Sandra Vungi may have spent the last 13 years bashing the drums in primitive, Neanderthal-inspired death metal duo Neoandertals, but she’s also one of the most recognized vegans in her come country of Estonia. For years, she has maintained a blog filled with vegan recipes in addition to publishing five vegan cookbooks—including Vegan Dinner Party in English—, winning numerous awards and appearing in numerous Estonian vegan, health and beauty magazines and television shows.
Decibel spoke with Vungi about veganism, her go-to recipes, the rising popularity of veganism in Estonia and new Neoandertals music. Dig into the conversation below.
For a Baltic country with a traditional meat-and-potatoes diet, Estonia — well, Tallinn, at least — has a surprising number of vegan restaurants. Do you think this represents a cultural shift?
Yes! Definitely. When I started out as a vegan in 2007, you could only order fries when you wanted to eat out. I must say Estonia has been really progressive. Even the smaller cities have more vegan options now. It’s never been easier to be a vegan. I remember the first time I tried tofu. I didn’t know any better and just ate it plain on a bread thinking, “Okay, I guess this is my life now.” Eating plain tofu is for advanced vegans only. You really need to think of it as a raw material and season and prepare it properly. Here’s my recipe for barbecue tofu: pan-fry sliced or cubed tofu in plenty of oil until crispy. Mix with your favorite smoky barbecue sauce and enjoy!
You’ve been a vegan for 12 years — the entirety of your adult life. You’ve cited the PETA documentary Meet Your Meat as your turning point. But how did you become interested in creating recipes for plant-based meals and blogging about it?
I’ve been a huge foodie as long as I can remember. I need to thank my grandmother and mom for that. Food just made sense to me. I started cooking when I was five years old and was really curious about everything that my mom or grandma prepared. So cooking was already strongly in my blood. When I became vegan, I had a chance to bring my passion for cooking and compassion for animals together and create vegan recipes. At first, I created them just for myself, but then I started to share the recipes, because I noticed a demand. There weren’t many Estonian vegan recipes at that time, so I created my Estonian food blog in 2009. Four years after that, I decided to translate my recipes into English, so VeganSandra was born.
Most of your recipes are designed to be made in a single pan or pot, and many of them pare the ingredient list down to the essentials. Is ease of preparation an important thing for encouraging people to feel comfortable in a kitchen?
Absolutely. It’s super important for me. I’m turned off by long and fancy ingredient lists. Since I’m a country girl and the nearest shop is about 8 miles away, I always have a stocked pantry. Right now, there’s been so much snow in Estonia, so you never know when our forest cabin’s road is closed. Scandinavian winter is like a zombie apocalypse, you better be prepared.
I see that my readers also love really simple recipes made with ingredients they may already have at home. It’s such a comfortable way to try your first vegan dishes. I really want to show people that vegans don’t only eat these extravagant and hard to prepare dishes. I want to show them how I actually eat every day. Your menu has to be doable and also rather familiar, otherwise you will give up after trying one or two vegan recipes.
I know from your videos that your paring knife is your go-to for kitchen prep. What’s your second favorite kitchen implement, and what are some things that every cook should have access to?
I love small knives. I have a lot of fancy large chef knives, but I always end up using the paring knife. It’s a personal preference. Fortunately, I don’t need speed and serious knife skills in my home kitchen, so I have the luxury of taking my time and enjoying the process. Since I also lead vegan cooking workshops for private gatherings, I’ve seen so many different kitchens! We’ve made delicious food even in the most minimalist kitchens (and by minimalist, I mean no frying pans and having to cook your veggie patties in a pot). I know that you can make extraordinary food even with the most primitive gadgets. I know it sounds corny, but all you need is a love for food.
If I had to choose my favorite kitchen implement besides my trusty paring knife, I would say that a good quality frying pan is a must. I have a deep Fiskars pan with ceramic coating that you can also use in an oven. I also love my high speed blender (for turning nuts and seeds into creamy sauces). For the home cooks who love to follow recipes, I strongly recommend investing into a measuring cup or a kitchen scale. Following exact measurements (especially when baking) makes a world of difference.
What is your process like for devising a recipe? On average, how many times do you have to experiment and refine before you are comfortable with sharing the recipe?
It completely depends on the recipe. Most of the time, I get it right on the first try. But for some recipes, it requires a few tests. My most notorious struggle was with gluten-free brownies. I made them about seven times until I was happy with the recipe. I have a few recipes in my computer archives that have an amazing photo and that actually taste pretty good, but I still wasn’t happy with the result so I never published them. The main recipe testing goes on in my head before I even start cooking. I imagine all the tastes and textures and the techniques. Then I gather the ingredients and start cooking.
What is your go-to meal when you don’t feel like cooking?
A simple veggie soup, pasta dish or just boiled potatoes with some herb salt and vegan mayo. I also love to toast some tortillas on a pan, slather them with mayo, fold and cut them into triangles and just eat them with some soup. Another favorite is spicy vegan Tex-Mex burgers.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would that be?
Potatoes and gravy. I can’t get enough of it. I love potatoes in every form. They are super versatile and delicious. I’m happy I was born in the modern times, because Estonians started to eat potatoes only in the late 19th century. Before that, we ate a lot of barley, turnips and legumes. And before coffee, they drank warm beer with spices first thing in the morning! A rather interesting concept. But yes, long live the potatoes! The best part is that they only require salt to be truly delicious. One of my favorite dishes to make is my super creamy and nutmeg-y potato and onion casserole.
Your first English language cookbook Vegan Dinner Party: Comforting Vegan Dishes for Any Occasion came out in 2014. What kind of feedback did you receive on this? Have you considered translating any of your other Estonian cookbooks into English?
Vegan Dinner Party was my second cookbook and my first one in English. I was so happy when I got the book deal. I already had a major publisher in Estonia, but I was excited to write a book in English. It has a 5/5 star rating on Amazon and I know that people who have European roots, especially Baltic roots, really love the recipes that are inspired by Estonian cooking. Right now, I’m making an English e-cookbook. Hopefully it will be out soon on my site (http://www.vegansandra.com). The e-book will have many of my favorite recipes from my Estonian cookbooks translated into English. They have never been published on VeganSandra, so they are exclusive.
I have written five cookbooks in five years and it’s been a crazy ride. I really needed a little break, so I decided to write a sci-fi children’s book. It’s about a 10-year old girl green-haired girl named Paw (Käpp in Estonian), who finds a tiny spaceship and goes onto a wild adventure on different planets to fight evil on the Cabbage Roll Planet with a super fat cat named Kroi. It’s my dream kid’s book, because it has loads of food in it. It will be out in January or early February through my Estonian publisher. I really enjoyed the writing process. It was pure joy and almost therapeutic. I finally had a chance to put all my crazy dreams and childhood tastes and thoughts into a book.
Your “Sandra Vungi Cooks Vegan” videos on your YouTube channel offer easy-to-follow instruction for weeknight meal prep. But they are also an excellent showcase for your collection of metal band shirts and hoodies (Mayhem, Portal, Emperor). How did you get into metal?
Thanks! I’ve been a metal head since I was 14, so about 15 years now. I have two older sisters and my sister Hedvig was really into heavier music. By the way, she was the organizer of an open air metal fest in Norway (Hard Anger Open Air, 2012), where I performed with my band Neoandertals. It was the time of our lives, partying with our pals from Disgorge (US) for almost a week and playing drums in the Norwegian mountains.
But yeah, when I was 14, I “borrowed” Hedvig’s Nirvana cassette and blasted it in our dad’s retro yellow Mercedes every night. I especially loved “Aneurysm” and “Endless Nameless.” Then I got into punk and listened to some really low-fi Estonian punk bands and The Exploited. At that time, I thought there wasn’t much difference between punk and metal. Boy, was I wrong. I remember going home after a punk concert and passing a metal venue. A concert just had ended there, so me and my sister just went inside. I was blown away. Who were these mysterious people? What bands did they listened to? A really fun group of friends approached us and we started talking. Soon after, they introduced me to Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir. So when I got home, my parents next room got really familiar with Cruelty and the Beast and For All Tid.
When I met my boyfriend (now fiancé) Rain Pohlak (who is the other half of Neoandertals) at 15, I got more into death metal. …And Time Begins by Decrepit Birth, Consume the Forsaken by Disgorge and Planisphaerium by Wormed were in heavy rotation. Also, all the classics like Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel, Death, Cynic, Origin, and Gorguts. I also remember listening to “Milk Lizard” by The Dillinger Escape Plan on repeat during every school recess.
Almost all my merch has a special story. All my Morbid Angel stuff is from Pete Sandoval, who was my pen pal during the MySpace years. My Mayhem hoodie is from a really awesome Mayhem show in Tallinn. Their Ordo Ad Chao is one of my all-time favorite metal albums. Another car story – I was in a really lame party and wanted to ditch it, but home was far away, so I listened to Ordo Ad Chao in our old Volvo 740. It was truly relaxing. I bought my Emperor hoodie after their amazing show at Tuska Festival, Finland, where they played In the Nightside Eclipse in full.
Lately I’ve been into obscure low-fi black/death metal bands like Carpe Noctem, Svartidaudi, Portal and Misþyrming. Iceland has some really good metal bands! My latest favorite live show experience was Dying Fetus. I’ve seen them before, but this time I was completely blown away. Their riffs and energy are just made for the moshpit. Even my sober friend who had never listened to them before, had the time of her life. I felt like I was reborn after their show. I guess the moshpit is my church!
You have played drums in the bass/drums death metal duo Neoandertals since 2011. Does the band plan to return to the studio any time in 2019? Is playing music a different kind of experience than cooking, or are all of your artistic pursuits an extension of each other?
I’ve actually played in Neoandertals since 2006. But the first album with my drums on it (Ebu Gogo Gutting the Child) was in 2011. With this interview, I would like to announce that Neoandertals has finally completed a new full-length album named Neanderthal Parallax. It will be released on April 13, 2019, but is now available for pre-order and our single “Night” is now streamable. The album concept is about the life and death of a single Neanderthal. We sure took out sweet time with this album (8 years!), but I am so pleased with the music. It was such an amazing experience to write and play these songs. We played some of them at our Tallinn Music Week show in 2018.
Playing music and making recipes are both all about creation. They are similar, yet completely different, experiences. With drums, I can tap into my primal side and really let myself loose. Cooking is more practical, but still creative. I guess there’s really something primal about both.