Khanya is a chef, food blogger and contributing editor at a food magazine. We challenged her to try and only eat vegan meals for a month. Here’s what happened:
I talk a pretty big vegetable game. So big, that I’ve developed a reputation as some kind of mascot for veganism*. I’m not, btw – but I was recently challenged by sustainability brand Aurora to go vegan. For a month. I agreed and now, we’re here. The day before the challenge began I grabbed a bunch of grapes and two pieces of fried chicken left over from a shoot. I retraced my steps from the week and realised that almost every good snack I got out of the fridge contained either meat, eggs or dairy.
I have never been prone to eating a lot of meat, but when the country went into lockdown, I moved from Johannesburg, where I live, to stay with my mom in Port Elizabeth. And my eating habits changed dramatically. A number of circumstances – being cooped up, stress eating – had me taking it all out on the animals. I’m pretty sure mom and I ate meat almost every day in one form or another. Which is not the best, but my relationship with food is not ruled by feelings of guilt, so we’re not doing any of that over here.
Before starting the challenge I needed to do a few things. First, list all the foods I love which are vegan: sweet potatoes, beans, onions, (alcohol-free) beer, chillies, berries, rice, peanut butter, mushrooms, avocados, tomatoes. Second: watch that Netflix documentary that’s making all my friends go pescatarian. Even the naysayers. I could use some hard encouragement. And lastly: (and this is just for fun) pick out a funny vegan persona. Would I be a Capetonian vegan with frightfully short bangs, expensive glasses and an oat milk fetish? Or a trance festival-goer who always has snacks in her bag (but it’s just stale trail mix and acid)?
Right now, I’m the fence-straddling vegan who’s trying everything in my might to resist the urge to douse my entire existence in BBQ sauce.
I have always been the least adventurous eater. Great cook. Lousy at actually eating things. What I love about the plant-based life is how much it challenges that. How resourceful it will make me and how much I’ll need to commit to making my food really GOOD and enjoyable by my personal standards without any animal products.
*I’m still deciding.
Off the starting blocks
It’s only a couple of days into my Aurora vegan challenge and wow. All I’ve gained is weight and guilt! Okay, so granted, I put on a little lockdown weight. No big. But thinking more about what I eat has shone a pretty bright spotlight on some of my most shady eating habits. I made a list.
1. I eat a LOT of sweets
2. I don’t drink a lot of water
3. Since I’ve been home I have been relying more on meat in my meals than I ever used to
I haven’t spooned sugar into anything in a while – I’ve been enjoying my hot beverages with creamed honey and I thought that was enough to ward of my recurring hormonal acne. It has not been, unfortunately. This whole vegan business has made me want to be better, somehow. I’ve eaten less sweet treats since the month began and I feel better for it. My skin seems to agree. I err often and when I default, I do it BIG. I’ve had “sugar-free” days that included finishing an entire bag of marshmallows. For breakfast. Sugar is always going to be a tough one to quit for good.
Water? Omg gross, no thanks
The water debacle has been ongoing in my life since I learned my first words. My mom hatched a plan to get me to drink more water and it’s called SPARKLING WATER, baby. And it works! I love the fizzy stuff. It feels so distant from the brackish, warm-when-it-needs-to-not-be-warm, unpackaged stuff that comes out of our taps. I’ve been guzzling water by the litre (if you’re a lover of sparkling water and a hater of plastic bottles, a Sodastream will be your new best friend) and I have never been prouder. As an extra accountability measure, I’ve told my enviably hydrated partner I’ll be sending her a water-drinking selfie every night just to remind myself to keep doing it. I’ve also been incorporating water-rich fruits and veggies in my daily intake (I’m avoiding saying ”diet”) – like papaya, which my mom LOVES, and watermelon, zucchini, tomatoes, oranges, grapes (these have a pretty high GI and are basically tiny sugar water balloons, but I stan) and I’ve been cutting down on the salt, too. Because my insides are parched!
The meat thing
I’ll admit: blaming my meat-crazy phase on living at home is a little low, even for me. Granted, I live with my mom now, who does real, comprehensive grocery shopping and buys all the things I lost access to or struggled to afford once I moved out. Meat being the number one thing, of course. Free-range chicken, burger patties with cheesy centres, pancetta, bacon, sausages… It’s been difficult. I have actually eaten quite a bit of meat, for a vegan. Not gonna lie. I’ve had pockets of consciousness where I have managed to scrape through a meat-free day, with maybe a bowl of oats and some fruit for breakfast, a grainy salad for lunch and maybe a sandwich or some veggie fritters with a dip for dinner, but keeping things plant-based has been very hard. Mom and I have been comfort eating our way through the lockdown and nothing has spelled comfort for us quite like braaied meat. We braaied for her birthday, we braaied on Monday morning, we braaied most of our Sunday lunches. It got so out of hand that I tried to put a stop to it by challenging myself to a plant-based braai story for work. It gave me just the amount of inspiration (and leftovers) to keep at it and not give up.
What did I learn from my vegan month?
This is the beginning for me. I know I have the skills to kick this challenge’s butt. I also have so many magical plant-based bloggers out there keeping me in the game: Bathandwa Nkambule is kind of a food hedonist who’s teaching us all how to live over there on the ‘gram and everything she cooks looks dreamy – and it’s all plant based. She’s incredibly disciplined and I can’t imagine her sneaking a winglet. I absolutely adore her work.
I’ve also been following Linda Engelbrecht and she represents plant-based life goals! From time to time, I like to browse food science graduate and YouTuber Zandile Finxa’s Instagram for veg-spiration. I also hit follow on some international treasures: Lemel Durrah, @rgveganfood, Bryant Terry, the list goes on. All these gorgeous accounts are 100 percent worth the follow! They’ve reinforced my belief that there are no good or bad foods and that everything has its place in a healthy, balanced diet in moderation.
My garden has been my greatest source of inspiration and joy lately. Anyone who has even breathed in the direction of my social media knows I am obsessed with gardening and eating from my garden. Eating with the seasons is probably the wokest thing I have ever done and it’s made me understand what really goes into the food we pay so much for (and also waste a lot of). And I’ll say this: eating less meat has made me aware of how much food I waste out of sheer disregard for things that aren’t meat. Which I admit is super ignorant of me. SMH. But, toemaar. I’m getting better every day. This mission has kind of been a godsend. I’m cleaning my house, finally!