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Credit: Photo: Christine Han; Wardrobe Styling: Roberto Johnson; Hair & Makeup: Timothy MacKay
Eat More Plants

Priyanka Naik’s Vision for Vegan Food Is Colorful, Global, and Zero-Waste

published Jun 7, 2021
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This story is part of Eat More Plants, Kitchn’s June 2021 special issue devoted to putting the flavor and magic of plants at the heart of your plate.  

One of the most delightful parts of the lively social video worlds of TikTok and Instagram is the one occupied by vegan and vegetarian cooks, where a whole new generation of voices show off their cooking smarts and plant-powered color. One of our favorite voices on Instagram is Priyanka Naik, a vegan chef and Food Network champ. Her videos put extremely attractive vegan cooking like golden beet fusilli side by side with global food that fuses her travels and the table of her Indian family (tostones chaat!)

Priyanka’s first cookbook, The Modern Tiffin: On-the-Go Vegan Dishes with a Global Flair (Tiller Press, November 2021), launches this fall, and she describes it as “Alice in Wonderland but for food” — colorful, vibrant, playful. We are pretty smitten with her clever flavor plays, like adding tempered spices, an essential Indian cooking move, to finish an Italian-inspired lemon risotto. If this is her idea of vegan cooking, it’s a Wonderland we’d like to live in.

What has your journey to and through plant-based eating been like?
I grew up primarily vegetarian. My parents were both vegetarians. The style of cooking that we cook at home and the type of Indian we are, most of our food is vegetarian if not vegan. Just by default, my whole life has been very plant-forward before it was cool to be plant-forward. A typical dinner would be at least three to four vegetable dishes. I always liked that food because our style of cooking is also very flavorful, so it was never like, “Here’s steamed carrots.”

I actually grew up then, when I got a little bit older, eating chicken and seafood. Not by choice necessarily, but because there were so many limited options in the ’90s. When we were in school, or on school trips, when we were socializing, it just became really difficult. We started introducing chicken mainly through Burger King, because fast food was also obviously very popular and it wasn’t necessarily considered unhealthy for the same reasons it’s considered unhealthy now.

Then I became older and I watched one too many documentaries; I’ve always been an animal-lover. I was like,” Well, if I truly love animals, why would I want them to be treated not in the same way that I want to be treated?” I just felt that it was very disingenuous of me to be like, “Well, I love animals and then I’m eating chicken or eating fish.” It just didn’t make sense to me.

My whole philosophy around food became a little bit more, I would say, strict because of doing all this research and I became full-time vegetarian again 14 years ago. As I started cooking more, learning more, teaching myself more, I probably did too much research on the dairy industry and on the egg industry and all those other industries that people probably don’t want to know about and that’s when I started cutting out dairy and then evolving into full vegan.

So you’ve really transitioned back and come full-circle to your family’s way of eating.
It really wasn’t a transition. It was just going back to my roots because I grew up eating primarily vegetarian food; almost all the dishes we make are vegan. It was like, well, I’m used to this actually, and this actually gives me a good platform to teach people why it’s important to think outside the box when thinking about food.

A question I often ask is, how do you put plants at the center of the plate? But something you said in an earlier conversation made me realize: Wait, is there even a center of the plate in the food you grew up with?
That’s a great question. There’s really no such thing as an entrée. The concept of an entrée is very much European and Western in nature, like the concept of having a main thing. There’s no such thing as an entrée within Indian cuisine, because the style and the way we eat is family style. That breaks the concept of having an entrée right then and there.

There needs to be a balance of flavors and textures and components to have a fulfilling meal. That’s why we eat in what we would translate as thali style. If you ever go to a South Indian restaurant, you’ll get a big plate and they’ll bring dishes in these little bowls, that’s a thali. Everything is meant to be eaten together, it’s meant to be eaten family style. It’s a part of the culture because that’s in the way the family comes together.

And now you’ve turned that into this whole space of cooking and inspiring people who maybe wouldn’t think to cook vegan food.
I never want to shame anyone into it, like, “Oh, you shouldn’t be eating beef because of this.” That’s not my point. My point is to show people, “Hey, you probably thought vegan food is either really expensive, bland, or some gross salad. I’ve already eaten any of those things. I just want to show you how delicious and satisfying it can be.”

I lead with that and lead with entertainment to help people learn more about vegan cooking without having that stigma of like, “Eww vegan food” — I don’t know why that stigma was there and it’s still there and it’s lame.

What have you seen be most helpful instead of, you know, shaming?
My approach is always, “How can I teach people not only to be vegetable-forward, but to actually not be afraid to use spices?” The recommendation that I always make to people is, “I’m not telling you to make three Indian vegetables because I surely don’t have time for that,” but whatever you approach, just make sure to use the right spices and to have varying textures because that is what makes a satisfying meal. What spices can we use to make this taste good?

Even if I only have broccoli and noodles, what do I have in my dry spices? Do I have cumin seeds? Do I have coriander seeds? Do I have red chili powder? Besides the fact that so many of these ingredients have healing properties to them, which is a whole other subject of Ayurvedic cooking, it just makes your food tastes really good.

What is your favorite thing to put on broccoli and noodles?
I love putting dried red chilies and garlic and a little bit of crushed coriander seeds. If you sauté all of that with a little bit of agave, you have to have a balance of sweet and spicy. Then I love finishing it with a little bit of fresh lemon juice, fresh chopped cilantro. Then I do an almond, kind of like an almond Parmesan, but it’s not really, it’s just more for texture, but brown almonds with a little bit of kosher salt to top it off.

What other strategies do you think really benefit people trying to eat more plant-forward?
I do a lot of zero-waste cooking. One, I don’t want to waste my money and, two, I’m trying to help the environment in some way. I have this huge mission to just teach people, how can we minimize food waste with really minimal effort? I think the easiest way is repurposing what’s in our fridge. At the end of the day, everyone has leftovers in their fridge.

For instance, I ordered a bunch of Lebanese food the other night, way too much for what I can eat, and I have a ton of pita bread. I was getting bored of eating the pita. I was like, “I don’t really want to eat this anymore. It’s boring.” It’s really good-quality pita. There’s nothing wrong with it. I am actually making a fattoush-inspired salad. I crisp up the pita, I made a date-garlic dressing. I put roasted beets in there, lettuce, tomato, fresh coriander, chilies. It’s just stuff that I had around, but it’s like now that pita has a new life.

The way I think about food is the way I think about life because I’m Hindu. I feel like every food can be reincarnated to something else.

That’s so great, especially since there is I think a misconception that eating plant-forward can be really expensive and not practical for people on a budget.
I do hear the conversation a lot: “Priyanka, Impossible is so expensive.” I’m fully supportive of substitutes, but I think what people forget is that meat substitutes are there to not be a replacement, but they’re meant to be a transitionary element; they’re meant for the person who wants to cut out eating hamburgers every week to maybe eating an Impossible Burger instead.

I think people forget that their produce aisle is probably much more economically-friendly than your seafood aisle, your meat aisle, your frozen food aisle. I just encourage people to, even from an economic standpoint, just try to budget yourself a certain amount for groceries every week or every two weeks, whatever it may be and think about how much more you can get with vegetables and grains and legumes than meat and dairy.

What other grocery staples do you find really useful?
Something that I also advise people to think about is these legume-based grains, the pastas, Banza. People like Banza, but there’s so many brands making really healthy plant-forward, protein-packed items that they could get pretty inexpensively. I think there’s a huge benefit to thinking more plant-forward and whole food from an economic standpoint that people I think shy away from or just don’t want to make the effort of thinking about how much they can save.

So tell me a little more about your cookbook.
My debut cookbook, The Modern Tiffin, is coming out on November 2, which happens to be the week of Diwali, which is the biggest Indian festival of the year. The whole premise of the book is to break the stereotypes and stigmas, not only of the kind of vegan world and vegan cooking, vegan cuisine, but also of Indian culture and Indian cuisine. I do that through my travel experiences combined with my first-generation upbringing here and my general food philosophy. I want people, especially the millennial generation and Gen-Z, to feel excited about cooking, to get in the kitchen and feel like they want to make something different.

For those reasons, all of the recipes are portions for two people in the book. It was very atypical from a traditional recipe book. Everything is portioned for two. Everything is portable. That is the idea of the tiffin. That ties into my economic aspect on cooking and food. If you cook for yourself, you save a lot of money in doing that. You repurpose leftovers, you save a lot of money. If you bring your lunch to work, whenever we go back to work, you save a lot of money.

Also, each chapter is of a different country or region or set of cultures that I’ve experienced or visit. While the book is very Indian-forward in the sense of the name and who I am and what I’m putting out there, each chapter actually focuses on a different country that I’ve experienced. It brings all of that together in one place. I want people to feel like they’re looking at it and they’re like, “Well, I want to make that eggplant dish.” Or, “Oh, I hate okra, but this okra looks really good.” I want people to feel the way I do about vegetables.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Alex Brannian; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Okay, last question: You gave us a recipe you feel is really one to help people see vegetables as you do. Can you talk a little more about this stuffed baby eggplant?
This is like a great recipe for people who actually don’t like eggplant because it doesn’t taste like eggplant. The dominant flavors to me in this are from the fennel, from the peanut, and a little bit from the basil and coconut. It has a slightly Thai curry-ish go, but with an Indian flair.

The dish is also extremely hearty. You’re very full after you eat that dish, because eggplant itself has a very meaty texture and there are so many flavors in it, so you feel really satiated while you’re eating it which is what I’m trying to go for in the dishes that I developed for people to cook.

Thank you Priyanka! Follow Priyanka on Instagram and on TikTok. You can find her blog here and preorder her first cookbook, The Modern Tiffin: On-the-Go Vegan Dishes with a Global Flair (November 2).