Vegan cook Rachel Ama has gained thousands of followers on her YouTube channel for her flavour-packed African Caribbean plant-based cooking. Ahead of her new book, One Pot: Three Ways, she talks flavour, flexibility and why the cultural heritage behind veganism is an underrepresented but rich source of inspiration for healthy plant-based eating.
Why did you want to write the book, what’s the concept?
The concept came from when people would always ask me how I maintain veganism. And I was always explaining that I make a big pot of food on a Sunday and then roll that out over the next couple of days – so I made it into a book format, and that’s my One Pot: Three Ways. I just think everyone wants veganism to be a bit easier. And I did have to relearn my main dish of roast chicken on a Sunday, putting vegetables as the centrepiece. I want to share that with people so they can find it easier to have more plant-based meals and introduce that into their families without it being scary.
You talk about flavour and flexibility in your book intro – why did you pick out those two things?
I think that there’s still that idea that vegan food is still super bland and boring. And the way that I cook is not. A lot of people are new to spices and seasoning, and what’s great is you can actually go to a store and buy different pastes from different cuisines, or a spice mix like a harissa, and all you need to do is cook it with some vegetables and you’ve got a really bold, flavourful dish.
You mention having a ‘flavour station’ in your kitchen, what are your favourite spices for Caribbean food that you use time and time again?
I love making jerk spices, whether it’s a dry rub or a jerk paste. It’s just allspice, coriander, thyme, ginger and garlic – really simple and fresh ingredients, and obviously also a hot pepper like a Scotch bonnet. I also really love harissa, I’m just addicted to it. It just elevates and levels up your everyday vegetables. And I love sticky miso things, and oriental cooking, like stir fry and the flavours you can bring out with a wok and soy, and vinegar. I do think you can build up a little collector’s list of spices and before you know it you’ve got your favourite go-to’s – a building block to getting different flavours into your food, whether you’re baking, frying or grilling.
Where did you learn to cook? Was there anyone in particular who taught and influenced you?
No one really taught me. My grandma from Saint Lucia cooked in schools and hospitals, and old people’s homes, and she always cooked for my family on a Sunday. It was that borderline Caribbean-British food that we all knew. But I never cooked with her. But I feel like she’s passed down her cooking tastebuds to me, and I’m sure she’s looking down and is really excited that I found this path in cooking and cooking Caribbean food, which is really special to me. When I went travelling, I went round South America and then I roadtripped the States, and when I came back all of a sudden I’m in the kitchen trying to make all these dishes I’d tried. I was so in awe of things I was tasting, in New Orleans, in Bolivia, in Peru, in Texas. I was used to Caribbean food and it opened my eyes up to flavours in ways I never really appreciated. Other than that it’s my British side, my potatoes, carrots, vegetables from the ground that my Welsh grandma would have cooked with when she was living on the farm.
How important is sourcing to you as a vegan?
Jackfruit has become a vegan hero and is an everyday staple in many parts of the world. But unfortunately we don’t grow jackfruit here, so there’s that realisation in trying to eat more seasonally now. I go to the farmers’ market on a Sunday where I get the best variety of mushrooms, and seasonal ingredients. It varies throughout the year and so you have your spice mixes or herb mixes, and you also get what is in season.
What do you think of the processed alternatives for vegan cheese and meat?
I think they do their job if you really loved meat textures and the look of it; there’s some really incredible stuff out there. But when I went vegan, and the reasons being animal welfare, what I put into my body and the environment, I naturally want to stay away from processed foods. We know that there are nutrients in our carrots, in our potatoes, and you can fill yourself really well on whole plant-based foods. I think it’s nice now and then to have vegan mince spag bol, or a vegan burger, but I always love just going back to vegetables – that’s what fuels our body.
What do you use as a vegan alternative for seafood?
Heart of palm and oyster mushrooms are really good at mimicking textures of some seafood, and in terms of flavour, cooking with seaweed or nori, lots of citrus, and miso, you can make brothy seafood-ish flavours. I know people have made ‘salmon’ out of carrots as well – it’s not going to taste exactly like salmon but it has a similar texture, and if you put soy on it, and lemon, to add that brightness, you can make some really interesting dishes.
When you started your YouTube channel, you said you couldn’t see people online to relate to. How has that changed? Are black vegans more visible now as you see it?
I think there’s a little bit more visibility, but I still think these are the voices and cultures, cuisines and flavours that I want to see more of in the centre. It’s changing, but I still feel like there’s a way to go. I felt as a black woman writing her first cookbook, when I went to look at cookbooks there were no black women on the front covers in the stores that I went to in London. If I go now, it’s still not very evident, and even just as a woman in food. I think there’s still a lot to be represented in the food scene in general.
What would help change this, in your view?
Traditional media used to be where we saw chefs on TV and where we saw their books being advertised. Whereas in today’s world there’s YouTube, Netflix and the media has changed so much – I think traditional media needs to open its doors a lot more and I think the other avenues have already done that, so maybe traditional media just needs to catch up.
How important do you think it is for people to learn about the often non white roots and cultures around veganism, when platforms like Instagram present it as a predominantly white cuisine made by white people, usually with a very wealthy lifestyle?
I think [learning about this] it’s really beautiful and it takes away this idea that it’s a fad, and I personally have been on a mission for these stories to be shared. Food stories to me are beautiful because food is a universal language. It’s a whole moment that is shared around the world. And there’s so much to be learnt about cultures that don’t coin the word vegan but have a very much plant-based diet and have been thriving on that. I would love to hear more stories and authenticity, traditions and cooking methods that people have used for ages, coming to awareness in the West. Because it’s something that people would love to see and learn and explore.
Are there any other narratives around veganism and plant-based eating that you don’t like, and what should people think and know about it instead?
I cut out meat, fish and dairy because of animal welfare and because I’m aware of how it affects our environment, and my body, and I was genuinely passionate about wanting my friends and family to learn how to cook with vegetables and enjoy it, without it feeling like a restriction. I get people all the time saying to me ‘I’m not vegan but I love eating your food’, and for me that means I’m doing what I do really well. It’s not ‘you can’t sit with us’, it’s come and enjoy this really delicious plant-based food. I understand that everybody’s body is different, so while I am thriving on a vegan diet, someone might be allergic to different legumes and what other options do they have for their protein? It’s not one size fits all, it’s about doing the best that you can and encouraging the most positive change.
Cooking from scratch can be quite daunting for some people, have you got any tips for people who would like to start but don’t know how?
I would say start with the basics. If you just want to start by roasting ingredients and adding different seasonings, you just need a tray, some olive oil, some vegetables, maybe some herbs like rosemary and thyme, maybe some harissa paste – it’s so easy to strip it back, take all the rules away and have fun with your vegetables.
For people who are new to veganism, how do you manage your nutrition?
In terms of protein, when I first went vegan I just wasn’t eating enough calories; I was eating way too much salad and was finding myself hungry. What I then began doing is that centrepiece meal, mostly focused around a plant-based protein like cannellini beans, kidney beans, black beans, that way I knew I had some good protein in there. So I make most of my meals around a protein source, and on top of that I do take B12, vitamin D, vegan omegas, but I also cover those in the food I eat as well, like chia and hemp seeds. There’s also so many vegan protein powders that actually taste good, for high-end protein goals.
How has motherhood changed what you cook and eat?
One of the main things I had to do, especially when I was pregnant and my tastebuds were all over the place, was making sure about my nutrients, because it was for him and not just for me. Looking after me is one of the best ways I can look after him. When I was pregnant I hated garlic, I hated chickpeas – I pretty much hated everything except vegan butter and bread, and potatoes. It was horrible, I hated all the food I used to love. And then I got into making cakes. Beige food was really calling me. And towards the end I got into fresh coconuts and mangoes.
Have you got a favourite recipe from the book you’d like to share with people?
The Cajun beer battered oyster mushrooms because they blow people’s minds – you would think it’s vegan fried chicken. The sticky cauliflower bites were a massive hit in my life, and the date and chickpea tagine because it’s all in one pot and delivers on so much flavour, it’s a family favourite and it’s so easy to make. You can add any odds and ends that you might have left in the kitchen, just throw them in there.
One Pot: Three Ways: Save time with vibrant, versatile vegan recipes by Rachel Ama is out 26 August (Yellow Kite, £17)