. That's what I'm talking about. Be a smarty, and start smelling your food.
Sometimes when I eat certain foods (like Tom Kha, for example), I'm overwhelmed with good emotions. I get tingly, and it feels like my tastebuds are have a homecoming celebration in my mouth. Not only because the flavor is pleasing, but also because of my positive association with this dish.
This is similar to how your mom's cooking makes you feel satisfied and sentimental. Over the years of evolving my palate, I've been connecting the dots of why food has contributed to my personal growth. From my overstimulated taste buds and aversion to trying new things, to eliminating animal products, to my undying affection of exploring all things plant-based, my palate and life is ever-expanding.
My ability to open my mind and try new things has led me to document foodie adventures around the world. For nearly a year, my boyfriend and I have been producing entertaining videos about eating a plant-based diet at hundreds of restaurants all over Europe and Asia on our YouTube channel, "Eat Away."
With my professional experience as a videographer, and my infatuation with food, we have been able to inspire so many of our followers to see a different side to plant-based cuisine. We plan to continue to travel around the world indefinitely, eating exotic food while expanding our minds and palate. Follow our journey at Eataway.co and Instagram.