Updated: May 20, 2019
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a pop-up event that celebrated the best of Rwandese and Jamaican cuisine, @kingstonkigail why was this event special? Everything was vegan! In 2019 this isn’t a particularly wild statement to make but the reality remains that places to find vegan Afro-Caribbean cooking aren’t easily available and though events like these aren’t unique in a hub like London, they are relatively new.
Coconut curry chickpeas - Chickpeas in coconut curry sauce with turmeric and cumin
Jerk lentil stew - Brown lentils in a stew flavoured with jerk Matoke/Igitoki - East African green banana cooked in a stew
When you think of veganism, Africa and the Caribbean aren’t going to be the first places that come to mind. In fact for a long time what probably did come to mind was a dreadlocked white woman perhaps hugging a tree, perhaps holding a protest sign.
However, as we grow to be more self-sufficient in researching and gathering our own information, we’re finding that not only is our health and nutrition awareness growing, so too is the picture of the vegan itself. More than ever, people are aware of the best things to put in and leave out of their bodies and no longer are doctors or media our sole sources of health information.
All over the internet there are thousands of healthy-eating forums, nutritionists, and bloggers ready to guide us through ethical and affordable alternatives to our regular diets. Whether you’re veggie, vegan, raw, Ital or some other plant-based lifestyle; there's a blog or guru out there just for you and your particular health needs.
Diet and Culture
I remember the first vegan I met; it was 2006, I was in college and she was an anarchist punk with whom I had nothing but a mutual friend in common. I knew absolutely nothing about veganism other than an assumption that it was something some white people did. I vividly remember my friends and I sitting around the poor girl bombarding her with questions about how she could still be so curvy if all she ate were vegetables.
However, it seems that the more we learn about our bodies and the history of human diets, the more we realise that the image of the tree-hugging hippie vegan was just that; an image. My own assumptions about meat-free diets had been influenced by my own family history with food as well as media perceptions and portrayals of black diets. The fact that high blood pressure and heart disease ran rampant in my own family never really crossed me as particularly odd because they ran rampant in the families of almost everyone else I knew.
In 2015 the World Health Organization declared that processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans and has been put in the same group (Group 1) as smoking. This group is linked to increased risks of death from heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses while red meat (Group 2A) is said to have a direct correlation to the development of colorectal cancer. Yet if you walk into any black household you’ll struggle to find a meal that isn’t centred around some form of meat.
I think most of us from Afro-Caribbean communities can relate to the gift that food and cooking have for bringing people together, many memories are made and shared around food. But unfortunately our cultural relationships with food haven’t been helped by media representations of processed foods as staples of the black dining table. We’ve all heard a joke or ten about black people and fried chicken, and then there was that one Dave Chappelle joke about grape juice vs grape drink; white people drink juice and black people drink… drink. The main ingredient was “purple”. These stereotypes aren’t entirely groundless but they do show how skewed representations of black people as fundamentally unconcerned with our health have become.
Curry goat, fried chicken and mac and cheese are staples of the modern black menu, but take a closer look and you’ll find that the widespread consumption of meat is a relatively new practice. Pre-colonial African diets were mostly plant-based until the introduction of the large-scale domestication of animals for commercial consumption and export by the West. Similarly in the Caribbean, Rastafarians practice ‘Ital’ lifestyles that stick to unprocessed, mostly vegetarian diets that have withstood the tests of modern culinary imports from the UK and US.
In the US, it’s institutional racism that can be looked to when analysing black diets. In her hit documentary The invisible Vegan, Jasmine C. Leyva challenges perceptions of the modern black American diet and roots its history in slavery. It’s suggested that foods like oxtail, chicken wings, pig feet; formerly the scraps from the slave-masters’ table have over time been marketed as staples of the black dining table.
As time passed on, poverty continued the colonial claim on the black diet. With the majority of black Americans only having access to cheap, processed food, these diets became the widespread and eventually celebrated norm. Lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease have over time become the top killers of black people in the UK and US.
But with time and knowledge the veil of ignorance is lifting and no more can we claim that genetics are solely to blame for what ails us. It’s clear from the diverse range of plant-based diets available that people of all over the world are taking their health into their own and the earth’s hands.
In 2019 almost everyone I know is either vegan or is experimenting with some form of meat-free diet. Our favourite herbivores are now people who look like us and whose intentions are often more reliable than major news sources and organisations whose funding and partnerships are often obscure or just openly ill-intentioned. Doctor Sebi is a household name, and Mike Tyson, Serena Williams, Erykah Badu and her hats are all open advocates of meat-free lifestyles.
Of course a plant-based diet isn't a simple as cutting out meat; If you are thinking about making changes to your diet, speak to a professional who is able to provide proper guidance. A plant-based diet isn’t simply about cutting out animal products, it’s about fuelling your body with what it needs and this takes proper planning and knowledge.
Similarly if you are suffering from certain chronic diseases or conditions; it’s important to note that a change in diet is not a replacement for professional medical guidance.
We can no longer ignore the facts, however. According to Cancer Research UK, an unhealthy lifestyle is the root cause of about a third of all cancers.
Conclusion - A plant-based life isn't just for middle-class hippies, the world is crying out for better health and even more importantly, more and more people are rising up to answer the call. Small businesses are popping up all over the country to gift us with their own unique takes on the plant-based lifestyle.
Sorry Holland and Barrett but unseasoned tofu just doesn’t cut it for the modern plant-eater.