Regional exploration and locally sourced foods define Seattle’s vegetarian scene

When people think of vegetarian meals their mind typically jumps to “rabbit food.” Plain vegetables, watery tofu and grain burgers are often assumed to make up the entirety of a meatless diet. Yet chefs in Seattle are proving otherwise every day. Vibrant ingredients and creative preparations are the driving forces behind today’s food trends.

Cultural influence

The vegetarian food being made in Seattle is oftentimes regionally driven. Chefs are experimenting with infusing different cultures into their food. At Sutra, located in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, seasonal vegetables, herbs, legumes, fruits and nuts are often prepared with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. Chaco Canyon Café’s menu explores a map of cultures. Their Egyptian red lentil soup and Thai peanut bowl are popular items.

“Curries are hot, they’re always going to be hot,” said Gabe Kinney, campus executive chef at the UW. “We’re starting to see a lot more done with noodles. There are cuisines that are coming out of Africa that we’re looking at trying.”

This inspiration shines in the food being served across the UW campus. The Husky Den food court, inside the Husky Union Building, features eight restaurants and a market. Banh & Naan, a new addition since the recent remodel, highlights Southeast Asian flavors. The menu includes vegetarian tofu curries, banh mi-style sandwiches, and grilled naan sandwiches.

Araya’s Place, the University District’s highest rated vegetarian restaurant on Yelp.com, is a popular destination for flavorful vegan Thai food. Open for over 25 years, Araya’s was the first Thai restaurant on the Ave before moving to their current location down the street. The number of Thai and other Asian restaurants has steadily risen since. Araya Pudpard, the founder and owner of Araya’s Place, says the buffet is her way of exposing people to different dishes because, “I’m afraid they won’t have a chance to try many things.”

Perhaps what makes Araya’s Place so popular is their use of fresh, aromatic ingredients. Pudpard says hot peppers, garlic, and “a lot of kaffir lime leaf” are essential ingredients in Thai cooking. After listening to feedback from customers Pudpard started using organic peanut butter, agave syrup instead of maple and corn syrup, and has added more gluten-free options. Curry pastes, peanut sauce, and many other condiments are made from scratch.

Local and seasonal

This attention to ingredient quality is widespread among Seattle’s most popular vegetarian restaurants. Locality of ingredients often trumps organic these days. The current trend is to support local farms and businesses instead of chasing after the organic label, which can be difficult to attain.

Chaco Canyon Café offers up 100 percent vegan, nearly 100 percent organic, food. Arielle Benson, general manager of the University District location, says about half of their ingredients are locally sourced. Seasonality also plays a large role in their menu.

“We change a third of our menu every month to work with a particular farm and highlight what’s in season and just play with it,” said Benson. “We really have some extreme talent in our kitchen for coming up with new recipes and just showcasing what Washington has to offer, which is absolutely lovely.”

Molly’s Salad’s, a wholesale artisan salad and sandwich company with cafes in the University District and Georgetown, is another business pioneering locally sourced food. They work with Seattle area vendors for many of their ingredients. Charlie’s Produce, the largest independently owned produce company in the Pacific Northwest, and local bakeries Macrina Bakery and Cafe, Essential Baking Co., and Great Harvest Bread Co. are just a few of the businesses they buy from.

“It’s better for our community to source locally,” said Sarah Rork, a product development specialist at Molly’s, “so we’re always striving towards that.”

Strengthening the community is a common thread throughout Seattle’s vegetarian and vegan restaurants. At Araya’s Place, placed near the entrance is a table stocked with informational pamphlets about eating vegetarian, and guides to local restaurants. A “Community Partners” wall of pinned cards and signs at Chaco Canyon Café gives customers a place to learn about other local businesses.

Healthy convenience

The demand for healthy, easily accessible food on the go increases as more people experiment with trying new foods and cuisines. Over the years packaged vegetarian meals have become easier to find. Amy’s Kitchen and Kashi are two examples of companies that stock frozen meatless entrees in many grocery stores across the country.

Molly’s Salad’s created “Molly’s Fridges” to meet this demand. Small fridges stocked with prepared sandwiches, salads, and other foods are located in office buildings and other high traffic areas. To purchase, you simply take out what you’d like, and pay by text or through Molly’s online web payment. Rork describes it as “a healthy alternative” to the other fast foods that are readily available.

Those working in UW Dining strive to provide students and staff with interesting, healthy meals that are easily accessible. Restaurants on campus sell freshly made foods, while markets of all sizes provide a wide selection of prepared foods.

“There’s a lot of finesse that goes into writing a menu,” said campus executive chef Kinney. “Everything from looking to see what’s the up and coming trend, what people are gravitating to, thinking about their preferences, looking at price points.”

Vegetarian and vegan foods abound on campus. In addition to the Southeast Asian flavored entrees at Banh & Naan, vegan shepherd’s pie, vegan macaroni and “cheese” (made with the popular vegan ingredient nutritional yeast), and vegetarian Chinese food are available at the UW’s Husky Den.

At District Market, the university’s new grocery store, fresh meals such as Sunrice noodle dishes and Sukhi’s “NaanWich” sandwiches are for sale. One display features vegan and gluten-free baked goods by Flying Apron. Salty snacks made with flax seeds are near chips made from kale and sweet potatoes.

Across Seattle the availability of inspired foods is growing. Chefs are experimenting with interesting flavors and exploring different cuisines, all with a focus on sustainable and local products. Whether following a vegetarian diet, or just trying new foods, the food in Seattle is vibrant with a positive spin.