Share

Roots and Routes: Vegan Food
goes Ethnic

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to nature writing titled the New Nature. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists and scholars to reflect on nature in the twenty-first century and to grapple with the literary conventions of writing nature. Read the other essays in the New Nature series here.

I visited the Sydney Markets at Flemington, and the Vegan Market in Marrickville on the same weekend late last year, and expected to write a study in contrasts. After all, there is nothing ostensibly in common between a suburban wholesale fruit and vegetable shed that occupies 42 hectares and screams ‘bazaar’, and an inner city park that hosts cruelty-free foods, fashion and homewares. Moreover, I had anticipated that the latter space would be dominated by white, middle class hipsters preaching the virtues of almond milk and fake meat, with branded calico bags and righteous brooches in tow.

It is not that I am unsympathetic to the ethical food cause. I have given up eating meat from time to time. I look up details of organic and free range certification, buy local fresh produce and avoid wastage where possible. However, my greater preoccupation with social cohesion among diverse populations has meant that I might be more readily classified as human-centric. This lens also implies that I sometimes see certain white middle class causes as elitist by default. While I frequent hole-in-the-wall cafes and bars more than charcoal chicken or kebab shops, I have noticed a tendency to fetishise the latter as symbolic of this nation’s cultural diversity, and the former as hubs of cultural capital that are divorced from ‘real Australia’. In other words, the suburban corner shop selling pizza and kebab is perceived as more egalitarian, and hence properly Australian, than inner city establishments advertising ‘artisanal’ goods.

Given the sort of self-regarded gourmand farmers’ markets I am accustomed to, I was in for an ethnographic tour when I visited the Flemington stalls on a Saturday afternoon. There, I happened upon a marker of the global in a context where the local is held in higher regard: boxes of garlic labeled, ‘Produce of China’. It was even amusing to weave through crowds of various kinds: crawling traffic when getting off the M5, trolleys when alighting the steps from the car park, elbows in a bid to grab the best bargains. While this mainstay of the Sydney Markets (as opposed to the satellite ones based in the CBD) may attract a largely working class and migrant demographic resident in western Sydney, it is not merely a winner in terms of low prices for bulk goods. This is also where most restaurateurs, retailers, florists and providores get their supplies; close to five thousand locals are employed there; and 65 per cent of the waste generated is recycled on site. Do these factors help tick the ‘ethical food’ box without a proclamation to this effect?

While many inner city markets in Australia’s capitals now venerate farm-to-table produce, there is little evidence of such a trend making significant headway in suburbia. I would like to find spaces where the twain can and do meet: that is, where the ethical is more than just an ode to a rustic village in Italy, and where the ethnic ventures beyond frozen diasporic affinities. The Sydney Vegan Market, which made its debut in Marrickville on a Sunday in late November 2017, was a pleasant surprise on both counts.

As I walked to the market from a nearby café, a friend remarked on the irony of it being located on the premises of the Portuguese Community Club, which is known for its seafood and steak-heavy menu. Perhaps they saw a business opportunity? There is the customary hippy chai stall (with non-dairy milk), an info booth with cute cat pictures and animal rights slogans on t-shirts, and an entire row of mouth-watering vegan desserts. We tasted vegan cheese, bought a saffron-flavoured Persian drink, and talked to a Greek baker before settling on a bowl of Egyptian koshari (a mix of lentils, rice and noodles, topped off with a spicy tomato sauce). The ‘ethnic’ eateries here are not plying food inspired by particular cultures but sold by presumably white bearded hipsters. Rather, they are owned and operated by people of colour, and some already have established reputations in the Sydney vegan scene. Like the Portuguese Club, I wonder if they saw more than new customers. At the time of writing, the Sydney Vegan Market was awaiting permission from the Inner West Council to permanently move to the Addison Road Community Centre premises. This community centre was established in 1976, and has since been the mainstay of many immigrant groups.

A Slow Elitism?

The ‘new nature writing’ is concerned with finding the wildness in the everyday, and quotidian encounters with nature, rather than going out into the wild as an exceptional excursion. However, critics such as Mark Cocker argue that it retains a pastoral quality when talking about nature. In terms of food writing, there are noteworthy parallels. My research deals with food and inter-cultural encounters and I similarly try to privilege the everyday over the spectacular. This is crucial because it sheds light on food history as both fixed and evolving.

In our own settler colony, the ubiquitous flat white and smashed avocado on toast are examples of food items seen as uniquely Australian. A little scratching reveals that there is no single story of the origins of these items, and that they are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan as regards their export value and improvisation. Alex Bernson explains the popularity of the antipodean flat white as transnational and consumerist:

The first thing you need to know about the flat white is that it contains multitudes. Like much of post-industrial consumer culture, the flat white is a symbolic proxy through which we express our hopes, fears, and anxieties, and in its exchange, try to placate the ravenous calling for social distinction and connection. It gives people feelings. The flat white is the latest fancy coffee battleground through which our trans-national tastes in coffee, identity, and late capitalism are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.

My guess is that such talk of late capitalism barely resonates for Australians buying their morning flat white at an independent neighbourhood café. However, that particular location is a taste-definer in its own right.

In a similar vein, avocado on toast is perceived as a cultural code throughout the nation, and overseas. As Nathan Heller puts it in an essay for the New Yorker:

Something about avocado toast taps into a deeper sense of where the world is headed, and—depending on your view of that future—is either scrumptious or abhorrent. Why? Even at a time when fancy sandwich stuffs are imbued with social symbolism, avocado toast remains a cultural cipher, a new lunchtime icon with a hazy past.

In many OECD countries hit by the Global Financial Crisis, this newfound fussing over food is a marker of middle class income stagnation. According to Margot Finn, ‘the two periods when the culinary ethics of self-denial, represented by the ideals of thinness and purity, have been culturally dominant are the ones characterized by extremes of inequality and the stagnation in the growth of middle-class wealth’.

In her work on tracing the history of discriminating taste cultures, especially among the middle classes, Finn also detects conspicuous efforts to uphold virtue and sacrifice. In other words, when incomes are stagnating, middle class anxieties shift to performing a better self (than the lower and upper classes) via moderation around food. This distinction is also manifested in practices of ‘ethical selfhood’, such as buying local or organic food. Such consumption is testament to the value of symbolic protest against institutions and big business. However, Finn argues that it may be no more than a hipster ideal, adding, ‘The hipsters’ defenders romanticised them as resourceful and frugal, people who were admirably resisting the excesses of the industrial food system’. She insists that the ideals of the food revolution have not led to systemic change, but have granted some ways of eating more social legitimacy than others. My interviews with a vegan stallholder and the founder of the Sydney Vegan Market deal with this dilemma, amongst others.

For now, I want to continue the train of thinking around our veneration of farmers’ markets, the slow food movement, and plant-based menus. Can we move beyond nostalgia for its own sake? Are we able to root it in the present as well as the future by connecting it to the non-human, to our changing ecological issues, as well as to Australia’s newest human inhabitants? Perhaps with its emphasis on local produce and migrant recipes, the Australian context is highly suited to an exploration connecting nature and culture, amalgamating slow food ideals with ethical ecological practices. Xanthe Clay puts it this way, in an interview with chef and writer Bill Granger:

Granger’s take is that Australian food is ‘more produce than process-driven, unlike the classical French cuisine which has traditionally influenced British restaurants. Australia is more Mediterranean and Asian-inspired. It’s about dressing food rather than saucing it – it’s not heavy.’ Plus, he says, ‘Australian chefs are increasingly self-taught, which brings a fresh simplicity to the food. It’s essentially home cooking.’

This hybridity presents a fresh take on the age-old conundrum of cultural authenticity (and its ethical preservation), especially as it applies to the cuisines of migrants and first peoples. In many ways, authenticity is the original ‘natural’ of the food world. Both white and non-white people seem invested in this project, though for different reasons. Given anthropogenic concerns, we may need to approach the evolution of cultural cuisines differently. From the point of view of people of colour, naturalisation of their traditional foods by (mostly) white gentrifiers has often meant undermining their own agency. In the realm of food writing and enterprises, origins are frequently fetishised and certain cultural elements are presented as ‘natural’ whereas others are not. In her overview of ‘craft culture’, Lauren Michele Jackson argues that it entails the erasure of people of colour:

The character of craft culture, a special blend of bohemianism and capitalism, is not merely overwhelmingly white — a function of who generally has the wealth to start those microbreweries and old-school butcher shops, and to patronize them — it consistently engages in the erasure or exploitation of people of color whose intellectual and manual labor are often the foundation of the practices that transform so many of these small pleasures into something artful. A lie by omission may be a small one, but for a movement so vocally concerned with where things come from, the proprietors of craft culture often seem strangely uninterested in learning or conveying the stories of the people who first mastered those crafts.

While Jackson’s critique holds true of many instances of artisanal production, including in the realm of food and beverages, the Sydney Vegan Market is exemplary of innovation by people of colour themselves. Contrary to my expectations, it appears to be a space where they may have more socio-political license to improvise, un-naturalise, and re-naturalise.

Persian Food can be Vegan

Not only does Lauren Michele Jackson accuse artisanal culture of being exclusively middle class and white in terms of both its production and consumption, she condemns its predictability:

From product to product and industry to industry, artisanal quality seems to generate the same set of descriptions — small-batch, local, sustainable, vintage, heritage, farm-to-table, nose-to-tail, crop-to-cup — even though the point of consuming craft products is to enjoy something unique.

Given such dilution of the notion of ‘natural’ kinds of food, Sydney-based Shivana Vegan Persian Food Co appears to be hitting the mark in terms of being ethical, delicious, and sufficiently distinct.

After tasting their saffron drink at the Vegan Market, I decided to contact the stall-owners via their Facebook page. Run by partners Reid (Managing Director) and Shiva (Executive Chef), Shivana is a relatively new enterprise, and has also recently launched at the Addison Road Markets, which are the prototype for the inner city farmers’ markets, and held every Sunday in Marrickville. While Reid has been vegetarian for a decade, he became vegan much more recently. There were many reasons for this decision, he explains, and he found himself gravitating towards vegan food options unconsciously as one day he realised the cruelty of the dairy and egg industries. In Iranian-born Shiva’s case, she initially went vegan for health reasons. She adds that the process was slow, and that the door toward veganism opened when she saw documentaries about milking and animal cruelty.

Shivana came about due to Shiva’s passion for Iranian food. Initially, she was resistant to going vegan because Irani food has traditionally been meat-based. One day she started to make ‘ghormeh sabzi’ (Iran’s national dish, consisting of sautéed herbs with beans, onions, lime and lamb or beef) by replacing the meat with mushrooms, and it tasted beautiful. Shiva describes this as a momentous occasion, as it led her to believe that her favourite dishes could be improvised for a vegan diet. Persian food is still relatively unknown in Australia, and hence she saw that a market opportunity existed. Persian food, Reid adds, like a great deal of Indian cuisines, uses Ayurvedic principles and is therefore quite balanced.

When I inquire about the stall’s reception at the Vegan Market, they talk about their two tents, and the number of people asking about Persian food. Shivana’s target market is quite mixed, and not confined to vegans. Shiva chimes in that she does not like the separation between vegan and non-vegan. She adds that people should not be judged, but invited in so that they may change their minds through compassion. In terms of the food on offer at this stall, Shiva thought it was important to provide a sumptuous meal rather than a salad to challenge people’s perceptions of vegan food.

We have a meandering conversation about food history, and how recipes have always been modified. Shiva is of the view that in Persian cuisine, meat does not play a big role in the taste; it is more about the herbs and spices. She explains that meat was only introduced to the country a century or so ago, and then became a status symbol. Her parents (based in Iran) also became vegetarian after seeing that her change in diet improved her health, and that the food itself was delicious. At the Marrickville Markets, she is more interested in showcasing Iranian culture than in being a representative of veganism. She says that if people ask, she will mention that they are plant-based as the word ‘vegan’ can sometimes give the wrong impression.

I find the courage to ask if they think individual consumer decisions have the power to change bigger systems. They cite the case of a dairy enterprise in Queensland that recently shut down due to a drop in demand. Reid reasons that we all have a vote everyday about where we put our money; Shiva observes that we are the engine of the system. When I raise the issue of access for people living in say, western Sydney or regional Australia, Shiva says it is growing as in Newtown five years ago, it was difficult to find a vegan restaurant. Now even Aldi supermarkets stock vegan ice cream. Reid says it is also about making an effort to educate so that people realise that going vegan is an option with a particular ethnic cuisine. We discuss how Australia has a lot of fresh produce throughout the year, and in most parts.

Our meeting finishes with another ride on the personal-political seesaw. Shiva reiterates that she considers veganism a personal choice, one that she would rather not impose on people. She then talks about the emphasis on drinking milk in Iran, how it is normalised, and her uncle asking her why she doesn’t drink it. Reid mentions the industrialisation of agriculture, and how far removed most of us are from it. They tell me about their love of cooking, and how this encourages them to create new plant-based dishes, as well as adapt old ones.

Intersectional Feminism through Food

The same week I meet with Kate, the founder of the Sydney Vegan Market and co-founder of Maker, a commercial kitchen and educational space in Petersham. Being surrounded by food aficionados and feminists baking bread and whipping up desserts at the Petersham premises lends a warm tone to our conversation. She begins by telling me that her aim was to create a proper foodie and farmers’ market that is accessible, and that people can recognise as entirely vegan. She wants people who are not vegan to see that it can be done, that it is fun and delicious, and that it represents community.

As for her own journey, Kate says that she went vegan six years ago. She was at a market and wanted something sweet like a brownie. There was nothing on offer, so she decided to make her own. What followed was the Vegan Teahouse, her first business. It’s a wholesale business that is produced out of Maker and supplies cafes and health food stores along the east coast. Its key products are banana bread and brownies, which are vegan as well as refined sugar-free. She went vegan because the man she was dating at the time was vegan, and gave her some literature to read about animal agriculture. She decided she could no longer financially contribute to those industries.

Kate believes that veganism is not just a lifestyle, but also a political choice. Like Reid and Shiva, she reasons that we live in a capitalist society, and the most impact we can have is through where we spend our money. She also has high regard for community capacity-building and supporting small businesses. As an intersectional feminist, she sees veganism as an extension of that philosophy; she believes that all oppressions intersect, including the oppression of animals. We discuss the range of reasons that people go vegan, including political, environmental, animals, or health-related. Kate sees a stigma around vegan food and attributes it largely to ignorance. When veganism first emerged as an alternative food movement, the quality of the food was not very good, and that has led to some misconceptions. Her hope with the market is that they can entice people with the delicious food. If people hang around for a bit, they can then find out more, get sweets, buy vegetables and bread. Vegan fashion and cosmetics are also on offer.

For the next part of our chat, we are regularly, albeit pleasantly distracted by a rescue kitten and people in the kitchen offering us goodies. Kate tells me that Maker has been around for over a year. Before this the kitchen for the teahouse was located in her home in Marrickville. Working in her own house was isolating so she recently paired up with Annabelle, who produces bespoke cakes. They now run partnerships with local organisations such as Sydney Community College, and also open up the coffee bar on the weekend where they display what the participating businesses produce on the menu.

The conversation moves back to the Sydney Vegan Market, which is an initiative of Vegan NSW. Kate explains that she runs the Vegan Collective, which has its own night market. Due to this experience, the President of Vegan NSW approached her to operate the Sydney Vegan Market. She said yes because she had a network, and a relationship with a large number of vegan businesses in Sydney.

Once again, I bank on the generosity and candour of my interviewee, and ask about the elitism sometimes attributed to a vegan lifestyle. Kate does not deny that this may sometimes be the case, but adds that it is possible to be quite frugal as a vegan. She explains that this is because tofu, fruit and vegetables are cheaper than meat. What might be more expensive are meat substitutes and vegan cheese, but these are not necessary to thrive on a vegan diet. She is at pains to point out that her activism is often through food, and showing people that it is achievable.  She adds, ‘We are deeply feminist and want to create a community that is safe for everyone, as well as accessible. Other people do activism in different ways.’ Kate concedes that they work within capitalism, but also shake it up a bit when they can.

As for the future of the newly minted markets, Kate says that she plans to have more fun with them by incorporating art and installations. There are many vegans in the city who are extremely talented, and are willing to help out and build community. Over the weekend, she received an email from a man who works for Cumberland Council, and happened to be at the last market. While he liked it, he also offered to help out as a food safety professional. Kate then tells me about a friend who is a senior business analyst and has assisted her with a lot of the documentation. Another has been a blessing in terms of coordinating volunteers.

When I am ready to stop the recorder, I am offered yet another piece of vegan goodness. This time it is olive oil and lemon bread that I happily nibble on my way to the train station. I am not a convert yet, but I do have a newfound respect for community-minded vegan endeavors that are trying to marry their politics and passions with their livelihoods and lifestyles. As for alternative food movements in general, I neither see these entirely as a case of self-identification with an ethical outlook for the sake of appearing middle class, nor completely about ethnic enterprises tapping into a niche business opportunity. At least in terms of what is unfolding at the Vegan Market, it is a complex socio-cultural and politico-environmental phenomenon. Most aspects of it ought to be encouraged, while remaining mindful of policing other people’s food choices or versions of authenticity.

Works Cited

Alex Bernson,  ‘The Flat White: Explained’, Sprudge, 2015.
Xanthe Clay, ‘Aussie rules: why we’re all eating like Australians now’, 2016.
Mark Cocker, ‘Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame?’, New Statesman, 2015.
Nathan Heller, ‘A Grand Unified Theory of Avocado Toast’, The New Yorker, 2017.
Margot S Finn, Discriminating Taste: How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution, Rutgers University Press, 2017.
Lauren Michele Jackson, ‘The White Lies of Craft Culture’, 2017.