The reasoning is the seasoning

There’s a movement afoot on the Jamaican culinary scene, bringing once-peripheral vegan and raw food lifestyles into the mainstream. It’s about bodily health, Kellie Magnus discovers, but it’s also about taste — and about the soul

monticello/shutterstock.comKimon-I, a.k.a. Ansumras, of Mi Hungry Whol’-Some-Food. Photograph by Raul Dunkley, courtesy Mi Hungry

“That is a beautiful question,” Ben Tsedek says, with a gleam in his eye.

“Sit down. Let me tell you what’s wrong with carrots.”

It’s lunchtime at Aisoor Firelight — a raw food restaurant in a charming old house on Maeven Avenue in Kingston. The restaurant isn’t even open, but that doesn’t stop Tsedek, nor does it stop customers from coming in. The owner and head chef, Tsedek has closed for a few days to recover from chikungunya. Like Tsedek, I’m trying to escape the clutches of CHIK-V, and am curious to see if a more nutritious diet will speed up my recovery.

From a simple question about carrots, I quickly learn that lunch at Firelight is served with a side order of life lessons. Sure, the menu — coconut pasta, mushroom burgers, quinoa, nutmeat balls, pineapple pizza, and cheesecake made from jackfruit, bananas, or coconut — brings customers flocking in Monday to Saturday. But it’s the conversation with Tsedek that keeps them coming back, and turns customers into converts to Kingston’s growing natural food movement.

Tsedek is a born preacher: a raw food evangelist with passion that comes from his own personal experience with food. Teased in high school in the United States for his weight, he discovered his passion for the intersection between food and spirituality in college, through joining the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem — a large, close-knit vegan community.

His love for live food flourished into a commitment to building a health food revolution in Jamaica, when he visited to help his mother recover from an illness. Five years ago, he moved back to Jamaica to open Firelight, and has been ministering to his loyal following ever since, serving up meals, offering courses on live food preparation, guiding clients through herbal detoxes — and, of course, through his daily conversations with customers.

 

Tsedek forms part of a small band of warriors who are bringing the vegetarian, vegan, and raw food lifestyle from the peripheries into Kingston’s culinary mainstream. In the process, they’re creating a vibrant community that’s about a lot more than food. It wasn’t that long ago that vegetarianism was considered “alternative,” and largely left to the Rastafarian community. Though technically “ital” refers to food cooked without salt, the terms were used almost interchangeably. These days, the lines are blurred even further, and the numbers have grown exponentially. In the last five years, vegetarian and raw food restaurants have — pardon the pun — mushroomed all over Kingston, from fast-food places like New Leaf in Liguanea to fine-dining options like Kushite’s on Phoenix Avenue (temporarily operating as a delivery service, pending its move to a new indoor location.)

“Raw is the new ital,” proclaims Asheber, one of the legion of bright-eyed, clear-skinned Rastafarians at Mi Hungry Whol’-Some-Food, another raw food restaurant in the Marketplace on Constant Spring Road. Mi Hungry boasts “sun-cooked vegetarian cuisine” — the food is prepared with no sugar, flour, or fire. The restaurant itself is a product of the community it serves. Six years ago, founders I-wara and Yvonne Mahmer Tafari opened shop to better serve the growing number of customers who had heard about their home-cooked, all natural meals by word of mouth.

The popular Marketplace complex is home to a constellation of restaurants: Chinese, Japanese, Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, and, of course, Jamaican. The large and popular Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records is there as well, but it’s Mi Hungry that attracts the star power. Its large following includes a disproportionate number of entertainers: Sly Dunbar, Mutabaruka, Queen Ifrica, Tony Rebel, Proteje, Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Jah9, Jah Cure, Sean Paul, and Tarrus Riley.

The entertainers may stand out, but Mi Hungry is known as much for its beautifully presented dishes and their clever punning names — nyamburgers for hamburgers, pleazas for pizzas, a popular “rawsum” salad — and also for the spicy “reasonings” that go down on a daily basis between professionals, politicians, business people, and other assorted, but typically well-heeled, baldheads (i.e., non-Rastafarians).

“Ital is vital. But raw is law,” explains Kimon-I, Mi Hungry’s manager. “This food isn’t just for Rastas anymore.” Also known as Ansumras (say it slowly; and yes, he is), he’s seen interest in raw food swell during the restaurant’s brief existence. With Ansumras holding court at Mi Hungry, it’s not hard for the curious to be convinced. He promises a plethora of benefits from raw food, including better skin, healthier hair and nails, alertness, less disease, guilt-free eating, better vision, better body odour, less flatulence . . .

“And,” he says pausing for dramatic effect, “no ‘itis’ after you eat.”

Levity aside, Mi Hungry sees itself as catering to a new generation of seekers. “A lot of people come to us for health reasons,” says Ansumras. “They’ve been told to change their diets. Some see others suffering and want to change. When people first come in here, they’re looking for something — something more than just food.”

The same holds true at Ashanti, a vegetarian restaurant that got its start in 2002 on the grounds of Hope Gardens, but has now settled in its third location on Braemar Avenue. Its owner, Yvonne Peters Hope, tells me she’s been eating vegetarian for more than forty years. I’m trying to do the maths, but none of the numbers in my head add up to the youthful woman sitting in front of me.

With just four tables in its warm indoor-outdoor setting, Ashanti lends itself to intimate conversation that drifts — on the day I stop by for green juice — from the recipe for veggie balls in sweet and sour sauce to natural alternatives to antibiotics, to the interplay between Rastafarianism and Christianity. The open-seating tables force customers to mix with each other, with the waitresses slipping back and forth from the kitchen to serve up meals and conversation.

“It’s a movement,” says Hope. “People come in here off the street looking for a fresh start. They come looking for food, but they also walk with questions about how to make a change in their lives. Sometimes it’s not just the body that needs feeding,” she continues. “Sometimes it’s the soul.”

Like Tsedek, Peters Hope teaches cooking classes to help customers stick to their new lifestyle at home. She also trains hotel chefs to cater to the growing needs of vegan and vegetarian tourists.

“There is a holistic revolution going on now,” says Tsedek. “I see my role as being the catalyst. People are realising that the standard diet and the medications aren’t working. The standard life isn’t working. The food is just the beginning of the change.”

Back at Aisoor Firelight, Tsedek’s lecture on carrots shifts to the dangers of sugar and the benefits of sea vegetables. His passion is infectious. With his glowing skin and seemingly limitless energy, it’s hard not to buy what Tsedek is selling, especially when his customers sing backup. I’m promised higher energy, weight loss, and improved performance in the bedroom.

But what’s really convincing is the food. While Tsedek talks, he’s whipping up a twenty-three-ingredient herbal tonic that he promises will help me sleep and improve my anemia.

It could be the tonic or the talk, but I leave Aisoor Firelight feeling far better than I did when I arrived. “The body knows what the soul needs,” Tsedek tells me. “If you eat pure, your life will never be the same.”

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