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An Honest Conversation...
My Plant-Based Life: A Conversation with Sara Kiyo Popowa

The UK market for meat-free foods was estimated to be £740m in 2018, according to research conducted by Mintel, with an increase of approx. £200m in the last three years alone. With 600,000 vegans in UK, the market shows no sign of slowing down. We’re spend-crazy on vegan products and we’re posting about our plant-based diets online. Last year vegan options graced the menu of unlikely fast food retailers including Gregg’s, MacDonalds, Burger King and KFC, while vegan sections are springing up in UK supermarket chains including Waitrose and Iceland across the country. It’s safe to say, Veganism has taken the UK by storm.

One woman who’s been part of the movement from the beginning is Sara Kiyo Popowa, author of the recently published An Opinionated Guide to Vegan London (Hoxton Mini Press), and founder of the popular Instagram account, @shisodelicious. I sat down with Sara to discuss the highs, lows and motivations for choosing to eat less animals and more plants in 2020…

Why does the word ‘vegan’ feel so loaded, and why does ‘plant-based eating’ feel more forward-thinking and fun? Is plant-based eating a less regimented model of veganism?

I think so. And I think the wording reflects your motivations for choosing a plant-based diet. My model of veganism is motivated mainly by the environment and also by health, therefore as far as I’m concerned whatever you can do is better than not doing anything at all. On the other hand, if you’re motivated by animal rights, you’re either engaging in injustice and the suffering of animals or you’re not. It’s more morally black and white. Personally, I haven’t eaten much meat for over 20 years, but I’m not a strict vegan; it just hasn’t been a regular part of my diet. When I first started being a vegetarian in London I discovered that there was a ‘green scene’, which has really changed in the last 5-6 years. I think the language reflects this change also.

How has the ‘green scene’ changed?

The audience has grown and it’s also become more popular to be not just vegetarian, but vegan. Veganism as a phenomenon has exploded and I think a lot of it has to do with social media, and also the documentaries that have been produced, revealing the truth of what’s happening. The information is there for anyone to find nowadays, whereas it used to be more word of mouth, it was super niche. It’s also become better looking, the image has improved [laughs]…

So plant-based eating is a softer approach to ‘being a vegan’

Yes, exactly. I’m not fully vegan all the time…

No, me neither. I’m interested in what you say about the documentaries and the general growing awareness, fed by our access to information. I’ve found that through the constant watching and reading of information my choices became almost involuntary. I couldn’t now order a steak at a restaurant if I tried. Hopefully it will become the same for a lot more people as we collectively learn more.

I agree, you can’t un-see or un-understand things. It’s the same for me for anything from the sea. Long after I stopped eating meat I continued to eat fish, until I read a book called The Third Plate, by Dan Barber. He has a high-end restaurant in New York and a farm and he’s a massive geek about food and where it comes from. He looks at how food is produced in the US since people from Europe came over there. He looks at mono-culture farming. It’s all much more industrialized over there of course. And he has this section on the sea, and when I read about how trawling is done, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat anything from the sea anymore, it wasn’t a choice for me either.

What about sustainably sourced seafood?

The sea is in such distress, it just cannot be right to put any more pressure on it. This giant net just scrapes up everything, including plants, corals, all kinds of sea animals… And most of them just go back into the sea because it’s not commercially viable to keep them on the boat. I wish I could still eat fish, but I just cannot do it anymore, after this knowledge. So I know exactly what you mean.

What about your interest in Japanese cooking and the use of fish traditionally involved, have you found this challenging to align with your plant-based diet?

I grew up in Sweden, so dairy and meat was the bigger side of things there. But as I grew up I realized that a more Asian diet suited my body more. I’m just not made for loads of dairy and heavy meats. I’m not gluten intolerant though, I had a genetics test which revealed that I was lactose intolerant but not gluten intolerant, which made sense as I never really liked milk or cheese.

You don’t like cheese?

No, I’m not interested in cheese! Eggs are where I struggle to be fully vegan. They’re not just tasty, they’re also so convenient, completely packaging free and nutritious!

Tell me a bit more about how nutrition comes into it for you?

For me, it’s less about the fact that it’s a plant-based diet and more about the fact that it’s a wholefoods diet. That was my very first interest when I was vegetarian, it was cooking from scratch and eating real foods. And I think perhaps the more I did it, the more it seemed natural to remove animal products because whether it’s health or whether it’s almost on a spiritual level, you start feeling that there’s this not-only physical but emotional or energetic shift. It feels cleaner, more void of disturbances, or the energy of another being.

I feel part of the reason why we eat animal products is this idea that it’s something similar to our own bodies and therefore it’s giving our bodies something it needs. But my feeling is that the more I take it away, the more I appreciate this clearer space that I’m in. But then I feel like once in a while I need that ‘dirtiness’ if you know what I mean [laughs]? It sort of weighs me down, which is needed sometimes. I’ve gone through phases of eating a completely raw vegan diet for example, and I was just flying all the time, it was unsustainable for me.

Sara’s colourful Instagram account has attracted a devout following of over 100K plant-based lifestyle enthusiasts

I suppose a Chinese Medicine practitioner say your diet wasn’t balanced on the raw vegan diet because you were having too many Yin foods and not enough Yang? Could that be a problem for vegans?

A lot of raw foods are very Yin, yes. It’s un-grounding, it increases all the air elements in your body. These ideas are present in Chinese medicine and also in Ayurveda. Meat weighs you down and this can be stabilizing when you need it. But if you eat a lot of it, it creates a sluggishness and a heaviness, and can cause health issues. But if you’re constantly eating a super plant-based diet, I personally find I need to include those heavier foods that mimic meat, like beans and fried foods. Foods that have had a lot of heat, that are very savoury and salty, with a lot of umami to give that richness to them.

Would you say you’re quite intuitive with the way you eat? It sounds like you’re in touch with your body and guided by it in this respect

It’s hard to put a science to it, I’m probably guided by what my body needs, yes. And in turn that’s probably guided by what I’ve eaten previously that day, and by the seasons, the weather, my cycle… So many things.

Any advice on the sorts of foods women on a plant-based diet should eat around their cycle?

Iron rich foods and warm foods are important during your period. Everyone has such different moons so it’s hard to say when to eat these foods, but just don’t have cold foods around your period. No chilled or raw foods, definitely no chilled drinks. It cools the body down and your body needs heat to help with all those cramps, so if you’re cooling yourself from the inside your body needs to work harder and you’ll feel more sluggish. That’s why it feels good to put a hot water bottle on your tummy. It’s the same with the food. Wow, we’ve gone on a food trip!

I know, it’s great! Shall we bring it back to your book? I’d love to know what inspired you to write the guide

I was asked to write it actually. The concept came from Hoxton Mini Press. They’re an amazing publisher, they publish lots of beautiful photo works with interesting content, and the book is part of their An Opinionated Guide series. It was a really fun project to work on. I would set up meetings with the different restaurants, go and try the food, take notes… It was super fun.

Any favourites?

Yes, a few… There’s a small vegan Chinese restaurant on Mare Street [Hackney] called Mao Chow. But since I discovered him he’s been featured in lots of big editorials and it’s apparently very hard to get a table there now. It’s seriously good Chinese food, though the chef is actually from New York.

I also love CUB in Hoxton, it’s the closest I’ve come to the experience of eating out in Japan in London. The attention to detail and the subtlety of the flavours… The food isn’t Japanese but the experience resonates with Japan in this sense.

And I love the Spread Eagle, where Club Mexicana run the kitchen. The food is very good and it’s also just a beautiful pub. I wish all pubs looked like that! And there’s another place nearby, called I’ll Kill Again, which is more of a café with breakfast, lunch, cakes and amazing coffee, because it’s a roastery too. It’s run by a couple and one is vegan and the other is not, so the food offered is also mixed, it’s not entirely vegan. It’s excellent; really interesting, flavorsome comfort food. You do leave smelling of bacon though!

Vegan bacon?

No, real bacon!

What are your thoughts on vegan bacon, and processed meat substitutes in general that don’t tick the whole foods box?

Well, it’s big business and it’s growing fast so a lot of investment is going into it. Therefore it’s interesting to me. From a food perspective, it’s a great alternative for meat eaters. I would say if you are fully vegan and you’re eating a lot of this all the time then you’re not going to be very healthy. In general, if you’re eating a lot of processed foods you’re not going to be very healthy, whether it’s vegan or not. But I think it’s great as a treat, and to help meat eaters who are missing it. It’s nice when you eat out to try these innovative new foods. My friend pointed out that every time these foods are eaten a life is saved, or some suffering is spared. And if you look at it like that then it can only be good. I personally wouldn’t buy it or cook it at home but if I go out I’m happy to have a fake-meat burger with fries as it’s fun and innovative.

[Pauses]

It’s also nice to enjoy the vegan versions of junk foods that I wouldn’t enjoy the animal versions of, if that makes sense. It would be too much for me, the processed junk food and the animal ingredients all at once… But I enjoy the vegan versions more than I used to enjoy the animal versions, when I do treat myself to them.

Again, it comes into your motivation for being vegan. If you’re not into cooking the danger is that you eat too much of these processed products when you switch to veganism.

What would your advice be to someone who isn’t very good at cooking and who is trying out a plant-based diet for the first time?

You need information and you need recipes. You need to know what you can eat instead of what you’re used to eating. My friend Bettina Campolucci Borgi has recently written a book called 7 Day Vegan Challenge, which has very simple meal plans and snacks that you can take to work, and it’s designed in a way that doesn’t use too many ingredients. The recipes are simple and quick to make. It’s a really good place to start.

Also, include some colourful things on your plate, some more leaves and berries and colourful plants to make it more appealing. Then you feel like you’re having more treats. If you need to have yogurt for breakfast, get some vegan coconut yogurt and add berries to it, it becomes like a dessert. The Coconut Collaborative one is my favourite, it’s not as rich and thick as some of the others.

Also get out around London to try the fun food that’s available for vegans! There’s so much out there. And there are events and ways to participate collectively, like your upcoming Veganuary events at The Boiler House, and Vegan Nights. This all helps to stay motivated and inspired.

Lastly, eat more! You generally need a larger volume of food to meet the calories of an animal-inclusive diet.

That’s a great set of tips! What about people toying with the idea of a plant-based diet but not yet committed, what’s your advice to them?

Watch stuff and read stuff that motivates you. But I’m not really pushing for everyone to go vegan, I believe in vegan food, and I believe that vegan food is for everyone, but I don’t necessarily believe that everyone should go 100% vegan. So maybe also bare that in mind. Listen to your body, if you can. But in order to get to that stage of connecting with your body you probably have to experiment and I don’t know if enough people are giving themselves the time and space they need to experiment in this way. I think a lot of people will go through life and not question it enough, never connecting, for example, health ailments to what they are eating.

We grow up eating a certain way and a lot of people continue eating that way for the rest of their lives. So you need to be motivated to inquire and experiment in the first place, and that takes time. Listening to your body is a practice, it’s like doing yoga, or breath work.

My hope is that, as a species, we are becoming more conscious generally, in everything we do. And with conscious awareness arrives this undeniable clarity that you don’t want to cause harm to yourself, the environment or any other beings living in it.

Yes, and actually going vegan is a great gateway to that conscious practice. It’s a great portal into thinking more about what you’re putting into your body and why you’re choosing to eat what you eat, where it’s come from and how it makes you feel physically and emotionally. Everything that’s shaped you so far.

I think it’s such a straightforward way. Eat more plants, eat less animal products! It’s going to change something in you and it’s very straightforward. And it’s something you can do every day and that means every day you are contributing to less harm in the world.

You can find Sara at The Boiler House on Sunday 26th January, where she’ll be giving an introductory talk about her book with a Q & A and signings at our Veganuary+ Experience. Book your free seat for the talk here.

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