Traditionally, eating meat has long been viewed as a sign of affluence in many African cultures and the omission of meat from the diet – a sign of poverty. So when Ghana-born Ben Asamani chose to cut out meat, dairy and all meat products, the reaction was predictable.
Initially people thought that at 16 years old, it was a phase he would grow out of but decades later and Asamani has made a business out of veganism, and is keen to spread this way of life to others. Vegans do not eat any meat-based products and animal by-products such as eggs, diary, honey. This also extends to using leather, silk, wool and cosmetics derived from animals.
Plant-based foods tend to be low in saturated fat, high in fibre and rich in antioxidants, which can combat against such health risks as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Asamani has been running the 222 Veggie Vegan restaurant in west London since 2004, and has his sights on launching a similar venture in his home town of Tema, Ghana early next year.
However, not always satisfied that his mum was making his food to his strict vegan requirements, Asamani decided to learn to cook himself. “That made me develop a love for cooking,” he said.
For the first 15 minutes while I waited to interview Asamani, he was occupied with customers, dealing with supply orders and greeting his regulars and locals that would walk by and stop to say hello. He is definitely a community man and it is this attitude he embraces when sharing his enthusiasm for veganism with others.
Fad or way of life?
“I don’t use microwaves and some customers complain that we are delaying them but we have to cook the food fresh,” he said. “For me not using a microwave and not frying the food alone tells them that the food is healthy. I don’t use refined products like white rice, white pasta, and white flour either – so for me, veganism it is more than just cooking or preparing a meal – it is a lifestyle.”
His signature dishes include a stroganoff made using a tofu-style wheat-based ingredient called seitan and a sauce made from cashew nuts (I’ve had it twice – it’s really tasty). Another favourite is carrot quiche using tofu which impressed two Japanese customers.
“I remember after they had had the quiche they said: ‘we were born in tofu, grew up in tofu but we’ve never had tofu that tastes like this'” Asamani recalled. “The couple liked it so much they plan to incorporate the dish into their vegan fast food business and invited me to Japan to help with some of their dishes.”
Asamani’s food certainly draws a mixed clientele so it is not surprising that 222 Veggie Vegan was named the best vegan restaurant in the UK in 2015 by US-based vegetarian and vegan restaurant guide the Happy Cow.
As well as attracting west London locals, it draws a mix of people from different backgrounds including India, Ghana and has a strong Rastafarian following. Despite this cultural diversity, there are no plans to introduce more Ghanaian dishes on to the menu, said Asamani, who makes it clear that his menu is international. Currently, he includes the African and Caribbean staple plantain but rather than frying it, he bakes it which has won him rave reviews from customers.
Asamani is also keen to launch a recipe book but wants it to be more than just a list of recipes but one that educates people on the health benefits of eating certain vegetables.
The number of vegans in Britain is estimated at 542,000 – that is three-and-a-half times as many as in 2006 when there was around 150,000, according to existing data from the Vegan Society. Vegans are cited as accounting for around 1% of the USA’s 324 million population. Although the figure is unclear across Africa, the movement across the continent is growing with websites such as africanvegans.com, vegansa.com and theafricanpotnutrition.com, emerging.
Asamani will not be the first to promote veganism in Ghana. There are two in Accra already run by a church for Israeli Hebrews that believe in the vegan lifestyle, one in Tema and another in Cape Coast. But Asamani believes their menus tend to be restricted.
“They only use mushroom, cabbage, peppers and carrots or make waakye (similar to rice and peas) with a stew,” he said. “I want to make mine better by developing dishes based on ingredients from Ghana.”