Rachel Ama and the Trouble with Apolitical Food

The rising vegan YouTube star treads carefully around the tangled politics of race and veganism. For her, making accessible plant-based recipes is a form of activism.
16 July 2019, 10:45am

Vegan food is not a fad. Rachel Ama is keen to stress this to me as we stand in the kitchen of her north London home, watching over a pot of simmering pasta sauce. “I want that narrative to go away,” the vegan cooking YouTuber shares, breaking jackfruit into soft, fat flakes and stirring it into the tomato sauce for her vegan ‘juna’ (jackfruit ‘tuna’) pasta. “Because in cultures all around the world people are not necessarily saying ‘this is vegan’, they're just eating vegetables and getting on with it.”

And Rachel is right. Within Caribbean cooking, for example, a community of plant-based cooks has held fast, creating a legacy that stretches across generations. Traditionally, there’s the vegetarianism and veganism of those in the Rastafari movement following an ital diet. A new generation of health-conscious Jamaican vegans is also shaking things up in the country’s big cities. And here in the UK, young people are working to build on that heritage, staking out a place in the largely white and middle-class vegan landscape with plant-based incarnations of the flavours their parents and grandparents used to cook.

Vegan YouTuber and cookbook author Rachel Ama at home in north London, preparing jackfruit 'juna' pasta.

Take Peckham institution Deserted Cactus, where chef Esme Carr serves everything from fried plantain to stuffed dumplings, okra fritters and callaloo. Or influencers Craig and Shaun McAnuff, who followed up their popular Original Flava cookbook with Vegan Flava earlier this year, remixing their family favourites for today’s changing tastes. And then there is Rachel Ama, whose YouTube channel, showcasing vegan cooking inspired by her Caribbean roots, has amassed over a quarter of a million followers.

Tumbling from YouTube into the offices of a management company, it looks like Rachel is set to be one of the movement’s most bankable figures. Last month she released her first cookbook, Rachel Ama’s Vegan Eats.

Rachel was born and grew up in the very house where she’s now cooking for me, in close contact with a large extended family whose roots stretch from the Caribbean to Sierra Leone and Wales. She beams when she talks about her family, pointing out old sepia-toned family photos in the hallway and talking fondly about her mum (who she still lives with), her filmmaker older brother and family barbecues with her dad’s Caribbean side of the family.

“My grandma Pat was from St Lucia,” she tells me. “She was a home cook but also she cooked in schools and nursing homes and hospitals. My parents wanted her to open her own Caribbean restaurant. It didn't happen, but that was one of their plans.”

A family photo showing Rachel's grandmother and great-grandmother.

Rachel grew up around the smell of Grandma Pat’s cooking, from fish fritters to plantain and bacon. These flavours imprinted themselves on her palate, even though she didn’t realise at the time how important these culinary legacies would eventually become. “I never cooked with her, which is annoying because I've become a cook now. But she was incredible.” When Rachel became a vegan, she had to be creative to lend new life to these culinary memories, trying new techniques and improvising with plant-based alternatives to meat and fish.

“Caribbean cooking for me is my favourite cooking, and I wanted to share that kind of food because I felt like it wasn't being shared and it should be,” she says.

Recipes in Rachel’s book draw from her St Lucian roots, from an ackee scramble, in which the fruit’s creamy, sunny yellow flesh stands in for eggs, to jackfruit fritters (a fish-free reimagining of Grandma Pat’s signature dish). There are moments of wellness faddishness, however. Although Rachel is careful to preface health chat with reminders that it’s just her experience, she slips at times into language bordering on Goop-style silliness. “The first thing I noticed after going vegan,” she shares in one video, “is I just felt so much lighter! It’s almost like your floating a little bit higher than you were before. I’m telling you guys, it’s true.”

Published last month, 'Rachel Ama's Vegan Eats' is Rachel's first cookbook.

But still, it’s exciting to see a vegan cookbook freed from the tyranny of staid whiteness: the photography shows the busy shelves of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean grocery shops, flashes of colourful batik cloth, and brown hands making great food. “When I first went vegan I would look on YouTube for inspiration, but I didn’t find anyone I could relate to,” she writes in the introduction. The fact that she now, as a black woman with locs, graces the cover of a mainstream vegan cookbook is something beautiful in itself.

There’s a need for more visibility of black vegans. Kaila Stone is a student, and London born-and-bred. Her family are Jamaican, many of them following an ital diet. “That was my earliest introduction to veganism as a child, before I really understood it,” she tells me. “But I understood enough to recognise how the diet was linked to spirituality and community.” When she became vegan as a young teenager, however, the experience was isolating. Although Kaila knew her blackness and her veganism sat in harmony, white vegans thought otherwise. “They couldn’t comprehend a black person existing without eating chicken. Those were real conversations I had with people, and I ended up internalising a lot of those reactions.”

For people of colour in majority-white spaces, it’s rare that we are to be allowed space just to be – to cook, eat, share knowledge, make whatever tastes good, for no reason other than it’s what we’re hungry for in that moment. So, it’s refreshing that Rachel Ama is, in many ways, just herself. This is the Rachel Ama who, in her YouTube videos, chats and cooks while dancing to Caribbean songs and old school hip-hop. It is the Rachel Ama who cooked me a (very tasty) vegan tuna pasta when I came round for lunch, just because it’s what she always used to eat at uni. And her book is not titled or subtitled with ‘Caribbean’ or ‘St Lucian’ – there are no claims here to being the spokesperson for an entire diverse food culture. Called simply Rachel Ama’s Vegan Eats, it is exactly what it says it is: a vegan cookbook that crystallises around one person’s food-filled life.

But this self-reflexivity, a kind of culinary selfie, has its limitations. I ask where Rachel finds communities of other black vegans. “Instagram,” she says firmly, at first, but then she falters. “I feel like you find each other and you reach out to each other... Um.” She doesn’t offer names. I mention Bryant Terry, the award-winning African-American vegan food writer who, like Rachel, sometimes offers song suggestions alongside his recipes, but Rachel hasn’t heard of him. She treads nervously around matters of race, not once in our conversation about the tangled politics of veganism saying the words ‘black’ or ‘white’.

Jackfruit juna pasta, Rachel's vegan take on the tuna pasta she ate as a student.

Rachel is loyal to her YouTube followers, for whom she tells me she wrote the book. “I say when [followers] meet me, ‘Come give me a hug, because I know I'm on the other side but we're friends, man.’” And there are friends in the food world, like musician and chef Denai Moore, of vegan Jamaican food business Dee’s Table. “Whenever she does something, I put it straight up on my social media like, go check out Dee's stuff!” But beyond these small circles, the sense of community seems to unravel. At points, it feels like being trapped on an Escher staircase, where a tiny circle of writers, vloggers and creatives hype each other up, and up, and up, in a closed loop of so-called influence.

Betty Vandy is a vegan chef (and cookbook enthusiast) with roots in Sierra Leone, like Rachel. Originally from Liverpool, she travels the length of the country with her vegan “African Creole soul” food business Bettylicious Cooks. For Betty, representation alone isn’t enough – it’s important that black vegans dismantle the white vegan mainframe rather than simply inserting themselves into it. To be vegan and black is, for many, a political position, inseparable from conversations about race and power. “You may look like me, but what really are you representing?” Betty asks. “Who are you standing up for?”

Of course, Rachel shouldn’t have to do the heavy lifting of talking about race, gender, pain and politics every time she shares a recipe. Too often, the pernicious expectation of people of colour in food is that we should only talk about food insofar as it relates to identity, race or belonging. Until we ask this emotional labour of white cooks and writers, the food world cannot ask black women to wade deep into their trauma just to earn a seat at the table.

But the question of solidarity is a pertinent one because, as Rachel reminded me, veganism isn’t a fad. It doesn’t belong to one time, fashion, country or person – it spreads its roots wide. Rachel is just one small, vital part of a dynamic black vegan community. She is already feeding parts of that community, with her fritters and plantain and juna pasta. That community can nourish her, too.

Where Rachel chooses to focus her energy, for now, is in making vegan food accessible to her followers, on YouTube and through her book, in ways that bring some Caribbean flavour to the mix. She knows it’s not easy for everybody. “Everyone's living different lives, has access to different kinds of fruits and vegetables and only has X amount of time to spend in the kitchen,” she explains. But small changes can make a big difference. “That's my activism: to give people vegan options to make that they can enjoy.”