Reina Montenegro wants to encourage more plant-based eating. The Filipina chef transitioned to a vegan diet several years ago, but it wasn’t an entirely seamless switch. Filipino cuisine is largely meat-based, brimming with the likes of fish curries, pork adobo, and meat-stuffed lumpia, and she instantly missed the traditional foods of her youth.
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“The problem was that I knew that I would miss out on a lot of childhood favorites because my culture is so heavy on meat when they cook. It doesn’t matter if it’s a vegetable dish—[Filipinos] add in fish sauce or oyster sauce,” Reina says.
But Reina wants to prove that it’s still possible to enjoy those Filipino staples—without sacrificing flavor or eschewing culinary traditions—even on a plant-forward diet.
Reina operates two plant-based Filipino restaurants in the Bay Area, Nick’s on Mission and Nick’s on Grand, showcasing a wealth of classic and popular Filipino dishes that have been veganized. Here, you can expect Filipino dishes like chick’n adobo—reimagined without the chicken—and purple-hued ube pancakes, showered with shards of “bacon.” Sisig, normally prepared with pork parts and sometimes an egg—is recreated with marinated tofu swimming in citrus vinegar and chilies.
“I want to show people you can come from a heavy meat-eating culture and transition over to a plant-based diet without missing the meat,” she says.
But for Reina, turning to a plant-based diet wasn’t merely because it made her feel better. She’s also an avid supporter of animal rights and the health of the planet. “I care deeply about our world that is dying, the animals that we are hurting,” she says. “I believe that all of this can be changed drastically if everyone [gives] up what is harmful.”
Her most recent addition to that cause is a Filipino cookbook called “Plant-Based Filipino Comfort Foods.” She hopes this book can teach home cooks not only how to properly prepare Filipino fare at home, but also to showcase how the plant-based version pays homage to tradition and still tastes great—minus any animal products.
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Expect recipes for kare kare, a Filipino stew bound by vegetables and peanut sauce; and sweet chocolate sticky rice, a gooey bowl of glutinous rice, cocoa powder, and vegan creamer. Ahead, you’ll find a recipe for Reina’s vegan vegetable lumpia, stuffed with carrots, onions, green beans, jicama, cabbage, bean sprouts, and garlic. These vegetables are spiced, soaked in vegetarian oyster sauce, then jammed into lumpia wrappers and dunked into hot oil to become brown and crispy.
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Reina recommends grabbing wrappers made from only flour and water, as they tend to be thicker than rice paper. “Use a flour and water slurry to seal the rolls so it doesn’t fall apart when you fry it,” she says, referring to this mixture that’s poured into the pan to create a crispy bottom that hugs the lumpia. This cigar-shaped snack, that shatters upon impact, is so perfect, overflowing with vegetables and spices, that you’ll hardly remember why you used to only eat the meat version.
Lumpiang Gulay (Vegetable Lumpia) Recipe
Lumpiang Gulay (Vegetable lumpia)
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 cup carrots, julienned
- 1 cup green beans, julienned
- 1 cup jicama, cubed or julienned
- 2 cups green cabbage, shredded
- 2 cups bean sprouts
- 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce or to taste
- 1 tablespoon vegetarian oyster sauce or to taste
- 1 teaspoon mushroom powder
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Lumpia/spring roll wrappers (paper thin variety from Asian store)
- 2-3 cups oil (or just enough to cover the rolls) for deep-frying
- Dipping Sauce: 1 cup soy sauce
- ¼ white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon onion, diced
- A pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
- Heat the oil in medium deep pan garlic and onions until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the veggies and stir-fry for about 3 minutes. Add the mushroom powder, soy sauce and veg oyster sauce. Cook until mixed and heated completely, season to taste. Remove from the heat and place in a strainer or colander to drain all the liquid remaining. Allow to cool completely.
- To make the spring rolls, place about 2 tablespoon of the filling in one of the corners of the wrapper. Roll the corner with the filling (spreading it a little) towards the middle. Fold the sides inward to seal, then continue to roll until you have about 2 inches left of the wrapper. Using your finger, brush the edges with a little water then seal completely.
- Heat the oil in a deep pan until hot, 350 F. Fry the spring rolls in batches avoiding overcrowding for about 3-5 minutes or until medium brown in color. Place the cooked spring rolls upright to ensure proper draining on a paper towel lined colander!
- Serve with dipping sauce.
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