Tomi Makanjuola is the face behind the Vegan Nigerian, a plant-based chef with a passion for fusion cuisine centered on traditional Nigerian dishes. Born and raised in Nigeria, Tomi moved to the UK at the age of fourteen. She has been a vegan for four years, and during this time she set up a blog filled with recipes bringing together traditional Nigerian dishes with a plant-based spin.
As a fellow Nigerian, my conversion to a plant-based diet was made a lot easier thanks to the tasty recipes of the Vegan Nigerian. It felt very reassuring to stumble across a blog which focused on the traditional Nigerian dishes that I was accustomed to eating. Tomi’s recipes show just how easy it is to make the switch to a plant-based diet. I had the pleasure to chat with Tomi about her journey to veganism as well as her thoughts on the vegan community and her influences for recipes.
How did your family react to your conversion to a plant-based diet?
My immediate family were initially skeptical and they did not think it would last a long time. The word ‘phase’ was thrown around a lot and my brother gave me two weeks before I would give up and start eating meat again. They did not think that I was serious about it. However, as time went on, they have been surprised to see me stick with it for so long. Now it is an accepted matter. We have had several chats about veganism and, while they understand my position, they do not think that it is something that they could do.
How have Nigerian, or generally African audiences, received your recipes?
It’s a mixed bag. The people who are the most supportive find it to be an interesting concept and are impressed by the fact that you can still enjoy Nigerian dishes as a vegan. On the negative side, I have had comments like “being vegan and Nigerian is an oxymoron” and “how are you surviving?”. Though I would say that the positive feedback has outweighed the negative feedback.
A lot of your dishes focus on traditional herbs and vegetables commonly used in Nigeria. As a plant-based Nigerian chef, what are your thoughts on the process of decolonisation through food?
This is something that I stumbled into during my vegan journey, as I initially went vegan for health reasons and for the animals. I began to look into the idea of eating foods that are native to [Nigeria] If you look back in history, we were probably eating a primarily plant-based diet. I am not very vocal about it but I do advocate the idea of putting our own traditional dishes at the forefront and returning to what we know, which has kept us healthy for so long. In addition, not falling into the trap of equating progress to fast food or the Western diet.
During your transition did you find it easy to follow or connect with other African vegans?
My initial reaction was “I am the only one?” as I was yet to meet other African vegans. However, getting into the online community and blogging opened me up to other Africans leading a vegan lifestyle. I came across a Facebook page for vegans and vegetarians in Nigeria which is spearheaded by the person who opened the first vegan restaurant in Lagos.
Do you think that, similar to other spaces, the vegan community tends to be Eurocentric with regards to the platforms given to chefs or cuisines?
Absolutely. In terms of the way veganism is represented, you do not really see a lot of people of colour but, at the same time, it is up to us to put ourselves out there in those spaces. I am a big believer in not waiting for someone to promote you or shine a light on you. Although, I would say that the vegan community has a long way to go in terms of being more diverse and showing that diversity. In addition, making people realise that the stereotype of the young, blonde and skinny vegan is not the only existing image of veganism. Though in recent years, there are signs that the vegan community is making efforts to be more inclusive.
From Plantain ravioli to garri cookies, would you say that your recipes reflect your African-European identity?
I love fusion cooking. Even if I were based in Nigeria, I would still be cooking those types of things. I am influenced by multiple cuisines and I would never want to limit myself and just stick to a traditional Nigerian use of ingredients. I think it is fun to experiment and use foods that we are familiar with in a different way and seeing what happens with it.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career as a plant-based chef?
My innate love for cooking and experimenting have been the main drivers. Growing up I watched a lot of cooking shows like Nigella Lawson and Ching’s kitchen and was fascinated by the idea of taking random ingredients and making them into something. I believe in doing what you love the most regardless of what anyone says or societal pressures that tell you to go in one particular direction. After graduating from university, it clicked and it seemed really obvious to give it a go. During my interview with the first vegan restaurant that I approached, I said “I have no professional training but I love to cook and I have lots of ideas”, the rest is history!
You are also an author, having already published two fiction books! Looking ahead, are you planning to create more recipe books?
I have written a few fiction novels and it is definitely something that I want to continue doing. I want to explore creating a cookery book. I feel like it is the right time to do it. I have been blogging for a few years now and collecting all these recipes, so I want to bring it all together in one cohesive cookbook.
What is next for you and your brand in the upcoming months?
I have a partnership with Airbnb. Experienced hosts can book my vegan Nigerian experience via the app. I have had one event so far and I have a few more bookings for coming months. I am really excited about it. Working with Airbnb exposes me to a wider audience as they are people travelling from different parts of the world. I get to share vegan Nigerian cuisines with a lot more people than I initially envisaged. Also, I will host my pop up restaurant on 25th March, which will be a dinner party style event. I would love to take my pop up to another country. A possible pop up in Paris later this year is on the cards.