Food

How Tomi Makanjuola Is Shaking Up Vegan Stereotypes

The Plantain Cookbook author talks food, heritage, & appropriation.

Despite lockdown resulting in surge a of people adopting plant-based diets, stereotypes surrounding the "typical" plant-based chef are still anchored in images of white, hipster folk, reified by the whiteness inherent in the food media industry. But Tomi Makanjuola, a Nigerian-born, London-raised chef is carving out her own space.

Using food as a tool for education and identity reclamation, Makanjuola, who is also the founder of food site The Vegan Nigerian and author of the Plantain Cookbook, works to actively break down perceptions surrounding the plant-based industry while crafting unique spins on typical Nigerian dishes.

I spoke with Makanjuola about a new project she's involved in, the mini-documentary series A Better Plant-Based Future, and why it’s crucial to make vegan Nigerian cuisine accessible to the masses.

Timi Sotire: What made you want to adopt a plant-based diet?

Tomi Makanjuloa: Before going vegan, I had a meat-eating, typical Nigerian diet. But when I was 20, I realised my diet was impacting the way I felt. I decided to give up animal products for a short while and noticed a complete difference. While that was going on, I started to really get into animal rights and ethics. So, both of those things just led me to go vegan overnight. I can’t imagine myself stopping. It’s been over seven years now and I haven’t looked back!

TS: What work are you doing to encourage people to adopt plant-based habits?

TM: I was recently a part of the Upfield mini-documentary series A Better Plant-Based Future, showing people they can find the tools to develop a plant-based diet. A lot of concerns people raise with plant-based foods is they don’t know where to begin. It is also about highlighting people like me who you won’t expect to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. I tell people that you can tap into your cultural heritage while trying to protect your health and the planet; these things can be done together. I’m vegan, but I’m still Nigerian. I’m just happier, healthier, and thriving.

TS: How has the wider Black community reacted to you being plant-based?

TM: In the beginning, some people were excited to see Nigeria represented within the vegan movement or wanted to see healthier versions of Nigerian food that they could incorporate in their diet. But sometimes I’d get messages from Nigerians who would say that it’s not biblical, or that the idea of a 'vegan Nigerian' is an oxymoron. Now I feel like they’re embracing it a lot more because veganism is becoming mainstream.

TS: It’s interesting that people believed being a vegan Nigerian was an oxymoron. Where do you think that stemmed from?

TM: It’s a product of modern times. When I’ve looked into Nigerian food history, a predominantly plant-based diet is not new. We have an abundance of plants and vegetables which we incorporate into our food every day. There are Nigerian communities where meat is not essential to their diet. With colonisation, modernisation, and the dominance of Western values, coupled with the idea that meat is seen as a status symbol, meat has seeped its way into our culture. That’s why a lot of Nigerians think "a meal is not complete without meat." But when you challenge them and ask where the idea comes from, there’s almost no real basis to it.

TS: Why do you think the public still sees being plant-based as being a ‘white’ way of life?

TM: Oh, it’s simple: it’s because of the way it has been packaged. The voices that have been given the most visibility are white vegans. There’s a typical look too: when you think about vegans, a skinny, blonde woman goes to yoga pops into your mind. They will even appropriate food from the continent that chefs like me have been incorporating into our diet our whole lives. You can’t help but feel frustrated. I try not to focus on that though. I think if I just continue to do what I do, the people who care about supporting those who are genuinely authentic will find me.

TS: What do you think the food industry should do to challenge perceptions surrounding plant-based diets?

TM: Just feature us more. Try and diversify the voices that you amplify and don’t perpetuate stereotypes. Stop homogenising us, like talking about "African vegan dishes." Africa is such a large continent, which part of are you referring to? Or, I’ve seen white influencers do their take on Nigerian dishes, and their recipe would take centre stage in the media, but they don’t even have a connection to the recipe or know its history. Featuring people making the food of their culture is essential. I think that’s a straightforward step.

Plaintain Cookbook is available to purchase in paperback here or via a PDF here. You can watch Makanjuola's A Better Plant-Based Future episode here.