If there’s food on the table, you’ll hear most Latinos say, “Provecho!” Like the French expression “bon appétit,” a declaration of provecho is exchanged before a meal or said to someone who’s partaking in one. Yet, somehow, provecho conveys more than just, “Enjoy your meal.” It comes from the Spanish word aprovechar (“to make the most of”). It imparts a sense of joy, an appreciation for community, and gratitude for all that we share.
It’s those same sentiments that I want to express through the recipes, stories, and photos in Provecho. This book celebrates and honors the traditional family recipes of my childhood while happily embracing a plant-based lifestyle that prioritizes health and well-being. The recipes on these pages are driven by nostalgia yet are distinctive and eminently doable. They will inspire both vegans and plant-curious eaters alike to explore the vibrant flavors of plant-based Mexican food.
I’m a proud first-generation Mexican American. In 1989, my parents left Tacámbaro, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, to start a new life north of the border. I was born and raised in a diverse neighborhood in Oakland, California, that I lovingly call “El Barrio.” As with most Mexican families, everything in my home revolved around food. My passion for cooking (and eating!) was passed down to me by my family, like the eyebrows I inherited from my mom’s side. I was weaned on fragrant beef stews and grilled meat, chicken tamales, and seafood ceviche. I also grew up on the food of my neighbors, who were from other Latin countries, such as Colombia and El Salvador.
Meat-centric dishes are a cornerstone of Mexican culture. Every gathering seemed to be a carnivore’s delight, with huge platters of guiso with carne and nopales, sancocho (soup with a bunch of meat), tacos with marinated meats, and the like. I was always served meat at the dinner table; but at a certain point in my childhood, I started pushing it away from my plate. Looking back, maybe it’s because I was forced to kill chickens with my uncle for meals. I never enjoyed it and, to be honest, the experience traumatized me. I eventually turned vegetarian in my early twenties. I never thought I could be vegan, though—I just loved cheese too much! Little did I know back then of the soul-satisfying alternatives to dairy that were available.
It was when I left home that I ventured into a plant-based lifestyle. College is where I completely changed the way I cook and enjoy food. I was the first person in my family to even attend college. I graduated from Chico State in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and plant science. Learning about nutrition and how food impacts our bodies gave me a new perspective on how to eat. However, the true aha moment came when I was looking after the cows on the college grounds one day as part of my campus job. I came to see them as loving creatures, each one with a personality. They craved human contact and enjoyed being petted. It was then, in January 2016, that I vowed never to eat any animal products again.
Beyond the ethical reasons, I realized that going vegan was the ultimate gateway for me to express both my creativity and my knowledge of nutrition and cooking. (People also assume I’m a raw-food specialist, but I chose atedgarraw as my handle on social media to express my “raw” self.) The health benefits can’t be underestimated either. I have plenty of family members who struggle with obesity, diabetes, or cardiovascular diseases. I was battling my own weight problems back then too. Even if I couldn’t convince my relatives to completely give up animal products, I wanted to show them that eating more plant-based food is better for you and so delicious. And I hope I can convince others as well.
That’s when I really set out to veganize the foods I grew up eating. However, I didn’t want to call foods out for being vegan. I just wanted to make tasty food that happens to be plant-based. To make it compelling, I knew I had to bring the rich, comforting flavors of those formative cuisines with me. In my family, recipes have been passed down through generations, but not through recipe cards or in any written form. Instead, they’re acquired through las manos magicas—an innate passion and understanding for the dish to be prepared. I was lucky enough to discover that I had “the magic hands” at a young age. When I was seventeen years old, I was cooking guisado de papa for relatives coming over. I must have done a really good job because people were teasing me, saying, “You can get married now!” That’s something they would usually tell a woman who has real culinary chops. I took it as a compliment that I could make someone happy with food. Having las manos magicas has shaped so much of who I am today as an artist and self-taught chef.
As a child, I loved taking pictures of nature. Eventually, I was shooting food during my journey to eating healthier. It was also a way to show people how beautiful plant-based food can be and entice them to try it. Documenting my life and food in images has helped me remember everything.
Growing up, I spent hours in the kitchen, nurtured by the creative women in my family. In Mexican culture, as in many cultures around the world, women are the guardians of generational recipes. I cherish those memories of helping mi mama, tias, and abuelita prepare the dishes they had previously helped their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers make. As a child, I loved the food that we cooked together. But as I got older, my body and soul craved a different way of eating.
Adopting a vegan lifestyle was a game changer. I had more energy, confidence, and clarity of mind. Still, I worried about what folks back home in both Oakland and Mexico would think. Cooking and eating are shared experiences, and so much heart and pride go into breaking bread with others. The dishes of my childhood connected me to my family and my culture, as well as to El Barrio and the friends and neighbors who I considered part of la familia. If we couldn’t share the same food, could we still sit down at the same table? Would we still have that sense of togetherness?
As it turns out, my family and culture are my greatest inspiration. I began to create vegan versions of generations-old recipes, without sacrificing the authentic Mexican flavors that my family expected and held dear. My relatives are as fiercely opinionated as they are passionate about food; it was a daunting challenge to give their time-honored recipes a plant-based makeover, even with las manos magicas. Getting their seal of approval is the highest compliment and means more to me than any award. The first vegan dish I made for them were my Jackfruit Tinga Tostadas (page 100). It’s a dish that traditionally uses chicken, but the shredded jackfruit resembles meat so much that I didn’t even tell my family members it was vegan. They absolutely loved it. My heart swelled with pride as, one by one, relatives told me how I’d nailed the sauce. It meant the world to me.
This book is about celebrating culture and family, cooking with compassion, and sharing meals with those we love most. I want to show you the Mexican and Latin flavors that we all love and crave, through a plant-focused lens. I invite you to join me in the kitchen and at the table. Provecho!
Copyright © 2021 by Edgar Castrejón. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.