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Par Origins (Vol IV): Plant-based in Jamaica with Nana's Kitchen

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The greatest deterrent in adapting a plant-based diet is a lack of education. Marianna of Nana's Kitchen stood out amongst the recipe creating plant-based bloggers for the sheer wealth of knowledge and thoughtfulness behind every single post. Nana's Kitchen is even more special for its location. Plant-based recipes and a supper club created in Jamaica? Yes please! I had to learn more about the driving force behind the multi-dimensional plant-based dining platform.

Marianna FMarianna's food philosophy and motivations for transitioning to a vegan diet are similar to my own. She started transitioning to a plant-based diet in 2012 after moving from Europe to the United States, "I found the amount of chemicals and unidentifiable ingredients terrifying. Everything looked, felt and tasted “different”- I was never sure if I was eating real food or not. It was very surreal to me. I decided to just cut out animal products and switch to a plant-based vegan diet".

This is usually where most people stop - no meat, no diary - but Marianna also addressed the issue of processed foods in her diet, "I also have a history of sugar addiction – so switching to plant based was the best thing I could do to my body. In fact, I don’t crave sugar anymore. It’s quite crazy - but I believe that’s what happens when you eat more plants. Your body balances out. You stop craving the wrong things. And for the record, I am against this idea of plant-based being an elitist, expensive lifestyle. A lot of plant-based ideas are just great marketing with an expensive price tag. We have to step back and think about the other more affordable, nutritious options that are out there for us. We live in a land of callaloo and moringa [Jamaica] - yet we’re allowing highly processed foods take over our lives".

On the Nana's Kitchen blog, you'll find whole food plant-based recipes, made in Jamaica with local and international flavours. Her creations are an amalgamation of diligent research, inventiveness and sometimes “forced creativity” when she needs to use the ingredients in her fridge.

"I think about food all day - no jokes. I read a lot about ingredients and different ways to use them- so I like to challenge myself around a specific ingredient. For instance: what are the 101 ways to use this thing? I’m very cerebral and creative at the same time: so I think and imagine a lot - then I see where the reality is in between all of that. Lately I’ve been interested in looking at an ingredient in a very wholesome manner. For instance… how do you use the leaves, skin, peel etc". 

Nana's Kitchen Chickpea Masala - FoodPar

 Chickpea Masala from Nana's Kitchen

Nana's dishes are a celebration of the ingredients in each recipe. Although self-taught, her exposure to different ways of cooking from family and in professional kitchens led Marianna down the path of creatively producing social experiences through food.

She recounts, "I’ve been in the kitchen since the age of 8! I’ve always been surrounded by food. As a child, my toys were string beans and tomatoes. I’d sit with my grandma on the balcony in the mornings, she’d give me a huge tray of string beans to sort through and that’s what I was doing instead of playing with toys. I also come from a food loving Middle Eastern family - every social gathering was centered around food [the food par!]. Everyone cooks in the family - myself included. We are obsessed with spices, herbs, things like that. I learned a lot just opening the spice closets of my parents kitchen".

Her culinary influences spread beyond family experience, travel and culture were intrinsic factors:

"I’m born in Greece from a Syrian mother, Egyptian father and have been naturalized French - but English is my first language. And maybe I’m an adopted Jamaican now - who knows. Travel has been part of my life - it just happened to be so. While I don’t feel 'rooted' in anything (sometimes this is an issue), at the same time, I’m very grateful for having travelled. I’m very interested in culture and I think it’s important for us to see how connected we are as humans and that differences can sometimes be a great thing. We need to be more tolerant and celebrate diversity. If we were all the same, this world would be such a boring place! But most of all, travel teaches tolerance. I am tired of hate, violence, all these things that divide us. It also teaches you a lot about food- in another life, I would had been a food anthropologist".

Kichari Nana's Kitchen - FoodPar

Kichari from Nana's Kitchen

"Every culture has its own cuisine, it’s own way of using ingredients, it’s own flavour. Every street market sells something different. Having that mixed heritage plus travel means it’s the greatest culinary eye opener - you learn a lot about flavour, taste, cooking styles etc. I think it helps you 'imagine' flavours in your head - which is why I improvise so much in the kitchen, because I’m able to 'imagine' how things could taste together."

In the 'creative culinary hub' of France, Marianna was thrust into the world of fine dining during a 6 month internship in the Michelin-star kitchens of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris.

"At the time, the kitchens were run by some of the biggest names in fine-dining (Christophe Felder, Jean-Francois Piege). This experience taught me so much on the discipline, passion and focus it takes to run a restaurant. I didn’t really learn new recipes there (I was just an intern - definitely no authority to be cooking at that level), but just being in that space taught me so much".

Baby Bok Choy Nana's Kitchen - FoodPar

Baby Bok Choy from Nana's Kitchen

Although her decision to visit Jamaica for the first time was random, Marianna fell in love with the island immediately, "I found myself coming back over and over again (7 times) before I decided to live & work here. During those trips, I did many independent, grass -roots projects including a huge street art project in Downtown Kingston. It’s a very special place for me, there’s a feeling I get here that I can’t find anywhere else - not sure how to explain it, but it’s unique".

"Moving to Jamaica and living amidst so much nature – coupled with a plant-based diet - has really shifted my way of thinking about certain things. But I don’t think it’s just me, I see there’s a global trend and awareness about sustainability and taking care of our planet. It’s very very scary to think that in a few years time, we may be talking about pandas the same way we talk about dinosaurs today."

I'm excited that the global shift towards wellness and awareness of the environmental impacts of how we eat is slowly permeating Jamaican culture. I asked Marianna to share with me her observation on the state of plant-based dining in Jamaica: "I think there’s an underground, informal movement happening and a lot of very talented chefs inspiring others to eat more plant-based foods. And if anything, the Rastafarian ital culture is something so predominant and that has always encouraged the consumption of less meat  (perhaps not vegan, but definitely less meat)".

When she's not working or cooking, you can find Marianna enjoying the simple pleasures of island living, "I like people, quality conversation, food, mingling with different cultures. I can be totally fine sitting on the veranda with a really good friend, drinking a glass of wine or testing a recipe on them (my friends are all taste testers- they just don’t know it, lol!) and talking about really interesting things. It really doesn’t have to be more complicated than that! I am a people person coming from a collectivist culture (i.e: harmony in the group is more important than the individual) - human connection is what matters to me. I also love nature, so I like exploring the hidden gems on this beautiful island. I love the tranquility of Lysson’s Beach [St. Thomas] and all the hidden rivers & falls around there".

Upside Down Orange Cake

Upside Down Orange Cake from Nana's Kitchen

Nana's Kitchen is booming! Look out for more recipes, videos, buy printed totes and local supper clubs, a part of a cultural experience:

"While I’m not on a mission to “convert” people to plant-based vegan, I do believe it’s the most sustainable diet right now and if I can inspire one person to eat less animal products or highly processed foods, then I’ll be happy with that. We really have to start seeing the connection between what we eat, our health, how we feel and how it impacts the planet. Everything is connected - and it often starts on our plate".

"Food is a common denominator that humanity shares- it goes beyond race, gender, culture. Everyone has to eat. (REAL) food is life, it’s history, years of tradition. It’s the most beautiful creative form on this planet! Really! It’s the only art form that touches all your senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.It’s magic! I want to cook everyday for the rest of my life"!




All photos are courtesy of Nana's Kitchen. Check out recipes and follow Marianna on Instagram.