Jill is a practised culture & current affairs writer, editor and soon to be NCTJ-qualified journalist.
Veganism has increased in Western countries in recent years. Supermarkets have created designated aisles and restaurants now provide vegan dishes as regular courses on menus.
But whilst veganism has risen in the mainstream, its origins in multi-cultural societies have been forgotten. With new restaurants turning up in the City’s more exclusive districts populated by young professionals and middle-class clientele its image is projected as ‘society’s new ‘trend’ . However, this is far from accurate as many of us are unaware that the origin of veganism originates from diasporic communities where it was their staple diet. Understanding these origins will help us discover what is misunderstood about this phenomenon in non-western countries.
Family gatherings, ‘pre-covid, in diasporic multicultural communities would see aunties and uncles questioning “what is vegan”, “what does the vegan eat?” These questions not only indicate the lack of awareness amongst traditionalist cultures on what a vegan diet and lifestyle consists of but also a rejection of something that is deemed as new and unnatural. The irony is that they are unaware that their ancestors were eating these foods many, many years ago.
Amongst the older generations of diasporic black communities, the pre-existence of plant-based meals are overlooked when the term ‘vegan’ is introduced. Starch favourites on the continent which come under the name ‘pap/fufu/nshima’, all names from South Africa, Nigeria and Zambia respectfully, are accidentally vegan; yet, the simplicity of this is forgotten when thinking of a restricted plant-based diet on first glance. Cassava, an array of vegetables, peanut soup, plantain and African stew are just a few of the vegan and vegetarian traditional dishes that originate from Africa.
The history of this lifestyle shows that veganism as a term and concept was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, who wished to make the differentiation between vegans and vegetarians, who still eat dairy. Mr Watson co-founded The Vegan Society, which is still run today. But the idea of plant-based eating pre-existed a long time before this.
Israel has the most vegans in the world with 5.2% of its population eating a plant-based diet. Multi-cultural communities have long been the pioneers of vegan diets with traditional food famously in Mediterranean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Ethiopian communities. Religions centred on welfare, from Buddhism and Jainism, also encourage less meat consumption and at times, only certain types of fruits.
A Nottingham-based vegan trader since 1984, Pat from Veggies, told me: “People of colour have had veganism without knowing that name. Long before veganism was invented. The group of UK vegans [that coined it in 1944] were blind to the fact that it had preceded their interest because they were already using cookbooks, ingredients and recipes from diverse backgrounds.
“But a lot of people forget that it’s not just some new western tradition. It just draws on cultures going back, back to Socrates and Galileo, all these people used veganism.”
My trips to Greece are reminiscent of avoiding cheese in most meals and being offered fresh seafood on Mediterranean menus with reassurances that it is vegan. But the same country has a plethora of plant-based food to offer from its culture with the popular falafels, gemista – cooked peppers stuffed with rice, lentils, chickpeas, hummus and pittas, fava beans, olive bread and more. Despite all that it stands for, it is the coined term ‘veganism’ that leads to these misunderstandings.
Not just a diet, but a lifestyle choice, being vegan means incorporating more than plant-based food. Switching to vegan living in small ways is beneficial for the sustainability of the environment and preserving the lives of animals. Consuming less meat and dairy from animals that are slaughtered solely for food consumption and beauty products, reduces their demand. On a microscale, the lifestyle has a host of health benefits ranging from metabolism and cognitive boosts, a lower risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. On a macroscale, vegan lifestyles can lessen the effects of climate change and even end world hunger and poverty, according to the United Nations. With meat farming taking up 83% of farmland, this land could be used for growing crops to end starvation.
There are a rising number of vegans in the diaspora today with many sharing their food favourites and homemade dishes on Instagram accounts including Afro-Caribbean and Asian influences (@veganbrownting, @rachelama_, @ambertheevegan, @yasminjohalx, @runnabeansfood, @rgveganfood, @londonveganquest). The documentation of small-scale, plant-based traditional food from these backgrounds reveals their long existence before the lifestyle became a ‘trend’. Highlighting the history of veganism shows sceptics that it is not a modern phenomenon or precarious way of living. Others long before us have lived fruitful lives with all the right nutrients from a vegan lifestyle. It is evident that our elders have a bigger stake in veganism than they initially thought.
So, at your next family gathering, when asked ‘what does the vegan eat’ there is a nice opportunity to enlighten aunties and uncles that the origins of veganism lies within their own histories.