Jamaican Vegans: Unpacking the Paradox
We are living in the age of the vegan. Such a time has given rise to a surge in substitutes, plant-based restaurants, creations, recreations and subversions. People are going vegan for the animals, the environment, the flavours, the ethics, their health, or just because. Naturally, this plethora of reasons is reflected in the ways in which we can enjoy vegan food. These ways fall into two fundamental categories. The first consists of dishes that have fruit and vegetables at their heart, usually drawing on a culture’s traditional dishes that are inherently vegetarian or vegan—for example, a lentil dahl or an Ethiopian wat and injera. The other comprises dishes that utilise the wave of substitutes and popular ingredients to create a dish that resembles non-vegan classics; think scrambled tofu, seitan cheeseburgers and soda floats with soya-based ice cream. Those who choose to follow a plant-based diet usually flit between these two poles to some extent, enjoying the benefits offered to their health and taste buds.
So when it comes to Jamaican vegans in the diaspora wanting to stay connected to their heritage and the foods we grew up with, do we also have these two options? We could enjoy ital food, which is naturally plant-based and nurtured by Rastafarians. Alternatively, we could go down the route of taking our home comforts and subverting the recipes by omitting some ingredients or replacing them with familiar Jamaican produce or popular vegan substitutes.
A cuisine that comprises natural and unprocessed foods fits into the more health-conscious corners of veganism. Restaurants and cafés highlighting this facet of Jamaican cuisine are popular both in the UK and across Jamaica. Vegans visiting the island often sing the praises of plates of hard food, ackee, avocado, mango and more.
But is ital vital for every vegan, and is it the easiest step for millennial vegans of the diaspora? While many of us grew up eating callaloo, plantain, yam and breadfruit, some of us also ate saltfish, curry goat and oxtail. In the UK, vegan food markets offer classics from Korea, American diners and Mexico, to name but a few. Tofu, Tempeh and textured vegetable protein (TVP) are more present than ever, allowing us to reinvent the foods we love the most. So when veganism appears on our radars, we have to decide how we will pursue it. One question arises: what if I still want the flavours of unvegan favourites?
Denai Moore has the answer. Moore’s latest venture, Dee’s Table, and her experiences as a vegan afford her to recreate classic Jamaican dishes with her own unique twist.
“The whole idea of Dee’s Table is inviting people to my table, the table that exists in my mind and where the food is coming from me, from home.”
A rich blend of the diaspora and Jamaica itself, Moore’s inspiration comes from having lived in England and Jamaica and having worked as a chef around London. “Even though I did grow up in Jamaica with all of this amazing food, I grew up in London as well,” she shares. “I have so much influence that’s not Jamaican, and I’ve learnt so many different techniques that didn’t really come from my home, so I think it’s a mixture of both worlds that I want to explore.” She speaks of cured young coconut taking the place of saltfish in its pairing with ackee, and homemade rum & raisin ice cream to evoke nostalgia of Devon House ice cream on childhood holidays. Through Moore’s creations, every Jamaican vegan is brought into a bipartite state of nostalgia and appreciation of the techniques that are flourishing within the community of chefs today.
While we are on our own journeys and explorations, it is important for us to share our interactions and creations outside of the Jamaican vegan community. Dee’s Table welcomes everyone to take a seat; from those who haven’t had the familiar taste of peanut punch in years to those who are trying breadfruit for the first time. For Moore, the experience stretches further than the food itself: reclaiming the narrative of Jamaican hospitality from inauthentic stereotypes and contextualising the food in a space with traditional customs and values also lie at the heart of Dee’s Table. Moore puts this into practice at her regular market stalls and supper clubs around London as well as through her inviting social media presence, used to share new trials and developments.
“I think a lot of Jamaican food that has this commercial aspect, or that’s approachable, is not Jamaican-owned, which is not necessarily problematic. But I think if it’s not about the authenticity, and it doesn’t come across as appreciation of the food and the culture- then I think it feels problematic.”
For vegans who want to stay in touch with the Jamaican foods that form such a significant part of our heritage, it is exciting to see projects such as Dee’s Table extending an invitation to relive our favourite meals through a new and refreshing lens. Whether the coconuts are forming the base of an ital stew or the other half of a reinvention of ackee and saltfish, Jamaican vegan cuisine is ever-changing and evolving, so pull up a chair and get involved.
Cover photo provided by subject.