“Dairy” products derived from plants and vegetables are seeing something of an uprising in response to a greater awareness of nutrition and diet. No longer the sole domain of vegans, the health benefits of these so-called dairy products are wide-ranging. Historically, dairy products produced from nuts, seeds, and all sorts of plants have been in common use across a broad swath of the world, from South America to Africa and the Middle East to Asia – long before they became a popular low-fat option in global coffee chains!
Most of us have heard about soy, but do you know what it is and how it is made? We have a brief look at three veggie dairy products that you are most likely to come across on your travels: coconut, tiger nuts, and soy.
Picking up coconut milk or cream in a supermarket is about as far removed as you can get from the hard work and effort it takes to produce this deliciously sweet and variously thick to runny cream derived from the coconuts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, among other countries. This firm staple in Indo-Asian cuisine is produced by mashing the soft inner flesh of the coconut with some water before straining off the liquid and repeating.
In the early stages of the process, the thicker liquid is captured as coconut cream while further processing nets the more fluid coconut milk. Coconut cream and milk form an essential part of South Asian curries, adding a subtle flavour and creaminess without needing to go anywhere near a sacred animal – a boon for vegans and those with lactose intolerance. The Philippines exports the most coconut products in the world, although Typhoon Haiyan devastated a large portion of coconut plantations when it hit the Philippines in November last year.
Ancient Egyptians would swear by them (probably, given that archeological evidence suggests the plant was buried with pharoahs), but despite the misleading name, tiger nuts are in fact a form of tuber more akin to potatoes than nuts (although they have been given the name of ‘earth almonds’ just to confuse matters). The sedge grass plant which produces the tiger nut grows all around the world, but it is primarily cultivated in Spain and West Africa. In the Valencia region of Spain they are used during the hot summers to make the creamy drink horchata de chufa – try it in a horchateria such as Santa Catalina in Valencia for a taste of the real thing.
Once you’ve cooled off with a horchata, take a wander down Valencia’s Plaza del Mercado with several unmissable sights such as the 15th-century Lonja de la Seda (Silk Market) and the Central Market. The Mercat Central de Valencia indoor market is reputedly one of the oldest of its kind in Europe. The market is held inside a beautiful 1920s-style masterpiece of Valencian architecture complete with domes, ironwork and glass, and is packed to the brim with fresh local produce. Open every day except Sunday, from 7:30am to 2:30pm.
Most people would have heard of soy products, but few would be able to say just exactly where it comes from. Soy is a hugely versatile legume that grows in East Asia, where it forms a big part of the cuisine. By fermenting the beans, sharp-flavoured sauces such as soy sauce and bean pastes are created to boost the flavour of dishes, but in the unfermented state soy milk is produced in much the same method as other plant-derived milks.
The difference between soy and other forms of plant milk, however, is in the very high protein content – some studies suggest that soy protein content is comparable to that of eggs. A huge consumer of soy, China imports around 40% of global soy stocks to be used in a myriad of ways, from tofu to stir fries to sauces.