Breaking News: I’m a Vegetarian (and here’s the recipe that taught me it)

Have you ever discovered something about yourself that everybody else already knew?

It took qualifying for the Boston Marathon for me to realize I was a runner.  And yesterday I had another Earth-shattering revelation—I’m a vegetarian.

I was making Korean Cabbage Salad with Tofu (recipe below) from Robin Robertson’s Vegan on the Cheap.  The recipe calls for Asian chili paste, which I had to buy since I’ve never used it before.  When it came time to add it, I took a little taste to gauge the heat, to avoid inadvertently killing my wife.

It tasted like fish.  Smelly, fishy, fish.

I took a look at the label and read that it contained shrimp.  For the tiniest fraction of a second, the old me, the still-eating-fish-every-once-in-a-while-and-certainly-not-giving-a-damn-about-shrimp me, thought, “Just go ahead and use it.  You bought it, you’re stuck with it.  Nobody will even notice.”

But immediately I knew that I couldn’t do it.  That there was no chance I’d do it.  Exactly like when some tiny part of you really doesn’t feel like running or going to the gym, but there’s no question that you’re going to do it.

Because it’s part of you; that’s who you are.  And a vegetarian is who I am now.

What’s funny is that I never expected to get here.  When I started this new diet, I still ate fish, because I thought it was healthy (I still think it is).  But not eating certain animals taught me some compassion, and I came to like the idea of being a person who chooses not to eat any animals at all.

But even once I stopped eating fish, “vegetarian” wasn’t who I was.  “I” was a person who would still eat crabs once a year at the beach because that tradition was more a part of me than being vegetarian was.  And the fact that beers like Guinness were made with fish bladders wasn’t something that would stop me from drinking them.

“I’m vegetarian,” I said, “but I’m not going to be a Nazi about it.”

But yesterday I realized that “vegetarian” is who I am now (and I guess the old me would call the new one a Nazi).

I never made the conscious decision to stop drinking Guinness or to skip the crabs at the beach.  But I didn’t need to.  Those things just don’t sound appealing to me anymore.

And neither does using chili paste with a tiny amount of shrimp in it.  I tossed it in the garbage and used some black bean garlic paste that I happened to have instead.

I encourage you to take a step back today and discover something about yourself that everyone else already knows.  (I can only imagine how many of you are runners that won’t admit it, for example.)

Korean Cabbage Salad with Tofu

Here’s the recipe I mentioned.  Like many of the meals from Vegan on the Cheap, it’s good but not knock-your-socks-off.  Easy to make, healthy, cheap, and pretty good.  This one comes in at under $1.50 per serving, and since we’ve cooked mostly from this book this week, groceries for four people ran us only 125 bucks for the whole week.

I’d recommend serving it with some rice, or maybe even Asian rice and beans.  It’s got some good protein from the tofu, and lots of raw vegetables, but it’s hard to think of this salad as a meal on its own.

From Vegan on the Cheap, by Robin Robertson, Wiley, 2010

Makes 4 servings

  • 1 pound extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 5 cups shredded cabbage
  • 2 medium carrots, shredded
  • 3 green onions, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Asian chili paste
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons water

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly oil a baking sheet and set aside.

2. Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch slabs and press well to remove any excess water.  Cut the slabs into 1/2-inch cubes and toss with 1/4 cup of the soy sauce.  Arrange the tofu on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, carrots, and green onions.  Set aside.

4. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, sugar, chili paste, remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce, vinegar, oil, and water.

5. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss to combine.  Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.  Let the salad sit for 15 to 20 minutes to allow flavors to develop.  Serve topped with tofu.



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  1. It’s so interesting to watch the natural evolution of vegetarianism unfold in others, and to relate it to my own. I feel more vigilant about veganism than when I started my blog two years ago. Sometimes I wonder if I may someday have to drop the “Almost”! From there, maybe I’ll be “Almost Raw,” then…who’s to say? Great post, Matt :]

  2. I love this post! I find myself feeling the same way. Sure…I could just order the vegetable soup at a restaurant…but I NEED to know that it was made with vegetable broth, not chicken broth. I am not confining myself and saying I never ever ever will go back to meat (if it became necessary for some reason), but I certainly AM (in my little heart) a vegetarian.

    This recipe sounds fantastic. There is something about the flavor of cabbage I just love. Happy almost Friday

  3. I evolved into it the same way. When I first started going raw, I thought that I would still eat seafood occasionally, but stopped craving it and the thought just didn’t appeal to me anymore. So true about the increased compassion. The recipe looks wonderful, thanks!

  4. Congratulations on taking the last few steps on the path of becoming vegetarian. Vegan can’t be too far down the road? It is difficult but not impossible to be consistent in one’s food choices, yet avoiding to be ‘that guy’ in the restaurant who grills the (often) clueless server about egg in the pasta, chicken stock in the sauce etc. What the diner should have done is to call ahead of the time, to make sure that certain dishes are either in or out, or to arrange a special meal.

  5. Hi, Matt. New reader here, and first time commenter. This post resonated with me because only recently I’ve discovered I’m a decent writer. I was looking through some pieces I’d written for a public relations writing course in college, and thought, “Hey, these are pretty good.”

    My mom’s reaction to this “discovery”? “Of course you’re a good writer. I’ve always known that.”

    Thanks for letting me know, Mom. 😉

  6. It’s a strange thing being a vegetarian, right? The foods that I had no problem eating 10 years ago when I first went vegetarian, I wouldn’t dream of touching now. Actually, there are foods that were so normal to me just a few months ago and now I just can’t imagine eating. It’s strange how things just sort of happen over time whether we realize it or not.

  7. My question is, how did this ingredient make it into a vegan cookbook?

  8. I just want to throw this out there. My Dad was cooking black beans and rice with kielbasa while on vacation and I asked him to cook the rice and beans first so I could grab some before he added the meat. He happily agreed. Soon after I found out that he was using chicken broth in the recipe and he didn’t understand why I would politely decline the beans and rice afterwards. I don’t consider myself a “nazi” vegetarian but I do have my limits and eating chicken broth is not ok with the current me. I ate a marshmellow while on vacation and thought if one day I would choose not to eat them. Maybe future nazi me will say no to the gellatin.

  9. I rarely encounter vegetarians that don’t drink non-veg beer. It seems a good amount of “vegans” don’t even seem to care whats in/used to filter their beer. IMO thats a big step in itself!

  10. I stopped eating meat about a month ago after FINALLY watching Food Inc and just being downright appalled – I already knew a lot of the information they provided, but somehow SEEING it like that made a huge impact. I have had No appetite for it since. But, like you, I hesitate to say “vegetarian”, have occassionally had fish..and wonder if that won’t soon disappear from my diet, too. 🙂

    Either way, the recipe sounds good! I’m always looking for ways to make TOFU edible..haha

  11. This post really speaks to me. I grew up in New England, and there, seafood is a tradition! (all the time). Giving up turkey for Thanksgiving was no problem, but lobster and fried shrimp on the beach???

    Once I began to fully understand the fear and terror that animals must feel just before the end, and how I was consuming and perpetuating that fear and terror…I never looked back.

  12. Great post, Matt, and one that I think resonates with many of us who transitioned from vegetarian to vegan. Also, your experience brings to light a caveat to remember when shopping for vegan ingredients: REAL THE LABEL before you buy ingredients. There are lots of Asian chili pastes out there that are vegan, but apparently, some that are not. I’m actually quite partial to Sriracha sauce which is great in this recipe and helps make it “knock your socks off” good!

  13. It’s a beautiful thing when you are living in congruence with your beliefs. It can be challenging to simply live an authentic life. It’s not the big decisions that are challenging… it’s always the little ones that knock us off guard. Every day we make hundreds of choices that impact our lives… from what we choose to eat (or not) to how we choose to think. Your post is a nice reminder of how empowering it is when you discover you don’t have to convince yourself to “do the right thing” and it just happens naturally.

  14. The exact same thing happened to me which made me go wow.

  15. The vegetarian/vegan path is quite an interesting journey, isn’t it. Proves change is possible.

  16. Aww…this post kind of makes me ashamed. I’m a vegetarian, but for the first time in six months, I ate shrimp. Gah! I felt bad, but I’m in the place right now where I “don’t want to be a nazi about it.”

  17. Oh, yes, I know what you mean! I just guest posted on Cook.Vegan.Lover.’s blog ( this week about my vegetarian to vegan journey and fish was my one thing I held on to for awhile… and one day I simply knew. No. More. Congrats on the revelation!

    Oh, I plan on racing my new NMA tech shirt at the end of the month at the Fairfield, CT half-marathon!

  18. I am looking forward to trying this recipe! I was unaware about Guiness being made with fish bladders (isinglass)


  19. It’s really interesting how this happens over time. Although I never let myself go crazy over it, I’m a lot more strict about what I eat now than when I first became vegetarian…mostly because I’m just more aware of what is in things. I’ve learned to watch out for certain foods and to be better at reading labels. Something I discovered relatively recently is that a lot of fancy cheeses are made with animal rennet — especially cheeses made in Europe. Now I make sure to study the label before I try a new cheese.

  20. It’s crazy how that happens sometimes (with different ingredients). I was “vegetarian” for a really, really long time. But I’d eat onion soup and other soups without thinking about the stock that might be in them. And some red curries has fish paste. And some tortillas have fish oil! (I know, right?!). Gotta read the labels. But that’s awesome you have truly discovered that vegetarian is now a part of you. You’re in good company!


  21. BTW I wrote I WAS vegetarian for a long time. I still AM vegetarian. Just to clarify. Love your blog, PS!

  22. That is very interesting what you say about being vegetarian. (by the way pescatarian eats fish but not meat)- I went veggie years ago when I was a teenager, and only then did I start to realise how many other things had animal products in them (such as gelatin in yoghurts/ ice cream/ sweets/ cocheneal as colours in cookies and stuff, animal rennet in cheese)- it took me a long time to find out which products were suitable. Still now some places label things as being veggie when for example they contain parmeasan which can never be vegetarian. So I have to be very careful! Because once I know it is in there, there is no way I could eat it as the thought of it makes me feel ill!

  23. I had a similar epiphany the other day when my aunt handed me a salad dressing and I read that it was labeled “Added Omega-3s!”. I thought “Hmmm fish oil?” and sure enough FISH was an ingredient. I know it is common in Caesar, but bottled oil & vinegar dressing? My aunt tried to convince me it was okay “just this once” but I stood my ground.

    And a week ago when I was in Belgium, a whole table of people were trying to convince me that I was only a vegetarian because it was trendy and that the fish was superb and I should at least try one bite. But that totally goes against the choice I made! I made a choice for a reason and I plan on sticking to my guns.

    Side note: had no idea about all that beer stuff! I’m “not a nazi” as you put it, but it definitely opened my eyes up. Fish bladders really??

  24. I’m not a vegetarian…yet. It’s always been there at the back of my mind as something I might want to be. In recent years I have found myself choosing vegetarian options more and more often…because those are the choices I want to make, not because I feel I should. I like how I feel when I eat vegetarian meals.

    My husband is, unfortunately, definitely anti-vegetarian, so I don’t expect that I will become vegetarian overnight. But I still feel it looming, somewhere off in the distance…

    It is probably going to happen one of these days and I won’t really be surprised.

  25. JavaChick – Not sure how strong your husband’s anti-vegetarian stance is, but it can be done. My husband is still a meat eater but since I do most of the cooking, he ends up eating vegetarian 90% of the time. I don’t make a big deal that it’s a veggie (or vegan!) dish. Pasta, rice and bean burritos, etc… he eats it w/out really thinking about the lack of meat. I started him off by using soy crumbles in pasta sauce and he didn’t realize it wasn’t meat until I told him. Good luck! =)

  26. I love this post! I really think that we need to evolve the way we eat and live and you are a very good example of that.

  27. How do you handle trips to family? I’ve been eating as a vegan for a little more than a month but haven’t ventured to the parents or in-laws. Don’t want to inconvenience them or get into the “why on earth would you…” discussions, but at the same time it feels right to be eating this way.

    • Don, great question. I made it very clear to everyone when I went vegetarian (or mostly vegetarian, as I was at first). I started this blog and told everyone about it. So if you use facebook or something like that, tell people there. (Although I guess your parents and in-laws aren’t likely on Facebook.) That’s a million times easier than showing up at their house and saying, “Oh by the way, I can’t eat what you’re making for me tonight.” As long as they know in advance, even if they don’t really respect it, people are usually understanding enough and not offended that I brought my own food or ate beforehand. At least that’s been my experience.

  28. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time – 14 years(with a 2 year hiatus) so I completely agree with what you’re saying here, but at the same time, don’t you think that you would have been better giving that paste to one of your meat-eating friends, rather then throwing it out? I mean, the only thing worse then catching shrimp for food, is catching shrimp for food that ends up in the garbage.

    Just a thought…

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