Our food writer, who doesn't like the environmental effects of meat-eating but loves the taste of meat, seeks inspiration for ways to eat less of it from a place where that's been a way of life for centuries: East Asia. He finds Japan, China, and Southeast Asia are unbeatable when it comes to using meat...

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The most popular environmental issue at the supermarket is paper vs. plastic, but according to a local think tank, it’s nearly irrelevant: Meat vs. vegetables is, oh, about 186 times more important.

“Choosing a bag at the checkout line is typically far less important than choosing what to put in those bags,” wrote Clark Williams-Derry on Seattle’s Sightline Institute’s blog, The Daily Score.

His colleague, Justin Brant, followed up with a calculation: Change the contents of one grocery bag from mostly meat to mostly plants and you save enough energy to manufacture 186 plastic bags. Producing meat — yes, even organic, local meat — requires a ton of energy.

This is the sort of thing I’ve been thinking about because, like many people these days, I’m a conflicted carnivore. I don’t like the environmental effects of meat-eating, but I love the taste of meat and don’t want to give it up.

As food columnist Mark Bittman put it in The New York Times, “Vegetarian recipes and traditions are everywhere. But in the American style of eating — with meat usually at the center of the plate — it can be difficult to eat two ounces of beef and call it dinner.”

A treasure, not the main event

So I’d like to look beyond the American style of eating to a place where “less meat” has been a way of life for centuries: East Asia. To my palate, Japan, China and Southeast Asia are unbeatable when it comes to using meat as a flavoring — a “treasure,” as Bittman likes to call it — rather than a dish’s main event.

“Asians tend to eat very little meat because it’s expensive. That’s what it comes down to,” said Pat Tanumihardja, author of the forthcoming “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” (Sasquatch Books; scheduled for release this spring).

South Korea and Japan, for example, have a deserved reputation as beef-loving nations (think of Korean bool kogi and Japan’s Kobe beef), but the U.S. eats more than four times as much beef per capita than either country.

Enough statistics. Let’s peer into the stockpot. “A lot of Japanese recipes use very little meat and lots and lots of vegetables,” said Tanumihardja.

She suggested I try nikujaga. “It’s a comfort food for a lot of Japanese, and it uses maybe a couple of ounces of beef and carrots and potatoes, and it’s all simmered on the stove for about half an hour to let all the flavors meld.”

A riot of herbs and spices

Tanumihardja was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, and grew up in Singapore. Her mother is Julia of Julia’s Indonesian Kitchen restaurant in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood.

“My mom would often make a beef or an oxtail soup,” said Tanumihardja, recalling a soup made with loads of vegetables and a little meat to be sucked off the bone. “Oh my gosh, I love oxtails,” she added. “I don’t eat very much beef, but oxtails I’ll eat for the rest of my life.”

To get an idea of how much meat we were talking about, I pulled out James Oseland’s Indonesian cookbook “Cradle of Flavor” and looked at his oxtail-soup recipe. It calls for 1 ½ pounds of oxtails to serve six people. My favorite French oxtail soup offers a rich broth and loads of meat: seven pounds of oxtails to serve eight.

The Indonesian version has less meat, sure, but it features a riot of herbs and spices and is garnished with crispy shallots and garlic. I know which one I’m making next time I get an oxtail craving.

Naomi Kakiuchi, founder and teacher at NuCulinary, a local Asian cooking school, explained how the Asian stews get away with using less meat.

“In an Asian dish, that meat or chicken or shrimp is adding to the broth that flavors the whole dish,” she said.

Satisfaction by stir-fry

That goes not only for soups but also for stir-fries: A stir-fry is a great way to achieve satisfyingly meat-flavored vegetables.

I am a committed meat-lover, but I find that a stir-fry or noodle dish made with a couple of ounces of meat per serving is a totally satisfying dinner. This is due, at least in part, to the role of ingredients like soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, dashi and mushrooms, all of which offer plenty of umami, the “fifth taste” that was discovered in Japan a century ago and is variously described as meaty, savory or hearty.

If you don’t regularly cook Asian at home, the prospect may sound as daunting as, well, going vegetarian. Don’t try to re-create your favorite takeout dishes, which are probably meat-heavy anyway. Start a pot of rice and stir-fry napa cabbage with lamb, green beans with ground pork or broccoli with beef.

If you’re in the mood for beef stew, make nikujaga. Your belly and your conscience will be equally satisfied.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle freelance writer; mamster@gmail.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer; studio@barrywongphoto.com.