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V for Vegan

Is there a silent food revolution happening in Egypt? Eihab Boraie speaks to Alaa Sharshar - founder of the Vegan Kitchen - to find out how veganism can literally save lives.

It was William Shakespeare who once wrote “He is a heavy eater of beef. Me thinks it doth harm to his wit.” Perhaps he should have added health and planet at the end of that line, but nevertheless a wonderfully prophetic description for present day Egyptians. The idea of vegans and Egyptians getting along seems as unlikely as country putting aside religious divides. I don’t use the word hate often, but I have always hated aggressive vegans calling anyone and everyone who enjoys meat a murderer. Despite this fact, I find myself standing in front of a sign for the Vegan Kitchen in Maadi on a Monday afternoon in Ramadan to talk with the owner Alaa Sharshar about vegans, the restaurant industry and Mother Earth.

I could never understand the choice of being vegan. Maybe vegetarian, but no cheese? Please! A life without pizza isn’t worth living. For two decades, the thought of being a vegan was the farthest possible dietary choice for Sharshar too. However, after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as well as being a lifelong asthmatic, Sharshar knew that he would have to make some massive lifestyle changes. After doing plenty of research with his fiancée the pair decided to try becoming vegans. “Both me and my fiancée decided to try it out and within a month noticed difference. I had always been asthmatic and after my conversion it felt like had a new pair of lungs,” Sharshar proudly describes, adding that “Since changing my diet I have reduced my insulin intake by 90%, while my energy levels went through the roof.” 

Miraculous results, then. Too miraculous, I suspect and as a lifelong skeptic, I begin researching into the matter looking for medical evidence. Professor Gary Null writes "In all respiratory conditions, mucous-forming dairy foods, such as milk and cheese, can exacerbate clogging of the lungs and should be avoided." While Dr. Robert M. Giller argues that it is "not because dairy products stimulate mucus production but because they're very common causes of allergy, upper-respiratory allergies and asthma (which may be an allergy in itself)." Despite the debate it seems widely accepted among numerous professionals that a vegan diet may not be a total cure, but can definitely help those suffering from asthma.

As for diabetes, The American Diabetes Association's lists “nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flax, as well as vegetables - the darker and leafier, the better” as super foods for sufferers. In the case of all diabetes, an adjustment in diet is required. It is a massive undertaking and by sticking to a vegan diet it is easier to manage as every meal doesn’t require calorie counting. To my surprise – and horror – I was beginning to understand why some vegans exist, but I still didn’t know how successful a strictly vegan restaurant could be in a meat-loving, excessive-fast-food-ordering culture that is Cairo. 

According to Sharshar “the hardest part about marketing the Vegan Kitchen, is simply convincing people to try it because most people hate vegans.” Before I get the chance to chime in on my dislike for vegans, Sharshar interrupts adding that “most Vegans are aggressive and condescending, telling meat lovers that they are wrong. It’s the wrong attitude, and ultimately pushes too many people away from hearing the argument.” It was a surprise to hear a vegan humbly trash talking vegans, but slander aside, taste buds don’t lie, and the key to cooking anything, including meat, is the way you prepare and season it. “If you eat piece of unseasoned meat, chicken or tofu it will taste bland and unsatisfying. What we do to change people’s perception is focusing on marinating and spice selection. People walk away from the meal thinking about how it tasted, and not what it contained,” Sharshar explains. By using the finest local organically grown vegetables, The Vegan Kitchen has quickly garnered a lot of buzz from foreigners and Egyptians and vegans and meat lovers, who appreciate the careful attention to their delicious flavour profiles. The positive feedback comes as no surprise to Sharshar as he secretly believes “there was a second revolution in Egypt that completely went unnoticed. I like to call it ‘the taking back your health’ revolution. People are more aware about Genetically Modified Foods, choosing to avoid them and looking into super foods like Quinoa and Kale. It is inspiring that people have decided to educate themselves about what they should be putting in our bodies and what is best for our planet.” 

According to David Pimental from the Cornell University, “It takes, on average, 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption, [whereas] it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil- fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption.” Couple that with the increase in global deforestation to make space for livestock, and it becomes easier to comprehend just how unsustainable and damaging the current model is for poor Mother Earth. Sharshar agrees, adding that “before the industrial revolution we did not have the means to eat animal products three times a day. Simply put, modern protein intake is completely excessive and unhealthy.”

I have to admit that by the end of our conversation I had a better understanding of why people are so passionate about being vegan. No matter what diet you undertake, being aware of your nutrient intake is vital. Even vegans commonly suffer from vitamin B 12 deficiency, and must take supplements to ensure a balanced diet. There were a lot of convincing arguments made for a vegan diet, however I choose to remain in a shade of grey, where I appreciate eating meat in moderation, while making sure to get nutrients through plenty of vegetables and fruits. As for succeeding in Egypt, it comes down to taste and if it tastes amazing,  then there is no reason to assume that vegan restaurants couldn’t be just as successful as the nonsensical sushi explosion that took over Egypt. Egypt loves new trends and with the benefits to our health and environment everybody wins.

Find out more about The Vegan Kitchen here.