It’s the lifestyle choice promoted by Western celebs like Beyoncé and Messi. But, as Judy Cogan discovers, veganism is being embraced by people from West Africa, thanks to a London-based chef and food blogger.
When Tomi Makanjuola stood up and told her family she’d given up eating meat and dairy, the news was met with incredulous looks and a flurry of questions.
The Nigerian food blogger was in her third year of university at the time, and a semester spent in France ‘eating a lot cheese, butter and processed meat,’ triggered her decision to adopt a full-time vegan lifestyle.
‘In France, I slowed down for the first time and looked at what I was eating and how it affected my mood and energy levels,’ said the chef, who now lives in Croydon just outside London.
‘I made that link and it was a big discovery for me.’
She had been devouring articles, books and documentaries on animal rights and farming around the world.
‘The more information I consumed, the more I didn’t want to be consuming animal products.’
But Makanjuola understands why her family was sceptical, especially given the meat-rich diet she’d grown up on in Lagos, and continued to eat in the years after her family moved to England when she was 14.
Her mum cooked all their family meals from scratch, creating complicated Nigerian dishes and filling the house with warm and spicy aromas.
‘Becoming a vegan was a huge lifestyle change for me,’ said Makanjuola, who runs the popular food blog The Vegan Nigerian.
‘Growing up with the Nigerian food culture, the word vegan wasn’t in my vocabulary. Back then I didn’t even know anyone who was vegan. My family were like, “what are you doing? Are you sure?”’
But while meat, dairy and eggs would be off the menu, the last thing Makanjuola wanted was to overhaul her whole diet completely.
Determined not to miss out on the foods she had loved since childhood, she began experimenting with ways to make her favourite West African dishes vegan-friendly.
The first popular dish she focused on was Nigerian pepper soup.
‘I loved the rich flavours of the broth and it was always so very spicy,’ she said.
‘But it is usually made using chunky pieces of chicken, beef, or goat meat, with no part of the animal spared.’
Makanjuola set about creating her vegan version of pepper soup, maintaining the richness and depth of flavour she loves by using only plant-based ingredients.
‘I would experiment with dried and fresh mushrooms and add certain tubers that are popular in Nigeria, such as yam and cassava in place of the meat.
‘I used lots of spices and eventually I got a similar taste to the original. That was one of the many traditional Nigerian dishes I have adapted and was a big breakthrough for me.’
Her family, though supportive, were hesitant of trying her meat-free takes on the ‘classics’.
‘There was a bit of resistance at first,’ explained Makanjuola.
‘It seemed like such a foreign concept to my relatives.
'They would say “why are you messing with this dish, it’s fine as it is!” But they would always try whatever I cooked and loved it all. I only cook vegan food at home for my family and sometimes they’d finish the whole plate before I’d even get to it.’
Meanwhile Makanjuola was having a lot of fun in the kitchen and with every experiment became more excited about vegan food.
This led to her launching her popular blog The Vegan Nigerian in 2013.
‘I really enjoyed cooking for fun and from a young age I’ve always loved being in the kitchen.
‘I loved finding new ways to veganise familiar Nigerian foods and I wanted to share those recipes and show people — this is what is possible.’
Her intention in the beginning was to use her blog to reach out to people within her own community in Nigeria and the UK diaspora to say there’s no need to feel deprived of the foods they love when adding more plant-based dishes to their diet.
‘Early on, in terms of my audience I was picturing my mum and dad, my siblings, aunties and uncles.’
The blog has evolved over the years and grown into a full-time job for Makanjuola.
She admits not all Nigerians who read it have embraced a vegan lifestyle.
‘My Nigerian audience tend to be ‘meat reducers’ or heavily focused on incorporating healthy habits and recipes into their lifestyle rather than going fully vegan themselves.
‘I also have a loyal following of vegans in general, those people who want to expand their vegan repertoire or those who aren’t familiar with West African food and make a new discovery.’
In the months before Covid-19 gripped the world, Makanjuola had been busy taking part in foodie events, cooking at temporary ‘pop-up’ restaurants across London and enjoyed regular research visits to Nigeria.
She has also self-published four books, including her latest Plantain Cookbook, a bold and bright collection of 40 vegan-friendly recipes, with plantain at the heart of them all.
With in-person dining still outlawed in the UK, she plans to get to work on a ‘full-blown Nigerian cookbook’ of traditional dishes with a vegan angle.
She spent the last year working on new recipes, reconnecting with her online following through social media and has launched a series of online culinary courses.
‘With Zoom [video conferences] becoming really popular last year, it was a good way for me to transition from the in-person events to an online format,’ said Makanjuola.
‘I have to say I actually enjoy it slightly more now.
'I reach a wider audience and the thing I love and enjoy the most about what I do is the amazing like-minded people I connect with along the way.’
Her current course, Traditional Nigerian Snacks, available to book on her website, teaches participants how to make five traditional bites, such as Yamarita, Chin Chin and Puff Puff, all with a vegan twist, while also giving insights into Nigeria’s rich snack culture.
Makanjuola is on a mission to show people that vegan food can be versatile, colourful and really tasty.
‘Flavour is key with vegan food,’ she explained.
‘A lot of people hold the misconception that it is all bland. I love using bright and bold flavours.’
There’s no denying veganism is on the rise across the globe.
In the UK, the number of vegans is thought to have increased four-fold between 2014 and 2019, to 600,000.
While a record-breaking 560,000 people around the world signed up to do Veganuary in 2021, a commitment to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January.
‘I can still remember eight years ago, struggling to find vegan options in restaurants,’ said Makanjuola.
‘I love the way the mainstream is catching on to veganism and it is much more than just a fancy Instagram trend. At the heart of it all is how we treat animals, the planet and each other.
‘I think people are hearing that message and feel it is something they’d like to explore. I am excited to see where it leads.
‘The number one thing is do your research,’ she added.
‘I don’t recommend turning vegan on a whim. Take your time to really understand every part of it and then have fun! People are veganising Caribbean, Indian and Asian food. There is something for everyone.’
Makanjuola’s passion for cooking was ignited as a child and she made her first bowl of Jollof rice aged 10, under the guidance of her mother.
Today her family have not only accepted her vegan life choice, but have adopted parts of it into their own lives.
‘I’ve seen such a huge shift in the way my family eats,’ she said.
‘For instance, they no longer consume any dairy products — all of the milk, margarines and cheeses they eat are plant-based.
'My mum and sister might just have meat one day a week, and I get family members telling me their health has improved since I inspired them to eat more plant-based foods.
'That really keeps me encouraged along the way.’
For recipes, see www.vegannigerian.com.
by Tomi Makanjuola (@VeganNigerian)
- 2 cups long-grain rice or “sella” golden basmati rice
- 1/2 tin chopped or plum tomatoes
- 1/2 red bell pepper
- 1/2 scotch bonnet / chilli pepper
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger
- 4 tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 small red onion (sliced)
- 2 and 1/2 cups water
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- salt to taste
- Rinse the rice a couple of times under cold water and set aside.
- Place the tinned tomatoes, red bell pepper, chilli, garlic and ginger in a blender and blend until smooth.
- Heat the sunflower oil in a large saucepan or cooking pot. Add the onions and sauté on medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the blended pepper and tomato mixture, along with the washed rice. Cover with 2 and 1/2 cups of water. Add the curry powder, thyme and salt to taste. Stir to combine.
- Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pot and simmer for 25-30 minutes until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid.
- Stir the rice gently and take off the heat.
- Serve with a side of fried plantain, coleslaw or seasoned vegetables.