|Say hi to Rubaiya!|
Meet Rubaiya Ahmed, a Dhaka native and one of the most inspiring women I know on the internet.
She tells me of a lovely childhood in Bangladesh, growing up in a large family with uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins. Her fondest and earliest memories of childhood are staying up all night listening to music with her boro mama, and of her grandmother hanging a handmade swing for the kids in the house.
She was 19 when she left Dhaka for the U.S to study. .
"I was clueless as to what I wanted to do with my life and just decided to study what everyone else was studying at the time. After graduation, I worked as an IT consultant in the US for 6 years, before returning to Bangladesh in 2006."
Rubaiya was living the standard successful life that's often determined by our middle-class aspirations. But her soul started to rebel big time a few years after working the 9-5. She knew she had to do something more fulfilling. She admits that a terrible tragedy led her away from my IT career and into animal welfare.
|Just an example of our everyday vegetables dressed up as an entrée. This is a roasted pumpkin with skin on, drizzled with tahini-maple dressing with a side of three colored quinoa with fresh basils and steamed green beans.|
Today she runs Bangu Vegan, a vegan advocacy platform that delivers food as a means to expose people to vegan alternatives. Right now, Bangu Vegan is currently delivering food, but this space has been designed to host events, cooking classes (for adults and children), movie nights, and humane education sessions. Some of the food they make will have all of us wanting to take a trip to Dhaka.
Rubaiya wants to experiment and focus more on creating alternatives for popular meat and dairy dishes, raw desserts, and healthy snacks, made with locally available/grown ingredients. The kitchen is equipped to cook 150 meals a day and the dining space can host 10-12 people. There is also a little shop space which will eventually be used to sell vegan food items, second-hand clothes, and eco-friendly pet accessories. If that wasn't enough good news, please note, they are also a disposable plastic free company and all their packaging is done with recycled material.
I had 7 questions for Rubaiya that revolved around food ethics, entrepreneurship and having the conviction to infiltrate a culture that takes meat and dairy very seriously. Let's get to them!
Messy Cooking: Bangu Vegan must be the first vegan kitchen serving Dhaka? I am going to start with the obvious- this seems like an impossible dream. But here you are in the middle of a country that very much holds meat and dairy a critical part of their food culture, creating incredible food and getting a lot of love. Tell me about any personal doubts you had and how you envisioned this from the start.
Rubaiya Ahmed: What I learned from my experience in working with animal welfare is that people will only change their behavior if they yield direct benefit(s) from it. I realized this when we advocated ending dog culling in Bangladesh. This was also my approach to promoting veganism in Bangladesh. We Bangladeshis love good food, so the focus was on just that – healthy, delicious food, and the response has been very positive.
"The movie Earthling made a tremendous impact on me and helped me give up animal products once and for all."
|The Bangu Vegan kitchen getting READY|
Messy Cooking: Ok, now we all want to to know, what's your personal vegan story. How did you get to this ethical food choice?
Rubaiya Ahmed: I have been working in animal welfare for 10 years now, so this was a natural transition. Having been a hardcore meat eater for 30 years, it took some time. The movie Earthling made a tremendous impact on me and helped me give up animal products once and for all.
"The challenge has been to get people interested in vegan entres and for that to happen, we had to learn to veganize many of the meat-based main dishes."
Raw bliss balls made with fresh ingredients. They are perfect for afternoon or post workout snacks or just a healthy dessert. We have three different kinds - 1 Carrmeric (carrots, walnuts, dates, turmeric, and orange zest), 2. Cheating on chocolate (beetroot pulp, dark chocolate), 3. Nuts for narikel (peanuts, coconut, vanilla, dates).
Messy Cooking: You've recreated a lot of Bangla dishes vegan. A lot of people don't think much about this, but a lot of bangla vegetarian food is default vegan, do you see a mental block with people using the term vegan? Have you experimented with mock meats to make treasured favorites?
Rubaiya Ahmed: Although a lot of Bengali dishes are vegan by default, vegetarian/vegan dishes are always served as a side dish and never as a main. People love their begoon bhaja and alu bhorta here, but the idea of replacing a mutton rezala with any of those is blasphemous. The challenge has been to get people interested in vegan entres and for that to happen, we had to learn to veganize many of the meat-based main dishes. This is where mock meat came in very handy. We regularly use mock meat, soy chunks, mushrooms, and green jackfruit as our meat alternatives and people love it!
Messy Cooking: While we're talking about mock meats, I am really excited that lab meat might be a reality in our lifetime. I think lab meat might be the biggest problem-solver in terms of ethics, animal rights, and environmental impact in our lifetime. Although I am not someone who would need to eat lab-meat (love soya chunks and mock meat though) I see it beneficial for large scale impact. What are your thoughts on this.
Rubaiya Ahmed: Definitely! If people can enjoy meat without killing animals, then that’s a win-win. However, I also feel that we (myself included) need to learn to eat a more plant-based, whole foods based for the sake of our own health. Processed food, lab-grown food will only replace one form of unhealthy food with another.
|vegan brownies with dark chocolate and orange ganache. This dish was inspired by Rubaiya's childhood favourite Mimi chocolate - the only Bangladeshi chocolate at the time.|
Messy Cooking: Let's talk logistics You spent a lot of time creating the perfect kitchen. As a business you had to calculate expansion over time- what are the things you had taken a call on in terms of creating a space that would make it easy to cook up larger orders? Who helped you design it.
Rubaiya Ahmed: My sister Saba designed the kitchen for me. We had to work with residential space, and that posed a challenge from the get-go. We couldn’t buy heavy duty appliances, the gas line could only support one stove unit, and the load shedding problem meant expensive power back-up system. The designer still managed to turn it into a well ventilated, open workspace, which can churn out anywhere from 50-150 meals every day. We also saved a lot of money on second-hand furniture.
"Children are never taught where their food comes from, how it’s prepared, and what it does to the health. By the time we become adults, our addiction takes over and we can no longer judge for ourselves. I have yet to meet someone who says that they eat meat because they enjoy killing animals."
Messy Cooking: Why do you think it's easy for most people to disassociate what's on their plate from the way animals are horrifically reared and kept until death for meat and dairy? How do we move past evangelical rhetoric and get more people thinking about this ethical nightmare? Do you think it's us, the privileged, who have to do the most introspection?
Rubaiya Ahmed: It is the lack of education and social conditioning from our childhood that turns us into these mindless consumers. Children are never taught where their food comes from, how it’s prepared, and what it does to the health. By the time we become adults, our addiction takes over and we can no longer judge for ourselves. I have yet to meet someone who says that they eat meat because they enjoy killing animals. If people are given proper education and easily available alternatives, then I believe that more and more people will turn vegan.
Messy Cooking: What's the funniest reaction or question you've got about vegan food from people who are training under you or people who are introduced to your work?
Rubaiya Ahmed: I had a young woman who thought that we only cook with “begoon” (eggplant), when I told her that we cook vegan food. :)
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