You are what you eat, goes a popular saying. This is true as healthy eating leads to a healthy life; and the reverse is the case with unhealthy eating.
Because of this, nutritionists, food scientists and other experts have, after extensive studies, recommended what we should eat as a vegetarian (or plant based) diet.
Research has shown that meat eating is linked to many heart related problems as cholesterol contained in meat acts as plaque and blocks blood flow in the veins. However, solving this problem of unhealthy eating is Nigeria’s first strictly vegetarian and vegan restaurant, Veggie Victory.
The restaurant, at Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos Island, Lagos, offers no meat, no chicken, no fish, nor animal (and dairy) product (including egg, milk and cheese); in their place, it offers ‘veganized’ meals.
ENCOMIUM Weekly chatted with the owner of the restaurant, Mr. Hakeem Jimoh and he spoke on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, why he is a vegetarian, among other things.
What’s the idea behind Veggie Victory, Nigeria’s first vegetarian restaurant?
I’m a vegetarian and I have been for more than 20 years now. I have even been a vegan for the past four years. The difference is as a vegetarian you don’t eat meat, fish, chicken or egg; while as a vegan, on top of these, you don’t eat dairy products like milk, cheese or yoghurt.
I’m half German and half Nigerian, I have been living in Nigeria for 15 years, and it was always a lot of work getting food. I then thought to myself why spend this much money on food, without even being sure of what I was actually eating, despite the no meat, no fish promises.
I decided to then solve my problem, I saved up the money and started a vegetarian restaurant, there you have it! Veggie Victory was born in May 2013, that’s a little bit over two years now. We are promoting a plant-based diet, because I believe, and science has proven it, that a plant-based diet has so many benefits.
You can reverse serious illnesses like blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes with it. For younger people, it helps in weight management, you also get healthier skin and hair. I think we are having a lot of health problems in Nigeria and this is one sure way to curb that.
We are not saying you should become strictly vegetarian, no! As I always say, nine out of 10 of our customers are normal-eating people who want to reduce their meat intake. And for us, every step to reduce meat consumption is a step in the right direction. If you end up avoiding meat altogether, that’s better!
Two years in the business, what has business been like, especially in terms of customers’ reaction to the food?
The normal idea is that as a vegetarian, you only eat grass or salad or vegetables. No! If you look at our menu, we have the regular Nigerian dishes like egusi soup, efo riro, even suya. I’m sure you’re wondering how do you make suya without meat. We have what we call veg meat, there are two kinds of the meat. One called tofu (which is made from soya beans) and the other made from wheat flour.
We process it in a way that it becomes chunky and you can chew like normal meat. We put that in the stew or jollof rice. For the western side of things, we have vegetarian burgers, hotdogs and shawarma, which is very popular. In two years, what I’ve realised is that at first, people are skeptical, but once they try our meals, they are surprised.
I have seen people’s jaw drop. I can talk for hours about it, you just have to try it. The veg meat is very close to normal animal meat, in terms of the chewing. You won’t miss anything. You can put it in your soup and you won’t notice any difference.
What would be the attraction for someone used to normal eating to make the switch to a vegetarian diet?
Two things, actually. The first is health. The truth is if you are eating animal meat, you are causing a lot of problems for your system. You can do the research, meat contains a lot of cholesterol, which is like plaque in the veins. It sticks to the wall of the veins, thus restricting blood circulation, making things tighter. It’s like a traffic jam. When a car breaks down on the road, it causes traffic gridlock. Cholesterol disturbs the free flow of blood in the veins, leading to blood pressure.
A lot of Nigerians have blood pressure (BP) and that leads to a lot of illnesses like heart problems, because the heart has to pump harder eventually leading to heart failure. A lot of modern day diseases are associated with wrong diet, and meat is a big part of this.
I’m not saying meat is the whole problem, but it is a big part. Though meat is in different categories – red meat, white meat, chicken, even egg, fish – but it’s all the same cholesterol problem. In addition to that, the production of meat is not very natural. They use a lot of chemicals which end up in your body when you eat it. All the toxins end up in you. So, health is number one.
If you want to live long and healthy, cut out the meat. The other is cost. Meat is becoming more and more expensive. Producing meat consumes a lot of resources – the cow needs to grow for years and will be fed throughout that time. That’s a problem worldwide! We cannot really afford so many animals just for consumption.
The numbers are staggering – there are about 180 billion animals solely for consumption. The price has forced a lot of families to become somewhat vegetarians as they cannot afford meat. We are trying to give people an alternative that you don’t need to buy animal meat, you can buy veg meat which is actually cheaper.
We are working on a service that will allow people have this veg meat available for them as there’s only one restaurant for now and customers are requesting our presence in Abuja and Port Harcourt. It will take some time to open restaurants but we’ll come up with a service to help everyone get veg meat.
Tell us about your menu and what’s contained in each?
It’s not brain surgery or rocket science, it is actually quite simple. We have every meal that normal eating people eat, but we do not use animal meat, instead like I explained, we use veg meat. Also, we do not use spice cubes – maggi and the likes – they contain too much chemicals. Rather, we use sea salt, not too much oil and iru (locusts beans). What I used to do before I started the restaurant was I would tell the cook to make egusi soup without spices, crayfish and stalk fish or meat. People would wonder how I would eay such, but when they tasted it, they were amazed at how tasty it is. We have every meal you know, just that it is “veganized”.
But oil also contains cholesterol, how much of it do you cook with?
This is when it can become a bit detailed. I’m not a nutritionist or chemist, but there is a difference between animal cholesterol and plant cholesterol. Confusingly, they are both called cholesterol, maybe because chemically they have the same formular, I don’t know! Both are different. It is the same with animal protein and plant protein.
The only significant nutritional property animal meat contains is protein, no vitamins or minerals of note. But you can get your protein from other sources, beans is one. In fact, it has been proven that the body absorbs the protein in soya beans far quicker than that in animal meat. So, there’s a difference between animal cholesterol and plant-based cholesterol, which is healthier.
Why should I visit Veggie Victory Restaurant rather than maybe prepare my meals at home?
We’d be happy if everyone can cook at home, why you should come to the restaurant? We have the capacity to experiment and try new things. At home. you maybe time constrained. You can experience new recipes at Veggie Victory. For instance, who makes a shawarma at home? So, come to Veggie Victory and get a vegetarian shawarma or a vegetarian burger. Also, you meet other people, some vegetarians, and you exchange ideas.
What’s the vegetarian shawarma like?
It’s the same shawarma, but with our meat, not the normal meat. We use tofu or the wheat flour meat.
What’s tofu made from?
Tofu is made from vegetable (that’s soya beans), the regular meat is from animal.
-What are your prices like compared to what you offer?
The suya steak, the type you had, goes for N200; veggie burger is for N700; the shawarma goes for N1000. We are trying to make the price as affordable as possible; but when we are branching into retail, we are going to match the price of meat or even beat it.
What plans do you have for expansion?
Since day one, we have been delivering through Hello Food. However, we want to expand Veggie Victory to the Mainland, hopefully next year. Another branch is planned for later this year in Lekki. We understand we need to meet people where they are, you can’t expect someone in Apapa to come to Lagos Island.
But like everywhere in the world, the healthy things are not automatically, the mass market. Right now, we can’t open so many outlets so, you’d still have to make effort to come to us. But hopefully, very soon there’d be a product that you readily buy in the market.
Let’s talk a little about you, how did you become a vegetarian?
That’s another long story! I was in my early 20s and I was living in Germany. I don’t know if you know about the mad cow disease, and a lot of animal crises. I became skeptical about eating meat from then on; later in the university, I met some like-minded people, and one thing led to the other. Later, I also had a partner who was vegetarian. I didn’t have any health problem at the time. Interestingly, I’m 43 now and I feel very fit. That’s one of the things with becoming a vegetarian, you feel very lean, very fit and energetic. Sadly, you see some guys in their 40s having problem with their libido-it’s all linked to what we eat. Even for women struggling with infertility and that takes a lot of hormones, try a vegetarian diet.
You’ve been a vegetarian for about 20 years now, do you feel like you are missing anything as a vegetarian?
I ate meat before, that’s in the first 20 years of my life and I was missing suya a lot. In Germany, they know the vegetarian burgers, but they didn’t know suya. So, I had to develop my own suya and once I had that, I was happy. The only thing you cannot fake is a real steak, but I’m fine with the vegetarian burgers and hotdogs
You developed the vegetarian suya?
Yes, there was the desire to have suya as a vegetarian. Also, we wanted to cater for Nigerians, suya is like a national dish. We tried it and people loved it.
What’s the one thing with a vegetarian diet?
The key thing in a vegetarian diet is no animal meat, in its place, use veg meat.