Trying Veganuary? Andrew Coppolino offers tips on plant-based proteins

CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino takes a look at Veganuary, a trend to move to a plant-based diet or even eliminating your use of animal products for 31 days.

To get protein, try using seitan or tempeh to replace meat

Taking part in Veganuary is about more than just cutting meat, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino. You have to find alternative, plant-based, sources of protein and amino acids. (CBC News)

January is a time many people try something new.

So-called "dry January" is a popular phenomenon where people abstain from drinking alcohol for the month. Now there's also "Veganuary," which sees people experiment with overhauling their lifestyle by not using animal products.

A British non-profit organization started the initiative in 2014 and since then it has grown to about 500,000 people taking the "pledge."

In Canada, it's difficult to know how many people are participating in Veganuary, but the vegan movement as a whole continues to grow, according to Sylvain Charlebois, professor and Agri-Food Analytics Lab senior director at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Veganism rates have shifted. As you compare data from one year to another, you do see a growth trend. We believe the veganism rate in Canada has increased since last year," Charlebois said in an interview.

He points out that data was collected in surveys and that people are self-reporting as vegans. There are about 500,000 people making the claim, he said.

What I have found anecdotally is that people are giving a vegan diet a bit of test-drive this month, from total abstinence to having animal protein in their meals only once a week. The reasons they give range from personal health concerns and the ethics of animal welfare to environmental concerns.

How to find protein, amino acids

The problem with making the switch to a plant-based diet is often getting protein and the necessary amino acids into your diet after you remove animal products. Protein should make up about a quarter of your plate, according to the Canada Food Guide.

To do this, you can find manipulated soy-based protein products that are "meat" replacements, or, more simply, eat high-protein natural foods like lentils, beans, chickpeas and other legumes and pulses, along with nuts and seeds.

At area specialty stores like Full Circle Foods, you can find seitan (a Kitchener company, The Seitanists, makes it) which has a "meat-like" texture and can be cooked in ways that mimic the meat you might have in your favourite Asian dish of ginger, garlic, lemongrass, Chinese five-spice and vegetables. (Note that seitan is wheat based, so it's not good for people with Celiac disease.)

Another alternative is tempeh, an ancient fermented soybean product (Henry's Tempeh is a Kitchener-based company which makes tempeh) that you could use to make a "Reuben" sandwich without the corned beef: fry the tempeh, stick it between two toasted slices of your favourite bread, and slather on the egg-free, dairy-free mayo, a vegan ketchup and sauerkraut. You can add vegan cheese, if you like.

Going out to dine?

Both Beertown locations and Wildcraft have vegan menus in addition to their traditional menus, and even small take-away venues like The Poke Box in Waterloo have vegetarian and vegan dishes.

In March, the popular tapas restaurant Public is having a "Vegan Crush" set-price, multiple-course dinner event.

Kitchener's Café Pyrus has been a leader in vegan (and organic) eating in the area for years, while The Copper Branch chain of restaurants, with a location in Waterloo, bills itself as "plant-based power food."

If you peruse the menus of your favourite restaurants, you'll often find vegan selections. Otherwise, many restaurants can modify menu items to exclude animal protein — Waterloo's King Street Trio, for instance, says that in a note on their online menu — though kitchens may not be able to guarantee that your veggies have not been cooked where an animal protein was previously cooked.

It's important to ensure your vegan diet has protein and the essential amino acids we need to be healthy, so do your homework. A vegan diet isn't necessarily a difficult one, but it does take some forethought and planning as you launch into it.

To get you started, here's a simple, inexpensive and delicious Indian dish, tarka dal, that takes about an hour to prepare.

Dal is virtually any dried pulse such as beans, lentils and peas and often the name for the dish when they are cooked. Tarka is a cooking technique in which spices are cooked in hot oil to enhance their flavours. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Tarka dal

Adapted from Monisha Bharadwaj, The Indian Cooking Course

Dal is virtually any dried pulse such as beans, lentils and peas and often the name for the dish when they are cooked. Tarka is a cooking technique in which spices are cooked in hot oil to enhance their flavours.


  • ¾ cup red lentils.
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil.
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds.
  • 1 large onion, diced (I used a shallot I already had on hand).
  • 1 garlic clove, minced (use more if you like).
  • 1 tomato, finely chopped.
  • 2 green chili peppers, cut lengthwise (I used one red Thai chili, seeds removed).
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric.
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala (spice blend found in specialty and larger grocery stores).
  • Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish (optional).
  • Salt.


Rinse the lentils well under running cold water. Put them in a saucepan with double the volume of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Skim the water when needed. Add water if it gets dry.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a skillet over high heat and add the cumin seeds. When they crackle, add the onion and stir for about eight minutes. Cook to golden brown but do not burn. Add the garlic and stir, cooking two to three minutes.

Add the tomato, chilis, turmeric and garam masala and season with salt. Cook for three to four minutes until soft.

Pour the cooked lentils in with the cooking liquid, stir and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with chopped cilantro (leave out if cilantro tastes "soapy" to you) and add a light sprinkle of garam masala


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