Before becoming vegan, I didn’t really know much about what it meant or why people did it. I didn’t have any vegan friends or family, and although I grew up in a relatively healthy household in north London – with home-cooked meals and a mum who had studied nutrition – we still ate meat, fish and dairy. On Sundays we always had roast chicken, and my Welsh, African and Caribbean roots meant we also often had dishes such as curry goat, oxtail stew and jerk chicken. Post-school weekday afternoons were always spent at the fried-chicken shop, eating wings with my friends.
That all changed around 10 years ago, when some serious health issues meant I had no choice but to go dairy-free. Within four months my body had drastically started to heal, and I’ve been off dairy ever since. A few years after that revelation, I was having dinner with a friend when the topic of veganism came up. He recommended I watch a documentary about it, and for the first time I saw exactly how that fried chicken ended up in its cardboard takeaway box. I was heartbroken. To me, meat, fish and dairy were human fuel – that’s what it said on the charts I saw over and over again at school and at the doctor’s. But suddenly, that no longer made sense to me. I went vegan the next day.
Most people around me were confused – one day I was eating chicken and then, just like that, I opted out. I tried to explain that veganism is very similar to the Rastafarian Ital diet – which states that food should be natural and from the earth – but it still left them baffled. My family worried if I was eating enough. I kept explaining that I was actually eating more than before – and it tasted amazing – but people couldn’t see past the kale and spinach. I wanted to change that.
I looked for vegan recipes and chefs for inspiration, but couldn’t find anyone I could properly relate to or who cooked the Caribbean and African-influenced foods I love. I’ve always been surrounded by different cultures and cuisines, and I wanted to enjoy those diverse flavours, but in plant-based cooking. I realised if I wanted to eat that kind of food, I’d have to start getting creative in the kitchen.
So I took the fiery jerk marinade I’d once used for chicken and tried it with grilled oyster mushrooms, plantain, rice and peas. I made delicious spiced aubergine kebabs and even reinvented my favourite university staple, tuna pasta, with jackfruit, nori flakes, capers and cherry tomatoes. As I went about recreating all my beloved nostalgic dishes, full of the bold flavours I craved, I wanted to share how delicious my food was with people beyond my immediate circle. I decided to start filming step-by-step recipes and uploading my DIY videos to YouTube. I was working full-time designing and running an online gift shop, and had no experience in making videos or editing, but every weekend I’d create recipe ideas, film them, then post them on Sunday night.
The response blew my mind. People from all over the world were tuning in to my channel, making and loving my food. A lot of people are so curious about veganism, but are often unsure what to make or how to cook it. Within 18 months, I had 180,000 subscribers. When I got my first book deal, my love for vegan cooking became my career. Now, Sunday is my family’s favourite day. They get to indulge in all the leftovers of meals I’ve created for YouTube with big smiles on their faces, happy in the knowledge that dinner for the next few days is sorted. Although my family aren’t all vegans, we enjoy the food together. After all, vegans don’t have to fit the same mould.
Rachel Ama’s Vegan Eats will be published by Ebury Press on 6 June, priced at £20.