“It just didn’t make any sense to me why we would exploit animals in the way that we do.”
Vegans of Color is a series for Tenderly that highlights chefs, activists, and content creators of color who are leading a vegan lifestyle. I was inspired to start this column when I started thinking about my own ethnic and cultural background (my mom is Japanese, my dad is white, and I was born and raised in America) and the ways in which identity intersects with food in my own life. Growing up, I noticed that some foods I ate at home — like sweet Japanese curry and white miso soup — were totally foreign to most of my peers. When I became vegan two years ago, the recipes I discovered from popular and mainstream sources were most often versions of traditional American foods. This series intends to shine a spotlight on vegans who bring something different to the table.
Anyone familiar with West African cuisine is likely well acquainted with plantains — sweet or savory, the fruit is versatile and much-loved. “It’s a favorite among kids, and it’s a really great after school snack. I can remember coming home to that a lot of times when I was younger,” says Tomi Makanjuola, chef and writer behind The Vegan Nigerian. She calls her 2018 publication The Plantain Cookbook a “love letter to the plantain as an ingredient.”
The 27 year old London-based entrepreneur went vegan in her early 20s, and started her blog as a way to share recipes and connect with other vegans. Her love for cooking eventually brought her to do pop ups and take on clients as a personal chef and caterer, and the hobby grew into a business. You can read below to learn more about Makanjuola’s thoughts on food, culture, and of course plantains.
Tenderly: What is your ethnic and cultural background? Where did you grow up?
Tomi Makanjuola: I’m Nigerian, and I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. My family and I moved over to the UK when I was around 14 or 15, and I’ve been here since. I’ve got dual citizenship, so I’m Nigerian and British.
What kinds of foods did you eat growing up? Do you have any memorable meals you ate on holidays or special occasions?
I grew up eating traditional Nigerian food. So a lot of our food at home was home cooking, we’d have things like jollof rice — which I feel like most people are familiar with from West African cuisine. That was the main special dish we’d have on Sundays, kind of my family’s version of the Sunday roast here in the UK. So we’d have that along with dishes like plantains. And I wasn’t raised vegan — I made that transition later, in my early 20s — so a lot of the other dishes we’d have would be different types of meat. It’s a very meat heavy food culture, but there’s also a lot of amazing plant based food as well.
When did you become vegan and what led you to that decision?
For me it was a combination of a couple of things. On the one hand, I started thinking about my health, and the way certain foods made me feel. Based on intuition, I decided to eliminate all animal products from my diet, and I noted the complete change in my energy levels. I had less brain fog and just felt more energized. While all of that was going on, I was starting to look into the treatment of animals and modern day agriculture. I couldn’t reconcile it — it just didn’t make any sense to me why we would exploit animals in the way that we do. And it was like a lightbulb went off in my head, and it didn’t seem right to me any more to take part in that industry. So after that, slowly but surely, I started to educate myself on all the different aspects of veganism.
Is anyone else in your family vegan? How do your non-vegan family members react to your lifestyle?
I’m the only vegan in my entire family! At first I think they were very skeptical, I don’t know how convinced they were that I’d stick with it. But I think as time has gone on, they’ve come to accept it. And even though my immediate family hasn’t gone vegan, I’ve noticed that they’ve made certain changes in their diet. For instance, my parents have completely eliminated all forms of dairy, so they use plant milks, and they use vegan margarine and butter. They’re into juicing, and incorporating more vegetables into their diet. I think they’d find it difficult to go fully vegan, but they do appreciate it and try to incorporate it as much as they can.
You have your hand in so many different projects — how did your journey as an entrepreneur start?
The blog itself was the first thing that I did. Back then, it really was just a way to share recipes and build a community around what I was doing. Then in 2016, I started hosting the pop-ups and events in London, and that was a really tangible way of bringing what I was doing to life. I started having clients who would come and experience the cuisine for themselves — that built up into more private clients and it grew from there. Starting the pop-ups in 2016 was really when it shifted from being a hobby to a business.
How would you describe the vegan scene in London? Is there a lot of diversity?
Oh, for sure! Especially over the last 2–3 years. When I initially moved to London, there were a handful of vegan options — I could probably count them on one or both hands. It’s kind of exploded in recent years. Even mainstream restaurants here have started to add vegan options to the menu. The supermarkets too have started to broaden their range, and add more vegan options.
What people kick back against a bit is the fact that a lot of the new vegan food that is becoming readily available tends to err on the side of vegan junk food. Things like hot dogs and burgers, and people argue that if you’re eating that as a vegan, then you’re not necessarily healthy. But there are other people who would say that as long as there are vegan options at all, that’s a good thing.
Can you talk about the process of writing a cookbook? What do you hope people will get out of the book?
I think that I’ve always had a cookbook in me. I think that one day, I’d like to actually publish a full vegan Nigerian cookbook. The one that I published is called The Plantain Cookbook, and it was almost like my love letter to plantain as an ingredient. It’s one of my favorite things to cook with, and it’s something I grew up eating all the time. But the thing about it is that it’s cooked in very limited ways.
One of the things I love about being vegan and having a love for cooking is that I’m able to experiment and try new and different things in the kitchen. I wanted to have a lot of fun with it, so I created just over 40 plantain recipes. I wanted people to see how versatile the ingredient is, and how easy it is to incorporate into a variety of dishes, whether it’s savory or sweet.
I took myself through the process of writing the recipes, and testing them out and having a lot of people try the recipes to see what worked and what didn’t work. I was fully involved in the photography process, and I used online self-publishing platforms to get the book fully formatted and available to the public.
That’s such a great thread for a cookbook, to focus on one special ingredient. Is plantain central to a lot of Nigerian dishes?
TM: Yeah, I would say it’s eaten multiple times a week in each household. And it’s such a great complement to a lot of main dishes as well. It’s a favorite among kids, and it’s a really great after school snack. I can remember coming home to that a lot of times when I was younger — it’s a much-loved ingredient for sure.
What are the basic pantry items someone needs to get into Nigerian cooking?
TM: Definitely a lot of chile — I don’t know if it’s known as the same thing in the US, but Scotch bonnet. Red pepper, that will always be the base of your sauces — red pepper and tomato. Spices like pepper soup mix, that’s always a really great addition to soups and stews. Yeah, I would say mostly spices and chiles.
What’s your go-to recipe when cooking dinner for others?
TM: Jollof rice — I’d have that and do a vegetable stew that has a red-based sauce. Plantain, and salad — normally I do coleslaw, and I like to jazz my coleslaw up with a few other vegetables apart from carrots and cabbage.
What advice do you have for new vegans or someone considering veganism?
I’d say do your research. It’s very easy to view veganism as a trend — when you go down that route, there isn’t really a strong conviction behind it. It’s very easy to slip off the wagon, if you’re tempted for any reason. So definitely looking into the deeper reasons for going vegan, watching the documentaries, reading books, getting familiar with what veganism is truly about.
And on a practical level, if you’re not comfortable with just going vegan immediately, then definitely transition at your own pace. Do it in a way that’s organic and natural to you.
Do you have any upcoming events or projects you’d like to talk about?
I don’t really have anything coming up in the next month — I’m taking on a few catering projects right now. But in the future, I’d love to work with a few businesses in London, and bring my pop-up concept to them.
Makanjuola also shared her top vegan restaurants in London: