Plant-based adobo: embracing Filipino veganism

Guest writer Sandra Nomoto shares how she made her parent’s chicken adobo recipe vegan and her journey to become an Asian vegan.

Filipina vegan creates plant-based adobo

I’m still crestfallen since my failed attempt at making vegan lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) three years ago, but I have good news. I reached almost four years as a vegan, and successfully made a vegan version of one of my childhood dishes: Chicken Adobo!

I began cutting meat out of my diet in 2008. In 2009, I started having bloating, chest pain, acid reflux, and vomiting—always in the early morning hours. Despite many tests with my doctor, no answers. After a painful bout of acid reflux in 2018, I returned to my naturopathic doctor (who said I should have gone to the emergency room then). She suggested a food sensitivity test.

I was sensitive to dairy. My four-month cleanse in the spring of that year was the start of my vegan journey. Seven months into a fully plant-based diet,I attended a workshop on gut health, presented by a vegan doctor and nutritionist in Vancouver. I learned about hypochlorhydria, a fancy word that means underactive stomach. I was in tears because I believe I had finally found the condition that went undiagnosed for a decade. The nutritionist explained animal products may be a cause of the condition, and for me, dairy might have been the culprit of it all.

Veganism and social justice

A few years later, I learned that the vast majority of people of colour are intolerant to the lactose in milk. Yet, the industry still encourages everyone to consume it. The term dietary racism has emerged to call out the large coffee franchises for putting fees on plant-based milks. 

In addition, factory farms, animal slaughterhouses, and meat processing plants are typically in low-income communities of BIPOC. Employees work long hours, earn poverty wages, and suffer from a high risk of injury. They’re more likely to have psychological stress and are more prone to mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and arrests, from the violent nature of their job. So living vegan is not just about the animals for me—it’s about solving injustice.

For me, I find there’s quite a bit of meat or dairy in many traditional Asian dishes. Making vegan versions can seem difficult when you transition to eating plant-based, but know that it’s absolutely possible. I don’t consider myself a great cook, but I managed to make this dish by using my parents’ recipe and finding a replacement for chicken.

Fulfilling a Plant-Based Adobo Recipe Dream

Chicken adobo was one of the first recipes I got from my parents when I first moved out of the house almost two decades ago. I haven’t made it in 14 years – around when I cut meat out of my diet.

The traditional ingredients are really simple: Chicken and/or pork, garlic, white vinegar, cracked black peppercorns, bay leaf, soy sauce, salt, and oil. Then your choice of rice and any additional vegetables. I always liked it with diced potatoes.

Ever since trying seitan (wheat gluten) at a local Chinese vegetarian restaurant a few years ago—which used it as “chicken drumsticks”—I’ve had this idea of seitan adobo in the back of my mind. I visited Vegan Supply, a local grocery store, in late 2021 and saw a refrigerated 227g package of Traditional Seitan in Chunks by Upton’s Naturals. The idea to use seitan in place of meat emerged. 

The recipe I have for chicken adobo serves five to six, and I thought the seitan would be good for two servings, so I had in my mind that I should half this recipe. In a medium-sized saucepan on medium heat, I combined two crushed garlic cloves, 1/4 cup of white vinegar, about a teaspoon of crushed Angkor Harvest Kampot Red Peppercorns using my knife, 1 bay leaf, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and about a tablespoon of olive oil. 

adobo ingredients
Photo Credit: Submitted

Normally you’d dump in chicken and let everything boil on medium heat and then reduce to medium-low to simmer for about 30 minutes. When I added the seitan chunks and diced potato, it didn’t seem to me that there was enough “sauce” to coat everything, so I added another 1/4 cup of vinegar, half a tablespoon of soy sauce, another tablespoon of oil and a dash of salt. I mixed everything around and then covered the saucepan to let it simmer for 15 minutes.

Photo Credit: Submitted
Asian vegan adobo
Photo Credit: Submitted

Just a few minutes in, I could smell the salty-sour combination of the vinegar and soy sauce and it seemed right to me.

The seitan chunks are big, so could cut some of the bigger chunks into smaller ones beforehand.

Cooking Asian adobo
Photo Credit: Submitted

Fifteen minutes later, I uncovered the saucepan to see everything marinated. The only thing is some of the seitan and potato stuck to the bottom of the pan.

If you make this with meat, there should be a sauce because of the animal fat, which is something I didn’t consider.

I served it all up with some brown basmati rice, a healthier alternative to the staple white jasmine rice. Even though I had no sauce to pour over the rice, the flavours of my childhood came flooding back to me!

Plated Asian adobo
Photo Credit: Submitted

What makes this so good is that salty-bitter flavour that gets soaked up by the seitan and potatoes, that gets balanced out by the neutral rice.

When my dad made this dish, he used whole peppercorns, and I always hated chewing them, but crushing the peppercorns adds that spicy flavour without it being too overwhelming. You could also just use ground black pepper if you don’t like the taste of peppercorns. A peppery taste goes well with the other flavours.

When I posted my cooking videos on Instagram, I asked if you could add water while simmering to avoid the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan and to create more of a sauce, and a friend said that this should work. Next time I’ll try doing this without adding the second round of soy sauce, vinegar, and salt unless they’re needed, because the potatoes ended up being pretty salty. I’ll also mince the garlic instead of crushing it, since crushed garlic can burn pretty quickly.

If you’re thinking that this adobo is way too carb-heavy with potatoes, you can always use a different vegetable. The seitan package is actually for four and has 18g of protein and 5g of carbs, so yes—you get protein from seitan. 

After eating half the package, I was full for most of the day!

It’s so satisfying to be able to make the dish the same way my parents did, with a plant-based twist.

Building my Asian vegan community

Since I started eating plant-based, my incidents of stomach pain have reduced. I’ve also vomited no food in the last two years.

Positive social and environmental impact has always been a driving value in my life. Living as a vegan has allowed me to practice this with every meal and every purchase. My business catering to the vegan industry is now two years old. I’m co-hosting a vegan group of professionals and entrepreneurs throughout Canada. The pandemic has allowed me to to venture outside of the Vancouver network and connect with other vegans worldwide.

I have also found that there is a vibrant community of Asian vegans and vegan influencers. Just a few include Cheap Lazy Vegan Rose Lee, The Korean Vegan Joanne Molinaro, Chef Reina Montenegro, and Jasmine Briones of Sweet Simple Vegan. I’m confident that I can search online for the recipe of a vegan version of any Filipino dish. 

As the vegan population is still small (but growing!), I take my role and lens as a vegan woman of colour seriously. Though living vegan comes with a lot of fun too.

Now to attempt that vegan lumpia again…

See also: Hot for food’s Lauren Toyota on her career journey, racial identity, and new cookbook

Featured Image: Submitted

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