I’ve been trying to figure out the origin of the cauliflower wing as a bar food staple to no avail. In the early 2010s, vegan bloggers had begun to figure out that hunks of the vegetable could be breaded, fried, and dunked in hot sauce just like the tofu and tempeh wings of yore, with PETA putting out their recipe way back in 2012. The folks behind Brooklyn vegan restaurant Toad Style, who’ve recently brought their cauliflower wings back onto the menu, tell me they remember seeing them at a Super Bowl party in 2013 — it turned them from Buffalo tempeh lovers into cauliflower believers.
The dish’s true foremother must be recognized as the classic Gobi Manchurian, a brilliantly sticky staple of Indian-Chinese cuisine in which the breaded and fried cauliflower (or gobi) is covered in a sweet, spicy and tangy sauce that hits every good and joyous flavor note right on the head. In the Americanized bar food version, of course, the wings are usually rather simply spiced, like their Buffalo cousin. Yet the brilliant satisfaction of a flavorful sauce giving way to slight crunch, and then a hearty bite, remains.
But cauliflower wings are not just for vegan and vegetarian spots. Omnivorous bars are increasingly putting them on menus as an option not just for those who’ve given up meat but for anyone who wants less of a belly-bombing option.
“We were inspired to create a messier bar snack that is vegetarian or vegan,” says chef Russell Ashton of Bua in New York’s East Village. For their menu, which offers a vegan tempeh BLT, it wasn’t too far afield to go in the veggie wing direction. “We wanted to have a vegetarian/vegan item on our menu but we’re a bar, so we didn’t want to do a fancy salad or something that looked healthy. This is veggie but has the look of bar food.”
At La Penúltima in Santurce, Puerto Rico, chef Gigi Miranda also already offers a pretty veg-forward bar menu. “We get a lot of vegetarian and vegan clientele,” she says, and she learned the staples while working at a vegan restaurant in nearby Caguas called El Grifo. For her…