In a word association game, if someone says “Caribbean food,” the immediate response will likely be “jerk chicken.”
But there’s a history of plant-based cuisine on the islands and it’s one where Caribbean vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Toronto can thrive.
One of the first take-out restaurants to fill the plant-based Caribbean void was Ital Vital in Scarborough.
Since opening at 741 Pharmacy Ave. in 2011 – on Bob Marley’s birthday – owner Arnold Freeman served a range of Italian dishes – the traditional Rastafarian way of eating which emphasizes living with natural foods without meat.
Freeman said he’s heard time and time again from customers that other times they’ve eaten vegan food, the flavors were disappointing. But, he says proudly, in his restaurant, it’s a different story.
“Once they’ve tried the food, I always see them again,” he told The Star.
The starting point for his menu was Caribbean influences. Freeman was born in Guyana, which, although part of South America, shares a culture and political affiliation with the Caribbean. Caribbean cuisine is a mix of African, Chinese and Indian influences. And when the self-taught chef expanded his menu, he added more offerings of all those dishes, as well as North American cuisine, which is less rooted in Caribbean cuisine — think sautéed zucchini and cabbage.
One of his signature dishes is the result of this fusion: barbecued ribs. It’s a homemade smoky barbecue sauce stew with roasted garlic that drapes peppers and non-GMO soy protein with a bite so firm and familiar that people call and ask “are you sure it’s not there was no meat in there?”
Traditionally, Italian cuisine does not use additives like salt. But since he cooks for the general public, Freeman loosens the parameters a bit, adding a touch of salt, herbs and spices. The key to adding flavor to his dishes is to simmer his stews gently and slowly.
The kitchen welcomes an abundance of fresh produce and the flavors of its dishes reap the rewards. Freeman goes through 80 coconuts a week to make coconut milk from scratch for rice and peas and other dishes — canned foods just don’t taste the same, he said.
Tons of stews he makes are Caribbean staples: callaloo – a roughly chopped and sautéed leafy green; channa – curried chickpeas; ital stew – made with kidney beans and coconut milk.
Ital Vital is just one of the plant-based Caribbean places in Toronto – there’s also Irie Veggie in Little Jamaica, V’s Caribbean Restaurant in Weston Road and Eglinton Avenue West and One Love Vegetarian on Bathurst Street in the Annex , to name a few. But if we named them all, there would still be less than 10. Talking to Freeman, he named his restaurant and five others, and a search by the Star found two more. According to Freeman, the scene is small and for the most part everyone knows each other.
Many Caribbean restaurants in the GTA are meat-based, despite the history of Rastafari and Italian cuisine especially in Jamaica. And at the same time, when people search for vegan restaurants, Caribbean spots are often overlooked on top 10 lists.
But there are plenty of reasons for this story to change.
Nutritious, cultured foods are natural for a Caribbean climate and cuisine, said Jacqueline Dwyer, co-founder of Toronto Black Farmers, which she founded with Noel Livingston to bring self-reliance and access to clean, quality products for Black Torontonians.
“I always had an abundance of food at home,” said Dwyer, originally from Jamaica. “I would eat three or four different types of vegetables as a snack…I would eat plenty of fruit … When I arrived here, it was a culture shock, because everything was seasonal.
In “Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking,” sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau trace the origins of Caribbean cuisine in passages from their cookbook. And the recipes pay tribute exclusively to the vegetarian innovations that the women of the islands have learned to cook.
Groceries – a universal term for root vegetables like yams, dasheen, sweet potato, cassava and chayote known as “chocho” – are so named because they are what enslaved Africans cultivated in the provision lands that the colonizers allocated them to grow their own food. Roots and tubers were their main source of sustenance and the basis of creative meals.
Take cassava, a root vegetable native to the region. Indigenous communities taught enslaved Africans how to make it, according to the ‘Provisions’ cookbook. For example, when grated and dried, cassava looks like flour. This was used to make bammy, a Jamaican flatbread still made today.
Ackee and saltfish, Jamaica’s national dish, is made from ackee, a yellow, fleshy and sweet fruit imported from West Africa and salt cod, which was sometimes shared by slavers. It is supplemented with “food” – the provisions on the ground.
These and many other innovations became the diet of choice on the islands and are the most common traditional dishes to this day. Many are made with a more plentiful serving of the historic proteins used – saltfish, corned beef and oxtail to name a few. But it was the produce – cassava, breadfruit, ackee and more – that was really the starting point, as meat was not guaranteed.
So it’s not hard to follow a plant-based diet while still enjoying Caribbean cuisine. With leaders like Freeman at Ital Vital and others around town who make plant-based versions of Caribbean dishes that typically revolve around meat, it is possible to do this without giving up familiar dishes.
On Thursdays, Ital Vital serves vegan pepperpot, a Guyanese dish often eaten during the holidays. It is a dark, thick stew that owes its color to cassareep – a thick brown syrup made from cassava. The dish is cooked with seasonings like cinnamon and cloves and Freeman adds chunks of cassava, carrots and vegan protein, rather than the usual cuts of pork or beef.
In Leslieville at 1183 Queen St. E., Kevin Allwood, owner of KASPACE, offers peppery salted fish made with organic hearts of palm. It also serves a savory version of ackee paired with salted tofu.
“I found that by using dried, salted tofu nigari, we got an incredible flavor profile,” Allwood told The Star.
KASPACE is part cafe, part organized store, part restaurant, if you spot the folded menus near the cash register. Available daily, small amounts of organic vegan and vegetarian foods inspired by Allwood’s Rastafarian education.
There is a range of brunch options – some including eggs and some vegan – such as scrambled eggs or tofu, sandwiches, hash browns or ackee if you go for the traditional Caribbean.
Most lunch and dinner dishes come with coconut rice and peas made with organic basmati rice. Then there’s a Caribbean roti with chickpeas and potatoes, but sometimes it makes French-style roti skin, using a crepe maker and a thinner dough. The end product almost tastes like an elongated fried dumpling.
For Freeman and Allwood, with creative inventions, the main goal is to serve healthy, digestible and nutritious food.
Freeman said customers tell him, “Hey man, since (I) eat this food, I feel great,” and for him, that’s the best reward.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION