photo: Fanny Fuentes-Phalon

Meat is a staple ingredient in many of the meals Fanny Fuentes-Phalon shared with her family — as is the case in the majority of Latino households. But what happens when you want to change up your eating habits for the sake of animal rights and environmental reasons and still stay connected to your culture? 

Fuentes-Phalon’s shift to a vegan diet began slowly after discovering how intelligent pigs are. Eventually she eschewed from eating chicken and beef when she grew increasingly concerned about the suffering of animals. Having grown up in urban Union City, New Jersey, she never had the chance to interact with farm animals, but when she and her wife Tracey Phalon visited the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary it helped her solidify her decision. Ironically enough, Fuentes-Phalon and her wife met while working at a steakhouse about 20 years ago. 

What made matters difficult for the Salvadoreña was when it came time to tell her professors and fellow students in her culinary program at County College of Morris about her lifestyle change. But they were surprisingly supportive and even asked her what products she needed the school to provide so she could cook.

Fuentes-Phalon’s favorite dishes to make is picadillo. But instead of the traditional ground beef, she uses a pea protein that has chili-like consistency. Another popular entrée is the pernil. Conventionally made with roast pork, she substitutes the pig with roasted seitan (also known as “wheat meat”). The dish is also seasoned with turmeric and organic adobo and paired with brown rice and choice of beans. “We use a product called Beyond Meat for the masitas. It makes them taste like the original,” Fuentes-Phalon says.

You can find these kinds of entrées, appetizers, and desserts at Mundo Vegan, the restaurant Fanny Fuentes-Phalon co-owns with her wife in Montclair, New Jersey.

“For ethical reasons, it makes sense to be vegan. It’s healthier, for one. And if you say you love animals, you shouldn’t hurt them or have someone hurt them for you. Our food brings back good memories. I would hope that my food would remind (customers) of something they had before at their friend’s or mom’s house.”

Though it is challenging to pinpoint the number of Hispanic vegans in the United States, a 2008 survey from Vegetarian Times and Harris Interactive Service Bureau shows 7.3 million American adults (3.2 percent of the American population) are vegetarian. One million, or 0.5 percent, are vegan. The poll surveyed 5,050 respondents, but the statistics are not broken down by race and ethnicity.  

There are a plethora of vegan cookbooks with Latino flavors to fit their needs. And in an effort to give back and be part of that movement, Fuentes-Phalon is writing a piece about being a gay woman small business owner to be included in a vegan Latina anthology slated to be published by Lantern Press.

Fuentes-Phalon estimates that up to 30 percent of Mundo Vegan’s customers are Hispanic, but the majority are still carnivores. Her wife has says they have to charm their way to people's stomachs: handing out free samples to folks on the sidewalk to entice them to try vegan fare.

One of Mundo Vegan’s customers, Lorena Coitinho, has been vegetarian for a couple of years and hopes to become vegan.

“It’s not a health issue for me because eating meat harms animals,” Coitinho says. She and her Dominican-American partner began following a meat-free diet a couple of years ago and discovered Mundo Vegan when they were searching for vegetarian and vegan restaurants. 

“We love it — the food is amazing. The rice and beans are almost the same as the dish I grew up with,” Coitinho says.

One dish and customer at a time, Fuentes-Phalon hopes to debunk vegan myths to people everywhere, especially Latinos. 

“People have this misconception that vegan food has to be bland,” Fuentes-Phalon says. “I love that I’m able to dispel that sentiment that you can’t have picadillo unless it’s beef, or you can’t have masitas if it’s not made with pork. Or that you need ham in your beans.”