Life just got a little yummier for area vegans, as well as those Jews who follow non-Orthodox kashrut standards and are seeking meatless options in mainstream restaurants.
Enter the Impossible Burger, a non-meat substitute “hamburger” that looks, smells and mostly tastes like the real thing; it is served medium rare and even oozes pink juice. Add a slice of cheese — dairy or vegan — and you’ve got pretty much the ultimate in a fake treif meal.
The Impossible Burger was introduced to Pittsburghers several weeks ago at Burgatory’s six standalone locations throughout the city. Burgatory is one of only a few restaurants to offer the sandwich across the country.
The Impossible Burger was developed by a Silicon Valley startup called Impossible Foods, which is on a mission to “make the global food system more sustainable,” according to its website. The Impossible Burger, which took five years to perfect, is the company’s first product.
The Impossible Burger, though not yet certified kosher, is made from vegan ingredients, including wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and heme, which is an iron-containing molecule found in plants. Impossible Foods produces heme through genetically engineered yeast.
Making an Impossible Burger, the company’s website claims, uses “about 1/20th the land, 1/4th the water and produces 1/8th the greenhouse gas emissions,” compared with making a burger from a cow.
But the Impossible Burger is just one great vegan option for Pittsburgh foodies, as more and more restaurants in the Steel City are offering purely vegan or vegan-friendly menus.
Apteka, an Eastern European vegan restaurant in Bloomfield, opened about a year and a half ago to rave reviews and was even named “Best New Restaurant” by Pittsburgh Magazine. It is a favorite haunt of Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of the national organization Jewish Veg, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to adopt a plant-based diet based on Jewish values.
“In my job, I travel the country giving presentations coast to coast, and I had never seen an Eastern European vegan restaurant outside of Eastern Europe,” said Cohan, who has been a vegan for about five years. “Apteka has had national attention. That’s how good their food is. They attract a younger crowd, but no one should be afraid to go in there. The food is impressive.”
Two other local vegan restaurants that Cohan recommends are B52 Café, a mostly Middle Eastern restaurant in Lawrenceville “with the best tofu scramble in town,” and Onion Maiden, a vegetarian/vegan eatery in Allentown serving what Cohan calls “vegan comfort food.”
“Onion Maiden is a fun place to go,” he said. “Their baked goods are excellent, and they have a food truck with vegan hot dogs. I also would encourage people to try their other dishes.”
Other area restaurants that offer vegan options can be found at veganpittsburgh.org, a website that aims to make veganism easier. The site is well-organized, with options searchable by neighborhoods.
It’s a very different world today. Now, it’s so easy to go vegan…Any kind of thing you would want to eat, there is a vegan substitute.
The hardest thing about becoming a vegan, though, may not be finding delicious things to eat, according to Rebecca Gilbert, a Pittsburgher who operates a website called yummyplants.com. Rather, Gilbert said, the hardest thing about veganism is making the leap to embrace it as a way of life.
For Gilbert, who was raised in a kosher home, that decision came in 1998, when she was 26 years old and suffering from chronic joint pain resulting from years as a competitive figure skater. She had tried a slew of different medical therapies — including surgery — to alleviate her pain, but nothing worked, and her career had come to a halt.
Gilbert turned to the pre-Google internet, with a Yahoo search revealing a Scandinavian study showing an 80 percent reduction in joint pain for participants who followed a vegan diet. Gilbert decided to give it a try beginning the very next day.
Five weeks later, she was back on the ice.
“Veganism helped me very quickly, and this is why I became a vegan,” she said. “There are other reasons to become a vegan — animal rights, or other health issues. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not qualified to give medical advice. But this worked for me.”
Gilbert, who has written a book called “It’s Easy to Start Eating Vegan,” has seen a huge increase in vegan options in Pittsburgh beginning in 2012.
“There are lots more packaged foods and prepared goods,” she said, adding that the increase in shelf space given to vegan goods at grocery stores is an indication of the popularity of the vegan diet.
“There are all different types of substitutions,” she said. “It’s a very different world today. Now, it’s so easy to go vegan. Of course, we want to be eating whole plants, not packaged foods. But it can be really helpful to use these packaged products. Any kind of thing you would want to eat, there is a vegan substitute.”
While Gilbert’s motivation to become a vegan was to relieve her chronic joint pain, for other Jews veganism is a higher form of kashrut. Earlier this year, Jewish Veg circulated a statement signed by 75 rabbis, representing a broad cross-section of the international Jewish community, urging other Jews to move away from eating animals and to adopt a plant-based diet.
The rabbis stated that in the Torah, God’s preference is for a plant-based diet for man and that modern animal-agricultural practices violate the Torah mandate to prevent animal suffering.
But for Moshe Barber, a longtime vegan and owner of the Pittsburgh-based VegOut Cuisine, kashrut was not a factor in his own adoption of a plant-based diet.
I saw people who were not functional before who could now walk 10 miles. There are diseases that are preventable and reversible by eating a plant-based, whole foods diet.
Barber, 60, has been a Type 1 diabetic for most of his life. When he was 20, he read a book by Nathan Pritikin about healthy eating, then visited the Pritikin clinic in Florida, where he “saw miracles happen.”
“I saw people who were not functional before who could now walk 10 miles,” Barber said. “There are diseases that are preventable and reversible by eating a plant-based, whole foods diet.”
While Barber was at the Pritikin clinic, he learned macrobiotic cooking, and he and his wife have been following a vegan diet for 30 years.
In 2011, Barber launched his food service, VegOut, which is certified kosher by the Pittsburgh Vaad Harabanim. Barber cooks at the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Congregation located downtown and delivers between 50 to 150 freshly prepared vegan and vegetarian meals six days a week. Ninety-five percent of his food is also gluten-free, and he often creates vegan versions of traditional Jewish food for his customers.
“For Yom Kippur break fast, I made my own bagels and a ‘smoked salmon’ from organic carrots and spices,” he said.
Other popular VegOut dishes include Mexican lasagna and vegan pizza. Everything is made from scratch, including refried beans, pizza crust and vegan cheese substitutes.
Most but not all of Barber’s customers are Jewish. Some are vegans or vegetarians, but others “just like the food,” he said. Other customers prefer VegOut because they are battling chronic, degenerative diseases that they believe are controlled by a vegan diet.
As for Barber, he has been able to control his diabetes, he said, through a plant-based diet. Having optimum health, he added, is a Jewish mandate.
“The Shulchan Aruch says to be healthy so that you can learn Torah and do mitzvot,” he said. “Anything you do, you’ll do better if you’re healthy.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at