Why does #meatfreemonday only fall on one day of the week? Well, yes, Monday is the only day that makes for the catchy alliteration—but it’s more than that. Personally, I think most folks can’t seem to get down with ditching animal protein because they don’t know where to begin. And if the thought of vegetarian dining didn’t scare them off, throwing the word “vegan” into the mix likely didn’t help.
For those whose dietary restrictions don’t require them to live a vegan lifestyle, there are still dozens of reasons to test the waters. Following the veganism philosophy even part-time can have mega health benefits. Don’t let the myths fool you: You can get enough protein from plants. You can achieve the feeling of being full and satisfied. You can also see vast improvements in your body and soul. Most importantly, you can still eat a mouthwatering meal. And if you don’t have the gusto to get in the kitchen, we’ve got you covered.
I visited four popular Wilmington eateries who are all recognized for serving outstanding vegan dishes. Keep in mind: None of them are all-vegan—the chefs and owners simply believe in the cuisine and of course pay attention to customers’ requests for specialty additions to their menus.
With my mouth open, I journeyed from fluffy idli on Nawab’s Wednesday-night vegan buffet to Sealevel’s righteous kimchi and tempeh Reuben, and then up three flights of stairs on Front Street for the Moroccan spice-infused bulgur wheat sliders at Dram + Morsel. And did I mention the outrageous coconut milk-based ice cream I sampled along the way at Boombalatti’s?
Even if you’re just looking to expand your palate, take a tip from these pros, and see how they’ve mastered making vegan food into something fun, approachable and downright delicious.
Idli with Samber, available on their vegan buffet every Wednesday
6828 Market St. • (910) 769-7418
Devour (D): What was the inspiration to make the buffet centered around vegan cuisine?
Sunny Singh (SS): I’ve been in this town for 20 years, and I’ve recognized people love vegan food and want to see more of it. We decided to do a vegan buffet one night of the week for those people who were seeking this type of cuisine.
We did some advertising on Facebook and it’s become a big success for us. It’s different from what everybody else is doing. In a town like Jacksonville, people aren’t as keen on the idea of vegan food. But, here, people are starting to love it—and it shows.
D: What is the heart of your buffet?
SS: To appreciate vegan food; it’s all about the vegetables and the sauces. Every veggie tastes different, but they are the simplest thing to cook. All it needs is a proper sauce.
D: How would you describe idli?
SS: It’s like a savory rice cake, and it comes with most Indian meals the same way bread and butter come to the table in America.
D: How do you make yours so soft and fluffy?
SS: One thing I can tell you is that India is a very different country than America. Every mile is a different language, and every two miles is water. It’s a different way of cooking. Idli is one of the most famous specialty items we make.
We soak rice flour and then blend it to make a paste. It’s then steamed in water. Rice itself has a lot of starch, so it becomes a patty. It’s also gluten-free which people like. It’s essentially more of a meal because its goes with something like sambar—which is part of South eastern Indian cuisine.
D: What are your other favorite things to pair with idli?
SS: The coconut chutney! There is a lot of coconut used in South Indian cooking because of the poverty and the fact nothing else was getting imported. They couldn’t afford a lot of vegetables and other ingredients, so bigger families began to use bold flavors, like chiles, to stretch out the meal. This is how South Indian Cuisine became known as being spicy.
D: Is sambar a very complex sauce to make? What are the prominent ingredients?
SS: A lot of people make sambar differently. The main components are lentil, fresh vegetables, and tamarind. If you don’t have tamarind, you can substitute something else that’s sweet and sour, like pomegranate seeds. It’s kind of like a lentil soup, but not as spicy because it cooks for a long time and the chiles cook out. Chile is not a heritage of India; it’s from Chile. These peppers are just used often in traditional Indian dishes because more people prefer spicy dishes.
D: How do most people eat the idli and sambar together?
SS: The idli is soft and cuts very nicely into pieces, and then you soak it in the sauce with the coconut chutney.
D: Does the vegan buffet focus on one specific style of Indian cuisine?
SS: We’re cooking in three different stages of Indian cultures and specialties. I like to see what’s popular in each of the regions and take it from there. I’m learning a lot from using the Internet. Not only can I make something and post it to see if people comment on whether or not they like it, but when it comes to cooking, you just need a good example of a demo in front of you. You can find out how to cook anything online nowadays.
Also, when it comes to cooking, everything is related to salt. You may have a dish with 10 different spices, but the taste is all in the salt. You need good eyes to tell you how much salt something needs. And when it comes to salt and spice, that’s something that goes in at the beginning of the dish so it can cook in. Many restaurants have hot sauce on the table, but it’s not good to put it on after your food is prepared. You put the chiles in at the beginning, and then you enjoy it in your mouth—not in your stomach.
For those who have issues with heartburn or spicy foods, Indian food might be their best bet because the heat is cooked into the food as opposed to being placed on top at the end.
D: Where do you buy your specialty ingredients?
SS: In Wilmington, I frequent Saigon Market for the specialty items—but I’ve also found that a lot of folks grow things like curry leaves in their garden and bring them in to me. The plant has to be big enough and mature enough to not die in the winter. I also have a good friend with a nursery in Raleigh who carries a lot of the exotic ingredients we use. He has a tamarind tree and different kinds of special herbs.
Sealevel City Gourmet
Tempeh Reuben, vegan-style
1015 S. Kerr Ave. • (910) 833-7196
D: What was the inspiration for making a vegan version of a sandwich that’s known for being piled high with meat?
Nikki Spears (NS): In brief, I want to make wonderful food available that does no harm to animals for my customers who care about eating and living a vegetarian lifestyle. When the food is this tasty, you don’t miss the meat or real cheese, and you’re also helping to save the world by not eating meat for that meal.
D: Why tempeh as the protein as opposed to tofu (flavor, texture, etc.)?
NS: The tempeh mimics meatiness—and, of course, the success of the whole sandwich is in the hands of the cook. It’s all about the adequately buttered (using Earth Balance Spread), perfectly toasted bread and the griddled, crispy-crusted tempeh. Also, heating the tempeh lightly ferments it and preserves the live probiotics.
D: On the menu, this sandwich features grilled organic tempeh topped with melted Monterey jack cheese, sauerkraut, spicy kimchi, sprouts, and adobo thousand island dressing on toasted rye bread. When diners order it vegan, how do the ingredients change?
NS: The sauce and some other ingredients become vegan like the cheese, for example, which gets substituted with Chao slices (a fabulous cheese-like product made in Seattle). It mimics White American cheese quite well.
D: Tell me about difference between the spicy kimchi and the sauerkraut?
NS: There’s so much tang in the homemade kimchi and kraut! The main difference though is a chile paste that I make from soaking dried red chiles (which I get at Starway Flea Market), fresh ginger and garlic. Ultimately, the Sealevel kimchi is a mix of six different vegetables—while the kraut only has two ingredients (salt and red cabbage).
D: Reuben sandwiches typically have Swiss instead of Jack. Did you find the milder, less sharp flavor of Jack was a better pairing for this specific sandwich and its components?
NS: Honestly, the reason for the Jack cheese is convenience. Soon, I’m going to receive a “supposedly revolutionary” Canadian-brand vegan cheese, which has recently become available through US Foods. I’m hoping it will enable my restaurant to go entirely vegan. Except, of course, when there’s local seafood because I can really get behind that. That’s an ingredient I enjoy eating because it’s fresh and abundant here.
D: Tell me about the adobo Thousand Island.
NS: The sauce has chopped sweet pickles and Sriracha for spice.
Boombalatti’s Ice Cream
Vegan ice cream and sorbets
1127 Military Cutoff Rd. #B • (910) 679-4955
D: Are all sorbets considered vegan since they’re not dairy-based?
Wes Bechtel (WB): Yes! The sorbets are all juice-based. We have a watermelon flavor and it’s just watermelon and sugar.
D: For the vegan ice cream, is coconut milk the base? How strong is the coconut flavor?
WB: All of our vegan ice cream is coconut-milk based. We try to lean toward flavors that pair well with coconut. So far, people seem to love all of them. So many vegan ice creams and non-dairy products out there are coconut milk-based, so a lot of folks who are used to eating strictly vegan are almost immune to that coconut flavor.
D: People say your vegan ice cream puts other big brands to shame. What makes it so special?
WB: It’s got a really unique mouth feel and creaminess that’s different from a lot of other vegan ice creams on the market. I was a vegetarian in college and remember sampling some vegan ice creams. They were icy and stale-tasting, whereas ours is super fresh and full of high-end ingredients. It’s not a calorie-counter. If you’re going to eat our vegan ice cream, we want you to really enjoy it like it’s a luxury.
D: What’s the process of making vegan ice cream?
WB: Well, we have to keep some of that close to our chest! But what I can tell you is we get our coconut milk locally from Saigon Market, so we know we’re getting a great product.
At first, the interest wasn’t specifically focused on “vegan.” Customers were requesting an ice cream that would be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. Now, we’re making six batches every two days of vegan ice cream, so our supply has continued to grow to meet the demand. The ice cream itself has a high fat content and, of course, sugar. No diet ice cream here!
D: Did you choose Vietnamese coffee for a vegan flavor because of the darker, richer flavor of those grounds?
WB: My wife (Kristen) was always a fan of Vietnamese coffee and the aromas associated with it. It’s peppery and spice-forward with hints of ginger and coriander—which all blend well with coconut’s exotic flavor. We also found, in general, vegans seem to be more adventurous eaters and are more familiar with Asian cuisine, so we thought these warm spices would be something they would recognize and appreciate.
Ice cream is my favorite food. It always has been.
Dram + Morsel
33 S Front St. • (910) 833-5999
D: In the press release that was recently released to announce you joining the Dram + Morsel team, you said that the design of the space itself inspires you in your menu creation. How did the vegan cuisine come into play as it ties into the ambience of D+M?
Daniel Morgan Avery (DMA): The design of the room attracts a younger dining crowd, and with the health crazes and the yoga kids—they want to try that stuff! We’re getting interest and therefore just catering to that. I’m just starting to wrap my head around it because I’ve never cooked too vegan before. One of my first cookbooks though was “The Moose Café,” which leans towards vegetarian cuisine, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.
D: How focused is Dram + Morsel on putting out vegan / vegetarian items?
DMA: We have a vegan chef in the kitchen who is showing us all kinds of fun things, like cheese sauces made with cashew nuts. Now, our menu is updated with more vegan-inspired shared plates, like shishito peppers over Romesco sauce. It started as a special but has been such a big hit, it will be on our new menu.
We also have a tofu scramble for breakfast and edamame falafel, which we’ll be running as a special. Soon we plan on adding a vegan-driven entrée. It will likely be something with bulgur wheat, arugula, apricot, coconut vinaigrette, maybe roasted zucchini, and dried marinated shiitakes as the “meat.”
I’m a big fan of Moroccan cuisine so I’ve been drawing motivation from that. I’ve been going to Tidal Creek for a lot for things, like nutritional yeast for cheese-curd batter. It gives something a cheesy taste without actually being cheese.
We’re thinking about doing a vegan wine dinner soon because we want those diners to really feel like they’re getting a treat. We like to play on what people think vegan food is (like tempeh or falafel), and then turn it upside down and present it in a new way.
D: Does the menu describe the slider as vegan or veggie?
DMA: On the menu, it’s vegetarian—but if a customer wants in vegan, we wrap it in bibb lettuce and replace the sambal aioli with a chile vinaigrette.
D: Is the bulgur wheat in a patty, or is it made like a tabbouleh? How is it flavored?
DMA: It’s done as a patty. The wheat is cooked traditionally with boiling water (a standard two-to-one ratio), steamed, and then fluffed. We then add shredded carrots, zucchini, and season it very aggressively with smoked paprika, lemon juice, cayenne, parsley, tarragon, and chives. We add rice flour to thicken it up, and then it’s pan seared.
D: What is the shiitake marinated in?
DMA: It’s marinated in Tamari (gluten-free soy sauce) and sesame oil.
D: Let’s talk sambal aioli vs. chile vinaigrette.
DMA: Sambal is similar to Sriracha. We have some homemade hot sauces working right now but they take a month to ferment, so once they’re ready we will use those over Sriracha. When we make the sliders vegan, we sub in the chile vinaigrette—which is chile d’arbol, sugar, rice wine vinegar, a dried roasted red pepper soaked in vinegar for color and viscosity, and chile flake. We finish it with xantham gum for thickness so it’s not a loose vinaigrette. It’s more like a sauce. In the long run, we might just use store-bought Veganaise to thicken it up, a vinegary hot sauce (like Crystal) for heat, and lemon juice for acidity.
If you’re looking for another vegan sub for mayonnaise, garbanzo bean juice and tofu do the trick. You can even use the garbanzo bean juice instead of an egg wash when you’re baking and need a golden sheen.