Relationship with food: Interview with Joyce Shih from Vegans of SEA
When we had our launch the other day at Rawsome, one of our attendees, was Joyce from Vegans of SEA. We had a great time chatting with her about vegan desserts and vegan food in general. We are always curious (borderline nosy) about people's relationship with food. Our conversations brought us to come up with Relationship with food series, so who else better to kick start this series, other than Joyce!
It is a long one, lovelies but we promise you, it's a joy to read.
When did you realize you wanted to become vegan or plant based and how long have you been one?
I’ve been vegan for the last 3 years and vegetarian for 6 before that. I started (and still practice) this lifestyle for ethical reasons however the health benefits that have come with it have been a blessing too! You could say my first ‘stint’ at vegetarianism was when I was younger and I refused to eat any duck because I had gotten a toy duck and made the link between my toy (and real) duck(s) to the one on my plate.
In terms of going from vegetarian to veganism it was really just a matter of educating myself. For a vegan I don’t actually watch that many vegan documentaries, but it was a TEDx Talk by Melanie Joy that really kicked the transition. I hadn’t realised there was cruelty beyond the meat industry and how unsustainable the egg, dairy and honey industries were too. After learning about all of this it just made sense to make the switch.
Were people around you poking fun at your food choices in the beginning?
Oh definitely. When I because vegetarian I had a friend tell me it was a ‘phase’ and another ask me when I was going to go back to eating ‘normal’ (funnily enough she’s vegan now). Similar thing happened when I became vegan, I was on the phone with another friend and she literally screamed ‘WHY!!!’, but again ironically she went vegan a few months later.
Since being vegan, what has been the most positive result? (relationships, body, mind..)
Even though I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food for the longest time, for the most part I’m definitely most appreciative that veganism has helped me grow a relationship with food! Funnily enough I found the restrictions of not eating meat, dairy, eggs etc. opened me up to all the other foods and flavours there were out there.
We’re conditioned to think that meat is the main component to our meal, with vegetables just on the side and I think that’s why a lot of people find them so bland and boring. When you make it the main component you’ll find there are so many individual flavours and textures, so the options are really endless.
What has been the most difficult for you when you went vegan?
A lot of people talk about cravings, but honestly that was the least of my concerns. For me, it’s more of a mental thing. I think of what I’m eating before anything else so there are some things I just have no desire to eat no matter how good it tastes (I’m referring to everyone’s favourite ‘but what about cheese or bacon?!’ argument).
My biggest struggle is being in social situations. I’m not the type of person that goes into a room and announces to everyone I’m vegan (not that I’m ashamed or anything). I just don’t like making other people worry what I can eat because I don’t feel like my food choices have anything to do with them. I also always feel bad for turning down something someone offers me or worse has taken the time to make for me!
There is always this perception towards vegan food that it is way less tasty. We find that whenever we explain to our customers that it contains no dairy and egg, some just immediately block the idea of it even being edible. What has been the trick for you to get non-vegan friends to try out vegan food in general?
I like to think of it more as food that just so happens to be vegan. When food is labelled vegan or this-free and that-free it’s great for vegans because it lets us know we can eat it. But for non-vegans they immediately perceive it as missing something or as you said, less tasty.
My trick is to not even tell them it’s vegan (and make it tasty obviously). The fact that it’s vegan makes no difference to them at the end of the day because it’s everything they can eat (unless they’ve got allergies or dietary restrictions). To my non-vegan friends I’ve found if I don’t harp on about it being vegan and just let them try whatever I make, the feedback is always good because their minds aren’t closed.
Is it true that eating as a vegan costs more?
You can definitely spend more money eating as a vegan, but you can also spend less – it all depends on what you buy and how you shop. I’m not going to lie I’m pretty thrifty when it comes to spending money so I’ve learnt the tips and tricks. I still obviously look for quality but my number one tip for spending less on vegan food is to buy local. It just makes sense to buy what’s local because it’s cheaper, fresher and has travelled less!
Think local baby pisangs rather than imported bananas (which I find tasteless in comparison), local tapioca flour or lentils rather than ones from an Australian brand.
What are your must have pantry items for vegan cooking at home that won’t break your bank?
Living in Asia:
Fresh coconut milk – perfect for pancakes, porridge, baking, anything you need a plant-based milk for.
Local flours like rice flour, taipoca starch and gram flour – Taipoca is great for making vegan cheeses gooey and I love using gram flour to make savoury pancakes or fritters.
Dates during ramandan! I always stock up on them because they’re super cheap and they’re great for sweetening everything.
Rice noodles – super cheap, tasty and good dry or in soups!
Local herbs and spices – so versatile and they make everything more fragrant.
List down your go-to vegan dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast – oatmeal cooked with fresh coconut/homemade almond milk. Simplicity is key here – I’ve had my fair share of porridge but you can’t go wrong with a warm creamy bowl with banana and just topped off with dried mulberries or nuts (I sound like such a grandma).
Lunch – I’m really more of a see-what’s-in-my-fridge kind of person than following recipes to make specific dishes – but if I had to choose I do love rice paper rolls with tofu/tempeh and loads of veg and herbs. I like to keep lunch fresh!
Dinner – Again, I feel like what I said for lunch applies here too. What I feel like eating if very much dependent on my mood. Some days I’m feeling dhal, other days pesto pasta. For the most part my dinners are usually very simple. Rice, vegetables and tofu, tempeh or beans (I also love natto). And you can never go wrong with noodles!
When traveling, what food do you look forward to? Any favourites from any cities?
EVERYTHING in Bali. It’s the perfect mix of all my favourite tropical, Indonesian flavours and the Australian café culture out there – it really makes some of the best vegan creations in the world. Everything is so fresh; all the tropical fruits, gado gado all the way, anything with tempeh, super fresh salad bowls, smoothie bowls. Could never run out of things to eat there!
Funnily enough I also love the pizza in Italy. Over the summer in 2015, I travelled around Italy starting in Sardegna then making my way through the mainland and I never got sick of all the pizzas. I order mine without cheese but they’re so fresh and delicious it doesn’t even matter to me, I think I actually prefer it without. And knowing all the pizza dough is authentic I don’t even need to worry about eggs/dairy because it’s just flour, water, yeast and olive oil! There’s an element of simplicity and emphasis on fresh food in Italy that made me fall in love with their food culture.
My memory of taste is really strong, when I remember what I ate in certain moments in brings me back to particular memories and places. I spent a few days in Paris with my housemate from university and on one of the nights we were walking (painfully in my very high boots) back to our flat, and we stopped at one of the very many falafel shops by the river and got a wrap to share. Again it was so simple but the roti was made fresh it was so pillowy and soft! Everything about that wrap was so good we both still reminise about it!
Another thing I also look forward to is trying all the vegan burgers. Every city’s got something special, so I like to see how it’s done around the world. My favourite has to be one I had in Barcelona from La Central Hamburgueseria – it had wakame and wasabi mayo, totally not what you’d expect but it worked!
We found out from our customers that a lot of them turned vegan due to many reasons: animals, allergies, health, faith and some just to simply try out. What are other reasons people should start eating vegan?
Really just to get in touch with food again. You don’t need to be healthy per se to be vegan, but one thing it makes you do is read food labels and in turn realise how much stuff goes into our food without us realising. All the marketing makes us believe processed, packaged food is the norm, but when reading through 20 ingredients trying to spot something you can’t eat, it also makes you realise what you’re putting into your body when you choose something processed.
There was really no such thing as organic in our grandparents’ time, food was naturally organic. Times have obviously changed, but I think on top of all the other benefits of being vegan what it can do for you is make you more conscious about what you’re eating.
When we started doing vegan desserts in 2013, hardly anyone understood the term. Recently however, vegan restaurants, products, and vegans in general are increasing. Do you think it will die down or will there be a surge of people going vegan moving forward?
I definitely don’t think it’s a phase. I think we’re going through a period of awareness and education. People are asking more questions and finding out about food and I think vegan eating will become more of a norm than being seen as something extreme. I don’t think everyone will turn vegan, but hopefully vegan food with be more accessible, and it’ll be something someone who eats meat also enjoys.
Based on my experiences on reading and watching in regards to veganism online, there is definitely a lot of people who will judge you for your food choices and try to push their beliefs on them, even from one vegan to another. As a vegan yourself, how do you spread the positive results of eating vegan to the rest?
By nature, I’m just not very confrontational. I’m not very outspoken and I don’t feel like I get my point across in situations where I have to. My philosophy is just to do my own thing, and if someone is intersted then I’m more than happy to share my thoughts. A few people have actually told me they’ve tried being vegan because of what I’ve shared so it’s quite nice to know people appreciate that.
If someone is going to judge me, I try not to let it get to me. At the end of the day, I’m not doing anything that should affect them so for them to judge me just seems invalid – like what is it based on?
Any tips for those who are thinking of adopting vegan way of eating?
Understand the reasons why you want to do it. I’ve seen so many people half heartedly attempt the lifestyle but because their mind isn’t there, they torture themselves for not being able to keep it up. Once your mind understands the impact of your choices and the reasons for eating this way I think it just becomes natural. And the easiest way to do this is by educating yourself! There are so many documentaries and platforms out there with all the information you need, it’s just a matter of opening your mind and learning!
But also don’t be hard on yourself and take your time, I think even if you can’t make the switch right away, going at your own pace and making adjustments over time is more sustainable than giving up because you couldn’t make the change 100%.
" Your relationship with food is a personal one, so spend time nurturing it and learning about yourself through it too! "
Images by Joyce Shih
Thank you Joyce for your time and wonderful insights. For more Joyce and everything vegan, follow her on her social sites:
Who should we interview next? Let us know!