Losing My Identity Through Food

Happy Monday everyone! This week I thought we would dive deep and talk about something that has been on my mind a lot lately. When you talk to a vegan they usually discuss all the positive changes they’ve noticed and how veganism “changed their life”. No hate to any of my fellow vegans out there, I tell people the same thing all the time! However, there is one aspect to this lifestyle that I still have trouble understanding even after a year of embracing veganism.

Sitting in my Southeast Asian Arabic studies class we continuously ask the question, what makes someone Southeast Asian? Through this conversation I began to ask myself the same thing, what exactly makes me Portuguese or Chinese, besides genetics? I never considered myself more of one background than the other, but I always felt that there was this pressure from my peers to embrace one side. On Sundays some kids would go to church, Fridays meant Shabbat dinner for others, and there I was left without any kind of tradition. As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that the only way I have held on to my roots while growing up was through food. My mother, a Portuguese immigrant, raised me and my sister on pasteis de nata (egg tarts) and seafood. She learned how to make traditional Chinese food from my dad’s side of the family, from congee to char sui pork, she could do it all. My parents are not religious, but eating these foods together as a family was like a ritual for us, and being vegan changed that.

As a vegan I do find myself drifting away from the food traditions I grew up with. As I mentioned, seafood plays a large part in Portuguese culture. I remember visiting Portugal when I was younger and spending hours on the beach looking for baby clams with my sister and cooking them later on an open fire. For special holidays or events, my dad would drive our family to a dim sum restaurant not too far from us, where we would eat hargow and peking duck. My fondest memories as a kid revolve around food, and I’d be lying if I said being vegan hasn’t changed that. This past year during our Thanksgiving meal, everyone ate their roasted turkey, while I had my separate plate of Tofurkey and meatless stuffing, and I could sense this disconnectedness. Yes, I was surrounded by family and good conversation, but I was felt that there was this weird tension in the room that no one wanted to address. I am very lucky to have friends and family that support my choice to be vegan, but I do feel like I am missing out on these traditions. The only way I really embrace my heritage is by eating the foods that come along with being mixed.

One of the many food stalls that are at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto. It was beautiful to see the venders there who put so much time and effort into selling the best quality food. I still vividly remember watching the fish venders set up for the day, and I could see how much they care about their fish.

Food is also a way for us to experience new cultures and tradition, take my recent trip to Japan for instance. Fish is more than something people eat in Japan, people rely on it for jobs, to keep family traditions alive, it can even be looked at as an art form. I will be very honest with you all, and I was debating telling anyone this because I’ve been mentally beating myself up over this. While in Tokyo, I did try a piece of fish sushi. Sitting in Sushi Zan Mai, located in the famous Tsukiji district, watching the conveyor belt of sushi go round and round, something came over me. How often do you get to go to Tokyo and try real Japanese sushi, prepared by someone who has mastered this art? Do I regret eating that piece of fish? I honestly can’t answer that question right now, as I am still trying to figure out how I feel about it all. A part of me tells myself that it’s okay, and that if I was going to eat a piece of fish anywhere, Japan should be the place. Another part of me is upset at myself for doing it. I am telling you this not because I want your judgement but I genuinely want your help.

Here is my dilemma, how do we hold on to our cultural identity as vegans? How do we experience new cultures while still embracing this lifestyle? I have already taken steps to answer this by recreating my favourite dishes and making them vegan. This has allowed me to not only challenge myself but to also eat the food I love that aligns with my morals at the same time. I think restaurants are also starting to see this as an issue and more vegan restaurants are starting to recreate dishes that traditionally use animal products. Doomies in Toronto is a great example of this, turning classic junk food vegan like the McDonald’s Big Mac. Even in Singapore some places serve the national dish, chicken and rice, and have found a way to make it veg friendly. But there’s only so much that can do, I believe that a part of eating those traditional dishes is also the experience that comes along with it. Do I eat the food the way it has been prepared for hundreds of years, so I can keep the tradition alive?  I have discussed this topic with a lot of non vegans, and majority of them say that every once in a while it’s good to experience a culture by putting veganism aside and eating a dish the “proper” way. It’s weird because I am caught in the middle when in comes to this topic, and can see the argument from both sides. I think this is because I have only been vegan for a year and before this I was consuming animal products, and really knew the story behind the meals I ate. Even today, when I see something like chicken feet on a menu I don’t cringe at all. This isn’t because I am not compassionate towards the animal involved, but it’s because I grew up eating that dish and I know its significance in the Chinese culture.

This to me is my biggest dilemma as a vegan, and I would really love to know your thoughts and opinions on this topic. So I ask all you vegans and non vegans to share your opinions and start a discussion. Leave a comment here or send me a message on my social media, I would love to know! As always, there’s a new video on my channel so be sure to watch that, and follow me on my social media platforms! Talk to you soon.

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