These days it’s cool to be vegan. You can be proud to be Paleo and “wear slim garb if you go low-carb.” Then there are the Mediterranean, South Beach and raw food diets. They are all trendy and popular. They make simply being a vegetarian seem, well, boring. Hari Pulapaka, restaurateur, chef, educator, and author of “Dreaming in Spice, A Sinfully Vegetarian Odyssey,” believes a vegetarian diet is healthy and far from boring.
“That’s the battle that I face when I’m trying to inspire people to live differently with the foods they eat,” he said. “Words matter, and vegetarian seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of diets. It gets no respect at all.”
A new culinary palate
Pulapaka believes all those trendy diet names are simply marketing labels. He worries they only serve to confuse and limit the scope of understanding what healthy eating is and is not.
“Healthy eating is not about denying yourself your favorite foods,” he explained. “It is about finding different foods, healthier foods that you might love just as much. Being vegetarian gives you a broader brush in creating a new culinary palate that is not only better for you but just as delicious as what you are currently eating.”
Many of the most current, popular diets are unnecessarily restrictive and difficult to maintain, whereas vegetarianism allows for more flexibility, maintains Pulapaka.
“We seem to want to make diet more difficult and complex than it needs to be,” he said. “There are only two main requirements that any of us should demand: The food should be good for you and it should taste good.”
The best way to change
There is no question that when it comes to eating, we become set in our ways. Doing something different with our meal choices can lead to anxiety and frustration, something Pulapaka says can be quickly overcome.
“The best way to begin to change is to learn to prepare a few spice blends and sauces that are very versatile and cross the boundaries of cuisines,” he said. “You can make a sauce that leans its way into a Middle Eastern dish, a North African dish, and a Latin dish all by including certain core ingredients. It will give you flexibility, confidence, and help create a foundation for you to feel comfortable creating some exciting new dishes.”
‘Dreaming in Spice’
His book, “Dreaming in Spice,” contains hundreds of original plant-based meal recipes and professional tips for meal preparation. He dispels many myths about vegetarian food and promotes the use of more plant-based ingredients overall.
“To me, the term, ‘vegetarian,’ is nothing more than a big umbrella that covers almost everything that isn’t meat or fowl. So, it might be helpful not to worry about what to call it as much as just have a mindset that, ‘This actually tastes pretty good. And do you know what? It happens to be very good for my health!’”
The answer to a midlife crisis
Change can be frightening, confusing, and intimidating. Pulapaka knows all about change. He is a tenured associate professor of mathematics at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, where he has worked for 22 years. At the age of 40, in response to a professional midlife crisis, he enrolled full-time in culinary school while continuing his academic career. He became a professional chef, a restaurateur, and continued living a dual professional life. He understands what it takes for someone to successfully step out of their comfort zone.
“In fact, I am trying to grow my company, The Global Cooking School, which hopefully keeps me on a track wide enough to accommodate both of my professions: teaching and cooking in a way that makes sense,” he said. “I feel like finally, at the age of 55, those two tracks are merging. And everything that I see ahead of me is making all the sense in the world.”
Making small adjustments
Pulapaka believes that a major lifestyle change works best when it happens gradually.
“It starts by doing something different,” he said. “It could be as simple as one meal a week, just one meal where you only consume plant-based foods. It could be a salad, but there are so many more interesting things out there. It could be a pasta dish. It could be a pizza; it could be whatever. Don’t deprive yourself and feel like you have to eat the healthiest thing in the world. Set yourself up to be successful, by making something you’ll enjoy that gives you a sense of accomplishment.”
From there he says you can expand as quickly and as often as you prefer.
“Keep making small adjustments,” advised Pulapaka. “Replace that hamburger meal you would ordinarily have for lunch with something plant-based. Or if you really want that hamburger, replace the fries. Make those kinds of small adjustments, and you will be surprised how quickly you adapt to substituting more healthy selections. And in the process, you are getting a taste of dishes and ingredients that you normally would not and your body is going to thank you for this. You will feel the difference. Fold in some exercise or activity, walking three times a week for as little as 15 minutes, and you will be amazed that your mind and body will want you to do even more.
“And the contrast between the rich, decadent, fatty, salty food that you are used to eating with the fresh, unseasoned, natural, clean, light accompaniment might actually make it a more interesting combination,” he said. “This is my thought process as a chef. If I make a rich dish, I am always going to accompany it with something fresh because it makes culinary sense. So, by starting with one meal one day of the week, and a little bit of activity, you’ll be amazed how the next week your body’s going to crave it. And after a few weeks, your body won’t even know the difference. And at some point, that will be the only way you will want to do life.”
Finding our path through life
Pulapaka has come to believe that our path through life is guided by having respect for our health, our passions, and for helping others along the way.
“My advice is be open to life, soak it all in, but most of all, listen to your body,” he says. “Your body will not deceive you. If there is one thing in this world that is not lying to you, it is your own body. Be a good listener, give it what it needs, and you will be rewarded in ways you cannot imagine.”
Photo by Mike Dunn for Growing Bolder