Sarah Jane Russell is a consultant chef and food professional based in Nairobi. She gave up her media career to follow her passion for cooking 12 years ago, training with top chefs in Nairobi and working in restaurants, hotels and food businesses in East Africa. In this issue, she shares her vegan January experience with us.
What is it like for a meat-loving chef like me with a serious cheese fetish to follow a totally alternate lifestyle option that’s at the top of food trends? That’s what I wanted to find out when I decided to jump on the ‘plant-based food’ eating bandwagon all guns a blazing.
Our impact on the planet and the way we choose to eat go hand in hand. Statistics from the Vegan Food & Yearbook show that 30% of the earth’s entire land surface (70% of all agricultural land) is used for rearing farmed animals. A typical meat eater’s diet requires up to 2.5 times the amount of land compared to a vegetarian diet and five times that of a vegan diet. A farmer can feed up to 30 people throughout the year with vegetables, fruits, cereals and vegetable fats on one hectare of land. If the same area is used for the production of eggs, milk and/or meat the number of people fed varies from five to 10.
With those shocking facts in my mind, I decided to try out a month of abstinence from all food derived from animals and put myself in the shoes of the average vegan and find out how it feels. This obviously meant no meat or fish and absolutely no dairy products (milk, cheese, eggs). It also means no honey, most sweets contain gelatine and even your favourite glass of wine may be clarified with milk protein, cow bones or egg whites!
On January 1 after a hike up Mount Longonot, my normal nyama packed sarnies for the after-picnic were replaced with sliced tomato, chilli and salad (all on dark rye bread that doesn’t have any butter or milk). Chocolate bars were no more. Instead, I snacked on dried fruits and nuts.
I hadn’t really planned this properly. After a few days, I felt like I was just on a diet and always hungry, so I had to start using my imagination a bit more. There’s only so much smashed avo or steamed veggies you can eat.
Tofu has always been a dirty word in our house, so I avoided it the same way kids do with their greens. Here’s a little secret- It’s actually delicious! There are very few foods that act as a vehicle for big bold flavours like tofu does. Sticky maple syrup, ginger and soy, homemade spicy harissa or a non-dairy pesto elevate this super healthy protein to divine levels.
I also swapped up honey for agave syrup (made from cactus) or maple syrup, both of which I think are actually quite lovely. As for maziwa, soy milk, nut milk and other alternatives are widely available, if a tad expensive. If you’re a cappuccino freak like me, just beware, they don’t froth very well. Taste-wise, I think rice milk is the closest, but it splits and makes a really ugly latte.
Let’s talk about cheese! Sadly, the vegan cheeses being made from cashew nuts, coconut and other plant-based products are not on the market here and you have to make them yourselves though I did find ‘mock cheese ‘at a health food shop. It acts more as a seasoning in the just like Parmesan and you sprinkle it on top of salads or other dishes for extra texture and umami.
My favourite discovery was vegan mayonnaise. Using aquafaba, you can whip up mustard and vinegar to make my mayo recipe or with caster sugar to make shockingly good vegan meringues. At Tin Roof Cafes (Karen and Langata), this vegan mayo is now a staple accompaniment to their delicious Chickpea & Sweetcorn Burger.
If you’re trying out a Vegan diet like me and want to eat out, I can’t recommend the Agedashi tofu at most Japanese restaurants (I had it at Haru in Karen) highly enough. And the tofu special I had at Talisman just after New Year’s was so good I had no food envy towards the other diners munching on steak, fish and burgers. Artcaffe does a mean falafel that makes a fab lunch and they have a vegan menu at their Westgate flagship branch, plus a delicious vegan breakfast at all the branches – bonus! At Open House (in Westlands and Karen), they made me a special dal, aubergine curry and roti all totally vegan- friendly, swapping out the usual ghee (clarified butter) with oil and ditching the yoghurt. It was just as delicious as other curries and seemed to be less greasy.
Finding a dedicated vegan menu or option isn’t easy though and quite often I confused the heck out of wait staff asking about all the ingredients in a dish and getting them to check with the kitchen. Beware of all cakes, cookies and desserts anywhere. Most have either egg, milk, butter or some other non-vegan product so be sure to check the labels!
Truth is, I suffered from fatigue in the first week of switching over, mostly because you need to eat a lot more if you’re on a vegan diet and I hadn’t compensated for that. It’s essential to get enough protein and other essential things like vitamin B12. So please get advice if you want to try this and take time to plan your meals and food shopping.
Day 23 was the beginning of a slippery slope for me. I took an international flight and tucked into my pre-ordered vegan meal. It was ghastly. I was tired and hungry for the rest of the journey. When I arrived in Cape Town, with its abundance of seductive beckoning restaurants, I fell off the vegan wagon… with a cappuccino! I didn’t make the whole month but I did learn that nutritional yeast is a thing. Plus, I kind of love tofu now. I have an army of vegan recipes at my disposal, I’m just a sucker for an extra frothy full fat milk cappuccino and a bit of prawn tempura. I salute everyone who chooses to eat this way and will definitely be reducing my consumption of animal products, if not give them up completely.
Vegan Mayo recipe
- 3 tbsp water from a tin of chickpeas (Also known as aquafaba)
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 250ml sunflower oil
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- Pinch of salt and pepper
- Whisk up the chickpea water and mustard until frothy
- Slowly add the oil and emulsify
- Finish with the vinegar and seasoning
NOTE: Substitute vinegar for lemon juice, add lemon zest and chilli, try a dash of wasabi or sriracha to bump up the flavour.