Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
Rachel Ama is one of the UK’s leading vegan voices, but some of her fondest food memories are of dishes that you might not typically think of as plant-based.
She talks about her grandmother’s salt-fish, for one, and the and the quintessential Caribbean food she ate (as a teenager) growing up in north London.
“Chicken stew, curried oxtail, rice and peas… it was always just home to me,” she tells Twisted.
But leading a plant-based lifestyle doesn’t mean leaving those big, nostalgic flavours behind.
“That was always the starting point, I’d go ‘I really love this meal that I ate growing up or I had on holiday, how can I make this the vegan way?’,” she says. “‘What can I swap the meat out for? How can I make it kinda hearty?’ Because I love hearty food.
“[Going vegan] it was all an excitement to do that – and it wasn’t intimidating either, because I think food is such a gift, and I feel like you find out more about your culture through it.”
Rachel Ama fell in love with reinventing the food of her childhood (Credit: Henry Jay Kamara)
Rachel fell in love with cooking when she was travelling South America in her early 20s, and she honed her skills by trying to recreate some of the dishes she loved whilst abroad.
“There was just so much food,” she says. “I was in this hostel in Colombia trying to work out how to make Arroz Con Coco (Columbian coconut rice), literally buying rice to figure out how the recipe was made, because it was so, so buff.
“And then from there, [my love of cooking] just kept growing, and when I came home, my mum was like ‘who are you?’”, she laughs. ”I was once in the kitchen making basic uni-ready meals and suddenly I’m trying to make all this different food.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that when Rachel made the shift, she found vegan-ifying her favourite childhood recipes to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of her new lifestyle.
Rachel Ama broke into cooking via Instagram and YouTube (Credit: The Found/ Rachel Ama)
“It’s quite empowering when you see something you want to change and you take charge of what’s right for you,” she says.
“And because my mum studied nutrition, I was already quite clued up on alternative ways to get omegas, and I’d had chia seeds before they were in all the cafes. I used to call them her weird little potions.
“So, I already had all that in my mind, and I was just excited to actually create and just see what [vegan meals] I could make.”
Growing up with African, Caribbean and Welsh roots, there are a plethora of dishes that immediately sprung to Rachel’s mind.
And you just have to flick through her cookbooks (Rachel Ama’s Vegan Eats and One Pot: Three Ways), YouTube and Instagram channels to see that her heritage still serves as a constant inspiration.
She’s adapted patties, curries, roti, jerk tacos and stews, all of which hark back to memories from her childhood.
Rachel Ama’s jerk tacos (Credit: Instagram/ Rachel Ama)
But the first dish she was first drawn to recreate was her grandmother’s salt-fish cakes, the scent of which she says will always be close to her heart.
“My grandma’s St Lucian and she was a cook,” explains Rachel. “She cooked at nursing homes and hospitals and in people’s homes, and her kitchen always had a very specific smell.
“She’s not here today, but [when she was alive] it was almost taken for granted that she made really good food.
“So, when I went vegan, I started cooking more Caribbean food as like a remembrance for my grandma, [and] my kitchen suddenly smelt how I remembered her kitchen.
“I made vegan fish cakes with jackfruit, and I remember giving them to my Caribbean friends, who aren’t vegan, and they were like ‘how is this not salt-fish?”
One of Rachel’s prized recipes is her recreation of her grandma’s salt-fish with all the trimmings (Credit: Rachel Ama/ YouTube)
Reactions like this are something Rachel never tires of.
“Last summer it was my son’s first birthday and I cooked for everyone, and no-one’s vegan, and it was so funny having my cousins be like ‘yo, mate, what is this vegan chicken? I don’t understand’,” she laughs, reeling off another example.
“I had my son’s family come round and they were like ‘oh my god, Rachel, this is the best curry – I made like a Caribbean curry – and it’s so nice having African and Caribbean family members completely co-sign and yam off my food.”
Naturally, such praise is all the sweeter because Rachel knows that veganism is not something that is hugely familiar within the UK’s Caribbean community.
“I didn’t grow up actually knowing vegans or vegetarians,” she admits. “When I first went vegan my Caribbean friends and family were like ‘why are you doing this?’
“But really, it is only in the last 50 years that the mass consumption of meat has just changed the way we cook and eat.
“Before, meat was more of a celebratory meal. It was for a Sunday, to feed your friends… feed your family. It wasn’t breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“Especially in the Caribbean, you’ve got Rastafarianism – there’s a whole movement that’s been going on for years where you’re eating off the land; you’re eating fresh ingredients… not from cans, not from tins, not from animals.
“And that’s in the Caribbean! Whereas my Caribbean family were so confused by it. So, I think it’s a Western lost identity in some respects.”
Of course, this very fact makes the recipes Rachel has created all the more powerful.
They’re like a key to the sentimental dishes that many with similar backgrounds might have assumed could never be vegan-ised, and that they’d never get to eat again.
Discussing the fact she’s afforded other Black people the ability to recreate dishes that are culturally significant to them, she adds: “It’s so so special to do that, because it’s the food of your heart.
“Being able to make [traditional dishes] in ways that are filled with whole foods, plant-based foods and still enjoy it and love it is special.
“So, yeah, [my advice would be] don’t alienate those cultural flavours and that identity, just throw some veggies in”.