A Little Word on the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival

Lines and biodegradable droppings of miniature spoons and cups always pointed toward delicious foods. Just beyond - sprout salads and seitan bacon.

Lines and biodegradable droppings of miniature spoons and cups always pointed toward delicious foods. Just beyond – sprout salads and seitan bacon.

New York City experienced its fourth vegetarian and vegan nirvana this month, when the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival took over the Metropolitan Pavilion on March 1 and 2nd.

Filling two floors with delicious and innovative vendors, multiple stages featuring guest speakers and culinary demonstrations, and active members of the vegetarian community, the festival was one of the city’s events I have looked most forward to since arriving.

As expected, there were a handful of familiar brands – Taft Foodmasters had a lavish display for their vegan seitan gyro, and Gardein was cooking up hundreds of samples of their Crispy Mandarin Orange Chick’n (which was regrettably too orange-y, not at all crispy- and with a texture not unlike the packaging itself).

But, as is always the case at these events, a few new, small, or innovative companies resonated with me as I wove my way through the crowded islands, my purse quickly becoming a grocery bag of Earth Balance snack samples, Vega One Nutritional Shake samples, and Cedar’s hummus and pretzel thins packs.

Artful designs and bold flavors made Beyond Sushi's selection a refreshing reprieve from tired cucumber rolls.

Artful designs and bold flavors made Beyond Sushi’s selection a refreshing reprieve from tired cucumber rolls.

Like a hungry moth to a flickering, delicious flame, I was drawn immediately to the display of Beyond Sushi rolls, sold at the festival by the box and sampled periodically throughout the weekend. I was fortunate to happen by as representative came around with an artful array of Green Machine pieces; a mix of cucumber, green asparagus, and basil-marinated vegetables wrapped in brown rice and topped with a jalapeno wasabi that offers a perfect balance of spice and earthy heat.

The completely vegan sushi restaurant is located at Union Square, and offers a refreshing alternative to the standard cucumber and avocado maki roll. Sashimi-style pieces put vegetables and vegan ingredients in the spotlight, like a single stick of baked tofu on black rice, topped with chili mango sauce, or the haystack of seaweed salad, wrapped in seaweed and served with sweet soy mirin. In addition to the sushi, this restaurant – pioneered by husband and wife owners Guy and Tali Vaknin – offers rice paper wraps, soups, salads, and rice bowls.

“It’s all about taking a moment to detox from your daily eating habits and enjoying something wholesome,” explains Tali on their website. “You do not have to be vegan to enjoy our menu.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, every sponsor and vendor at the festival this year supported a vegan lifestyle. Unlike Boston’s comparable events, which are hosted separately and offer different perspectives, everyone at the event showcased vegan products.

Co-founders Sarah Gross and Nira Paliwoda, also founders of the US Veg Corp, wanted to showcase the variety and deliciousness possible with a cruelty-free lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I worry these events attract only people already committed to this lifestyle, and isolate those who aren’t. With a $40 at-the-door fee and an arguably misleading title, Gross and Paliwoda may find their message falling only on the ears of people who have made the switch.

The festival had an extensive range of speakers, but many of the messages for healthy-living, weight-loss, sustainability and holistic wellness were reaching a receptive and practicing audience.

At the Pear Stage, hosted by the nation’s premiere plant-based culinary academy, The Natural Epicurean, chefs trained in the disciplines of macrobiotic cooking, vegetarian and vegan cuisine, raw preparation, and ayurvedic practices showcased their signature dishes.

Chef Hideyo Yamada, a sushi-chef with the impressive ability to turn cucumbers into translucent sheets of paper, prepared samples of vegan sushi (apparently, a major trend for 2014) before Chef Elliott Prag whipped up a creamy, Middle Eastern muhammara, (bell peppers, walnuts, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses). Served on nutty whole-grain crackers, the treat was one of many spreads sampled throughout the afternoon.

No detail was left untouched at The Regal Vegan stand. A sweet mushroom bisque was one of their fantastic offerings.

No detail was left untouched at The Regal Vegan stand. A sweet mushroom bisque was one of their fantastic offerings.

A highlight included the Faux Gras by The Regal Vegan – a walnut pate made with lentils and onions that is a hearty vegan, gluten and dairy-free alternative to foie gras or similar spreads. Cashew-based cheeses, roasted red pepper hummus, and fresh-pressed nut butters were also diverse and delicious.

Another standout moment of the day was meeting Craig Singer, co-founder with Bruce Namenson of Organic Living Superfoods (and the no longer open Prana Cafe). based in Newton, MA, is creating organic, plant-based snacks and distributing to local yoga studios, health centers, and stores.

I tried the 7 Wonders of the World trail mix, and was blown away by the exotic and healthful ingredients. A vibrant medley packed with antioxidants, this combination of bing cherries, naked and dark chocolate-coated goldenberries, goji berries, mulberries, and two types of raisins was an exciting alternative to the tired blend of almonds, cranberries, and peanuts we all know so well.

I'd love to see these snack-sized bags hanging in an NYU cafeteria, or next to the coconut water at Pure Barre.

I’d love to see these snack-sized bags hanging in an NYU cafeteria, or next to the coconut water at Pure Barre.

I’m looking forward to finding them in yoga studios, gyms and health food stores in NYC before too long. Yogaworks, perhaps? Or an Equinox Gym shop?

Powders, seeds, energy squares and sprouted nuts are also on the menu at Organic Living Superfoods.

There was no shortage of matcha powders or organic teas – a dozen cold pressed juices to choose from and a tiki shack on the second floor selling 100% coconut water in on-the-spot carved coconut glasses (a souvenir too heavy for my bulging bag).

But of all the vendors pushing cleanses and detoxes, it was The Splendid Spoon that stood out above the rest as unique and exciting.

Greenpoint-based duo Nicole and Brian Chaszar are creating gluten-free, vegan soups in seasonal varieties using local produce. But while soup-delivery is a fun novelty for a particularly long and arduous winter such as this one, it’s their clean and simple cleanse that really ups the anty.

Buy a soup cleanse package through their distributor, Good Eggs, and enjoy soups for two meals a day, with a healthy light breakfast of your choice. I sampled the Curried Corn Chowder at the event, and would have no problem enjoying large spoonfuls of that for lunch, with the Lentil & Kale for dinner, for two days while my body enjoyed the easy-to-process liquids.

For a more intense detox, keep your diet entirely vegetable-based, including any simple snacks throughout the day, or stick to all-liquids.

Little Word Bites hasn’t tested this cleanse out, but if the Chaszar’s other soups are delicious as the ones they presented at the Vegetarian Food Festival this year, they’re worth keeping on speed dial anyway. All their soups are 300 calories or less and promise at least 2 servings of vegetables.

Want to cleanse but can’t stomach the juices? Give these soups a sip.

Everyone from inspirational speakers to  medical doctors and comedians with an arsenal of vegan-related material took the Banana Stage for the Vegetarian Food Festival.

Everyone from inspirational speakers to medical doctors and comedians with an arsenal of vegan-related material took the Banana Stage for the Vegetarian Food Festival.

The best part of the food festival was, surprisingly, not the food. I was really impressed by the speakers and performers who shared their veggie thoughts. I was happy to catch vegan activist and author of Main Street Vegan, Victoria Moran.

“V,” I heard Moran say over the microphone at the Banana Stage, “is for validating your choices.” The acronym she developed for vegan was a clever and powerful. She told her listeners to E – enjoy the adventure, to G – get to know other vegans, to A – add more than you subtract (exploring the foods, shops, and community so that veganism enriches, rather than deprives) and N – to never forget the animals. “Reverence for life,” Moran insists, is “a way of being that will enrich your life.”

In truth, it was the “V” that I found most impactful. Moran encouraged everyone to be educated – to make the decision to lead a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle based on your own personal research and opinions – not the suggestions of health food bloggers, or lifestyle coaches with nothing but personal preference for backup.

And while we can all stand divided on whether or not children should be raised according to their parents’ vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, the fact is many are.  And the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival did a fantastic job of entertaining and educating those children in attendance. They were shown how to help make easy, healthy snacks and read adorable, smart books about taking care of our bodies, our animals, and the wellbeing of our planet.

This year, the annual raffle benefitted the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food. Here, a little boy learns to make a healthy snack for lunch.

This year, the annual raffle benefitted the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food. Here, a little boy learns to make a healthy snack for lunch.

Thank you, Vegetarian Food Festival, and New York City, and all you wonderful creative people who are always cooking up delicious, healthful, sustainable, cruelty-free goodness.

Until next year,

Melanie

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