For World Vegan Month, The Vegan Review is sharing the stories of vegans from 30 countries around the world. Here’s one from Jamaica.
Natalia Welsh, 32, is the founder and head cook at Hungry Eyes Vegan Foods in Jamaica.
She went vegan four years ago.
Why did you go vegan?
Adopting a vegan lifestyle was a matter of survival while attending college abroad. I had to find ways to properly nourish my body amidst food options that were generally unappealing to my tastebuds. Imagine being away from your country, missing family and, on top of that, the familiar flavours and smells of home-cooked meals were replaced with food that lacked seasoning plus undercooked meats with not-so-tantalising aromas. There was a minimal struggle to stop consuming dairy ice cream, cheese, and since childhood I disliked eggs.
As I became more mindful of my eating behaviour, my consciousness expanded and that exposed unsettling realities of how food is grown and produced. I’ve read articles, watched documentaries about commercial farming and every time, I have a visceral response to its negative impacts on the environment, human and animal wellbeing. That being said, in whatever ways possible, I want to contribute to a sustainable Earth and I believe our relationship with the land, water, animals and each other plays a key role.
What was the biggest challenge when you transitioned?
Discovering the hidden animal ingredients in packaged products has been a task. Standing in the supermarket aisle Googling unpronounceable ingredients felt awkward at first, but always worthwhile. The steepest learning curve was knowing what my nutritional needs were and how to adequately feed my body in nutritious and delicious ways.
At the time, there were a few Ital cookshops serving vegetarian patties or soup that could fill a gap while on the road. Otherwise, I had to create space in my days to prepare my own meals. (Ital is the diet of Rastafari movements in Jamaica, using only natural, whole foods and seasonings, no salt, no animals or byproducts.)
What was the reaction of your loved ones when you went plant-based? How did they adapt?
There was no fuss, no objections and it didn’t take long for my family to start eating more plant-based foods as well. Desserts were our weakness, until I nailed my dark chocolate cake recipe that is utterly moist and subtly sweet. I’m extremely grateful to them for being more than accommodating.
Who are your influences?
I have great respect for Ivelyn Harris, a Jamaican herbalist who has done research, honed her skills and, to this day, uses herbal remedies to heal and rid the body of disease. Registered nutritionist Patricia Thompson has also been a positive resource and teacher, particularly because of her perspective on and experience with Caribbean foods.
FullyRawKristina has been an inspiration both in terms of maintaining nutritional health as a raw vegan and because of the co-op she operated, making fresh fruits and vegetables more available within her community. The food chain by CHLOE. also sparked my interest in developing healthy fast food.
What’s your favourite thing to cook now? Have you tried to veganise a local traditional dish?
Ackee and saltfish (salted cod) is our national dish, which is very easy to veganise — simply omit the saltfish. You could also use young jackfruit seasoned with onions, scallions, garlic, pimento, thyme and Scotch bonnet peppers. Add steamed callaloo, roasted breadfruit, fried plantain and a cut of ripe pear (meaning avocado) to the plate and that’s it. Breakfast is served.
Another favourite I’ve recreated is Escoveitch fish, but I substitute it with tofu strips seasoned with a similar pimento, garlic and salt spice mix. This is my current favourite meal to make, served with roasted breadfruit. The escoveitch sauce is mostly vinegar with julienned carrots and sliced onions, so it’s acidic mixed with salt, and the heat from the Scotch bonnet pepper adds to a slight crunch when you bite a piece of tofu. Delicious!
Read our story on how breadfruit could be the next vegan superfood.
I prefer savoury dishes and enjoy fusing cuisines. My family and I also love pasta. The first time I made ackee and broccoli stuffed pasta shells in tomato sauce made from scratch, it was an instant winner. Flavour was packed into every bite. Pasta meals are so versatile. Definitely among my favourite things to cook, and eat.
What vegan product do you wish your country had available?
There are a variety of specialty foods from plant-based meat to vegan ice cream now available, but I’d love to see more yoghurt options in supermarkets and health food stores. There is a local producer who recently started making coconut yoghurt in limited quantities, so a solution may be on its way sooner than imagined.
How accessible and affordable are vegan products in your country?
If we look first to the abundance of farm-fresh produce being grown locally, then a vegan lifestyle is accessible. Yes, there are price fluctuations due to droughts, for example, but it is still more affordable and sustainable than depending on imported foods.
Without a doubt, it is very expensive to shop solely for vegan substitutes rather than zoning in on whole foods across all food groups: red peas, broad beans, callaloo, cabbage, sweet potato, bammy (cassava pounded into a round, flatbread of sorts), coconut milk… the list goes on.
What’s your favourite spot for vegan food in your city?
I love the raw vegan pizzas and burgers at MiHungry Now. The team uses ingredients we all know and love, but the flavours it manages to achieve are very delicious and I’m salivating thinking about it.
I’ll sometimes get a falafel platter from Sham’s Bakery, allowing my tastebuds to take a trip. Everything is done to order so the falafels are crisp, hummus is fresh and the salad generously rubbed with sumac.
What is the one city you’d like to visit as a vegan?
This is a hard one. Bangkok is high up on my travel list. The complexity of Thai food always puts a smile on my face and most restaurants seem to have an array of vegan options on their menu. I want to eat my way around the world so this is a long list.
What’s the biggest roadblock to veganism in your country?
Jamaican cuisine is a concoction of cultures, traditions and flavours. Our food tells stories about Africans, Spaniards and Asians who migrated their own spices and cooking methods with them to the island.
Those who want to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet find have mental constraints. They do not want to adjust to alternatives, vetoing traditional taste preferences and forgoing the sensory experiences that have been ingrained during their lifetime. Tied to this is nutrition education and awareness, equipping people with information like different sources of calcium and protein so they can make more informed decisions. Let’s work with facts, not myths or brainwashing marketing campaigns.
Social and economic challenges are also factors, with vegan alternatives costing double or triple that of their meat and dairy equivalents. You may think then that veganism is only accessible if you’re wealthy in Jamaica. I beg to differ, while being the first to admit that maintaining a healthy vegan lifestyle is not one that will fit neatly into the fast pace we’re now accustomed to. Perhaps our food should be slow and mindful, less instant.