Culinary Inspiration for January with The Vegan Nigerian
Old Member Tomi Makanjuola (English & French, 2010) is a vegan chef and blogger. With her brand, The Vegan Nigerian, she focuses on making Nigerian cuisine and the vegan lifestyle accessible to the mainstream, through online resources, catering, workshops and bespoke events. This January, more people than ever are trying a plant-based diet as part of the Veganuary challenge, so it seemed very timely to catch up with Tomi.
Can you tell us what you’ve been doing since you graduated?
After graduating in 2014, I moved to London where I worked as a professional vegan chef. It was a great opportunity to pick up new skills and gain valuable insight into the restaurant industry. It was around this time that I launched my pop-up restaurant concept. After a few years working in a professional kitchen, I pivoted and worked in publishing for a while (The Society of Authors) as I wanted to tap into my love of words and literature. Throughout this period, I continued to build my brand and platform, The Vegan Nigerian, which has now become my main focus.
You became vegan while on your year abroad in France; can you tell us a bit about why?
After two years of intense study at Oxford, my year abroad afforded me a lot more free time to delve a bit deeper and scrutinise my health and lifestyle choices. I was living and working in the beautiful South of France, enjoying an unforgettable experience. I'd clock off from work in the evenings and not have to give a second thought to deadlines, essays and lectures. At weekends I'd wander through the food markets and be inspired by the wealth of fresh produce. I began to draw connections between my mood, energy levels and the way that I was eating. I guess I had somewhat of a lightbulb moment. At the same time, I was staying with a family that had a pet dog that I bonded with, so questions about animal welfare also started to come to mind. The more research I did into veganism (through watching documentaries and reading books), the more convinced I was that the vegan lifestyle was right for me. It seemed like a fantastic way to not only level up my health, but also take a stand against animal cruelty and contribute towards a more sustainable planet. Within a week of going vegan, I felt more energised and the other benefits kept me motivated. I was lucky enough to be able to make my own meals from scratch and so my love of cooking was reignited ten-fold as I began to experiment with various vegan recipes.
What did you find most challenging about going vegan? What advice would you give to people who are trying it out this January?
The community aspect of it was a challenge. At the time, I didn't know any other vegans personally and there was no one who could really relate to the new changes I was implementing. Gatherings and dinners with friends and family were also challenging at times as it often meant that I stuck out like a sore thumb if I refused to eat certain things. This has changed a lot over the years though. It's been amazing to see many family members and friends choose to eat more plant-based meals and shop for more vegan-friendly products! I would definitely encourage new vegans to connect with others in the community to stay inspired, whether that's following vegan accounts or blogs, or joining online groups. I would also encourage anyone trying it out this January to do their research in order to better understand the various benefits. I have a free guide that is a great starting point (download Tomi's Guide to Going Vegan here). When it comes to adopting the diet, be sure to go at your own pace, eat a variety of whole foods and really have fun with it. There are so many wonderful recipes to try!
When did you create The Vegan Nigerian and how quickly did you attract an online following?
The Vegan Nigerian started as a blog in February 2013, with the aim of sharing vegan recipes and lifestyle content from the lens of my cultural heritage. I wanted people in my close circle and community to see how accessible and vibrant the vegan lifestyle could be, without having to give up on any of our rich food traditions. At the same time, it attracted an audience of people who had never tried Nigerian food before but were curious to find out more. By the end of 2013, my blog was featured on BBC World News and that is when I began to see more readers and online engagement. I created my social media platforms soon after and that accelerated the growth of my online following. Eventually, my work with The Vegan Nigerian evolved to include hosting dining events (such as pop-up restaurants and supper clubs), appearing at food festivals, catering and publishing cookbooks. These various activities have helped attract some amazing individuals to my platform.
What did you enjoy most about your student days at Oxford? Has anything you learnt in your degree come in particularly useful?
Where do I begin? As challenging as the work could be at times, I absolutely adored my course (English and French). I was able to indulge my love of literature and have some incredible conversations with my tutors and fellow students. I also loved the social aspect - the various clubs and societies, the Oxford Union talks, college life and life in Oxford city itself (everything was so accessible). Storytelling has been a huge part of building my blog/brand and getting it in front of my ideal audience. Without doubt, my degree gave me a solid footing in that respect, exposing me to the power of words and broadening my cultural perspective. When I organised a pop-up restaurant in Paris back in 2019, my French speaking and writing skills came in handy, and going forward, I would feel confident about taking the pop-up concept to other Francophone countries.
What did you think of the food at Queen’s?
I thought the food at Queen's was great. I remember always looking forward to booking on for dinner, and lunch was always filling and tasty. I had no complaints. One memory that sticks out is the time that the college organised a dinner for those of us that had returned from our year abroad. At this point I requested a vegan meal and the dish that was prepared for me was nothing short of impressive.
What would you choose as your last meal?
This is a tough one but I'd have to go with Jollof rice, fried plantain, moin moin and aubergine stew. Jollof rice is a classic West African dish made by steaming rice in an aromatic blend of peppers, tomatoes, chillies and spices. Moin moin is a savoury steamed bean cake that's melt-in-the-mouth and packed full of flavour. Perfection.
How has lockdown affected you and your work? What have you been focussing on recently, and what are your plans for the future?
Since the first lockdown last year, I've had to suspend all face-to-face activities, cancel workshops, festival appearances and plans for a chef residency at a London theatre. The lockdown has forced me to focus more on my online activities and find other ways to stay connected with my audience. In a strange way, I've really appreciated the opportunity to slow things down and go back to the drawing board. It has allowed me to work more efficiently, whether that's hosting online cooking classes that are not limited by location, or creating my first online course, or being more consistent with putting out valuable content on my blog and pages. At some point in the future, when the world eventually opens up and it is safer to travel, I would love to take the Vegan Nigerian pop-up restaurant concept to various countries in the form of chef residencies. I also plan to continue creating courses and cookbooks.
Tomi’s Plantain Cookbook, which contains more than 40 vegan recipes, is available this January at half-price. Buy the Plantain Cookbook here.
If you’d like to find out more, search for the Vegan Nigerian on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, or visit Tomi’s website: www.vegannigerian.com.