You wouldn’t find traditional Arabic staples like kibbeh (meat filled patty) or sambousek (meat pie) at Nada Elbarshoumi’s iftar table. Rather the menu would include a quinoa salad or a stew of roasted vegetables with lentils or chickpeas.
Egyptian expat Nada, 28, is vegan by choice and set out to ‘reconcile the Arab lifestyle with a plant-based twist.’
Though she has been vegan since the last eight years, her journey has been a much longer evolution. ‘I stopped eating meat at the age of 12 as I suddenly developed a distaste for it. But it wasn’t until I moved to the UK for university that I started to dabble with vegetarianism. That said, I definitely wasn’t a healthy vegetarian – my diet consisted largely of pasta and cheese toasties and I suffered from what seemed like chronic sinus infections. While trying to get to the bottom of my health issues, I discovered a dairy sensitivity and cut it out of my diet overnight.’
That became the turning point of her experimentation with a purely vegan diet. ‘My sinus infections cleared up within weeks, and my skin, sleep and digestion also improved drastically,’ she says.
Discovering a newfound passion for vegan cooking, she read every book or blog and watched every documentary on the subject. ‘I learned not only about the health benefits of a vegan diet, but about the horrors of factory farming and the impact of animal agriculture on our environment. Although I first went vegan for health, today I stay vegan for health, for the animals and for the environment,’ says Nada who runs the popular blogspot One Arab Vegan and is an aspiring vegan chef.
Veganism, the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, is among the top consumer trends in 2018. According to a report by research firm Global Data, the number of vegan Americans rose 600 per cent between 2014 and 2018. In the UK a survey by The Vegan Society showed an increase of 350 per cent.
Accurate stats are not available for the region, but in the UAE, the trend is picking up fast and vegans are being catered for in restaurants, groceries and even iftar menus.
Michellin Star chef Giorgio Locatelli launched a special set menu at his restaurant Ronda Locatelli, in Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, a few months ago with 40 vegan dishes; making it the largest culinary offering from a standalone non-vegan restaurant in the city.
Being a believer in veganism for years, long before it became more mainstream in restaurants, he started cooking meat-free dishes at home when his daughter converted to veganism. ‘As I got my hands on it, a lot of innovative dishes started to roll out,’ he says
But the vegan path took a lot of trial and error and Locatelli admits some of their first attempts at were actually a bit disgusting. ‘Gradually we were able to improve on the flavours and textures and create a menu we’re proud of. People don’t want to be told what to eat, so we want to give them as much choice as possible.’ he says.
The eclectic menu offers a choice of eight vegan pizzas, the classic margherita being the most popular. ‘It uses coconut milk and soya-based vegan cheese which looks, smells and tastes just as good as regular cheese. The tomato focaccia is brilliant and the spaghetti ala puttanesca with tomato sauce, black olives, cherry tomatoes and capers is always a big seller. People also love the vegan version of our chocolate sphere with coconut ice cream, which is one of our most popular desserts,’ says Locatelli with a hint of pride.
But his personal favourite is the baby spinach, pomegranate and vegan cheese salad made with fresh UAE-grown spinach. ‘Vegans aren’t any less passionate about food than meat-eaters, they just want to make sure what they eat is cruelty-free and healthy. It’s up to us as chefs to make sure we can give them that choice. The key is keeping it simple,’ he says.
If health issues turned Nada into a vegan, for Indian expat Priti Jain it was more of a conscientious decision. Coming from a vegetarian family, Priti became vegan in 2013. ‘I was always pondering about veganism. Once, I saw a YouTube video called "Horrors of Indian dairy". The contents shocked me beyond belief. As a mother I could not imagine my baby being taken away for a moment. As a woman I could not imagine what a cow goes through during artificial insemination. The hormones the animals were treated with were unimaginable and that also got me worried about my health. Immediately I changed my diet and lifestyle almost overnight and in every possible way.’
For Priti the transformation was considerable easy since 90 per cent of vegetarian food is vegan. ‘We are habituated to contaminate it with milk products. It is pretty easy to replace them. You can make most Indian dishes like Chola Batura, Pakoras, Panipuri, Sevpuri, Cakes, Indian sweets etc out of vegan milk. I replace butter with olive or sesame oil and yogurt with homemade plant-based milk. It is pretty easy to make nut-based milks which are very economic. They have similar amount of calcium and protein and taste even better. Dining out was a problem initially but now we have restaurants with vegan options and those who are willing to veganise most items.’ she says.
But veganism is not an easy road to traverse for some. Gigi Thomas, a self-confessed foodie, fell off the vegan bandwagon as he couldn’t resist his mum’s special food and his wife’s coffee. ‘Two years back, I happened to pass by a fresh meat market, and had to wait there (due to a long queue) for almost an hour. I do not want to get into details, but that was the first time it really dawned to me if I really needed to eat those poor animals. I have seen very many videos and forwards about animal slaughter houses but having to witness one was a totally different experience,’ he says.
The stint lasted six months, which Gigi considers to be a great achievement knowing his own perseverance.
‘I have tried a couple of times to get back to the cause as it is something bigger than me. To be honest, I haven’t managed to sustain, But one day I will wake up and decide to turn vegan and then it will be for keeps’, he says.
Dubai-based consultant nutritionist and clinical dietitian Neelam Upadhyay’s entire family of four (18-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter) turned vegan and are reaping amazing health benefits, she says. ‘The biggest advantages I felt was an increase in energy levels, and good immunity. My husband has reversed his hypertension for which he was on medications for 14 years. Since the last few years he is completely off medication and his BP is normal. Also I have been able to reverse medical conditions of my clients by making changes in their diet and lifestyle and counselling people to switch to veganism,’ she states.
She advises people who are considering the option to have a well-planned dietary menu, in consultation with a nutritionist, to meet all the macronutrients and micronutrients requirements.
‘If the diet is not well balanced, vegans need to be careful about vitamin D, Vitamin B-12 and iron deficiency. I would advise vegans to get their B12 and vitamin D checked regularly and these can easily be rectified by taking a vitamin B12 supplement and by sun bathing for 15-20 minutes daily,’ she says.
‘There are a lot of dairy-free options easily available like dairy-free milk, yogurt, cheese, ice creams etc in most of the supermarkets. My son maintains his 6 pack abs on a total vegan diet by meeting his protein requirement by consuming sprouts, legumes, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables in the form of smoothies and also a homemade vegan protein powder comprising peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, rolled oats and soya bean,’ she says.
According to Neelam, a vegan diet is also highly recommended for Ramadan. Since it is less acidic, it makes the body alkaline preventing indigestion and acidity issues which are commonly experienced when people end their fast after long hours of fasting. It also promotes good gut health as it is high in fibre intake. This can subsequently lead to lower levels of inflammation and elevated digestive health. A more energised body and keeps a person in good physical and mental health during Ramadan,’ she says. ‘Since a vegan diet keeps the body calm, cool and mind peaceful; it could help to focus more towards spiritualism in the holy month as it gives more clarity in thought process’.
As far as challenges go, for Nada it was battling the stigma against eating a vegan diet with family. ‘Animal products are such a big part of Middle Eastern cuisine and vegetarian/vegan diets aren’t typically well-received. It took some time but eventually my family has come to accept and even embrace my vegan diet and lifestyle. I don’t live with my family but when we do get together, they are respectful of my choices and even agreed to use separate crockery/cutlery/chopping boards to ensure I was comfortable cooking vegan dishes in the shared kitchen,’ she says.
‘There were some people who were sceptical of my diet at first, but overwhelmingly the feedback to my blog and new foray into veganism was positive.
I was among the first to start bringing the topic of a vegan diet and lifestyle to the table in the Middle East on such a public platform, and that really created a community of like-minded individuals from the region who were also exploring a vegan diet’.
But Nada ascertains a vegan diet is quick and easy to adapt to even for iftar meals. She recommends starting with something nutritious and light on your digestion like a hearty lentil soup or a fresh green juice or smoothie. Then after an hour or so, go for a full meal, with leafy green salads and, grain-based dishes (brown rice or quinoa). ‘For suhour I’m a fan of regular breakfast items such as fruit smoothies or oatmeal which I like to pack with lots of fruit, nuts and seeds, or savoury options like foul mudammas, falafel or tofu scramble,’ she adds.
Nada claims being a vegan in 2019 is amazing because there is a substitute for every non-vegan food – whether its ice cream, cookies, pizza, burgers or cheese. ‘Being an avid cook means I can re-create a lot of my old favourite treats but without animal ingredients, especially baked goods. I do love a good hummus or anything with chickpeas really. One of the most popular recipes on my blog is the Pumpkin Kibbeh, which will always have a special place in my heart – and stomach.’
Locatelli is quick to dismiss it as a passing fad. ‘If anything, veganism is only going to increase in the future. It’s just not sustainable for us to keep eating meat as much as we are now. It will ruin the planet. More people are turning their back on the meat industry and want tasty and healthy alternatives. And it’s easier than ever. It’s not just about limp salads anymore, there is a huge variety of ingredients to explore. The younger generation mostly are now conscious about what they eat, they know the harm the meat industry is doing to our world .As a chef it is important for me to help people do that,’ he says.
For more information about Nada’s blog, visit onearabvegan.com