This month we sat down with singer-songwriter Denai Moore of Dee’s Table to discuss veganism, her unique approach to Jamaican food and the creative process.
Sisterwoman: Talk us through your vegan journey.
Denai: I started off with veganism as curiosity… When I was 17 my best friend went vegan and I didn’t know anyone who had done that before, so I tried it out and since then I kind of reduced milk and dairy, cheese, stuff like that because it was affecting my voice. I feel like actually I was just lactose intolerant to begin with… (laughs). I didn’t necessarily have a real purpose to be vegan. I didn’t have any research on it health wise or anything, I was genuinely just doing it out of curiosity and then noticed slight differences about how I felt so just kept it going. I occasionally ate meat but then about 3 years ago I went through this YouTube spiral and started watching all these documentaries and reading more about the health parts of it and just kind of unpacking things I’ve been told about nutrition. My family were obviously unaware about it at first, they were always really supportive but at first they were like omg you still have to eat eggs, you still have to eat this, that kind of vibe. So for me it was also just sort of being more aware that I could actually live without certain foods and I wasn’t gonna miss out on it. And I just went for it! I think literally after watching a few documentaries I just couldn’t consciously eat dairy again, eat meat again, I don’t think I could do it.
S: So you’ve been vegan 3 years? How did you find the transition?
D: I think it wasn’t too difficult because I’d been four months without meat when I was 17 and gone through loads of spaces where I was basically eating vegan at home and having fish or something if I went to Jamaica with my family. Being on the road playing shows and stuff was really hard being vegan, so in those moments I’d have fish or whatever. I think I was just prepared to just go for it? I think now I’d be able to be vegan wherever I am, just based on having more experience of how to survive in a country that’s not vegan friendly at all. So yeah I don’t think it was actually that hard to transition because I did it so gradually. Anything that I felt like I missed I just bought the exact replacement for it. I used to really crave fish so a few years ago I was really into this substitute for it so if I had a craving or whatever I could make my own version of it.
S: That’s kind of how I started experimenting with vegan cooking, I couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere, it didn’t exist, so I had to find ways to make it myself!
D: Yeah exactly! And I think especially with Jamaican food, on a mainstream scale it’s very white washed, so like with restaurants it’s more aesthetic and it’s more just based around jerk, which I understand. I just think there’s just so much more to Jamaican food and even just produce wise there’s so many incredible vegetables and dishes that I think people miss out on because on a mainstream scale it is really just jerk which I don’t think a lot of Jamaicans really have that much day to day. Even with stuff like stew peas, I feel like you can get that at a few places now, but if I wanted vegan stew peas, where exactly am I gonna get that?! So I had to try and figure it out myself.
S: So you grew up in Jamaica?
D: Yeah I was born there and moved here when I was 9, just turned 10. It was different, it was crazy, I grew up with like 3 mango trees and an ackee tree and a coconut tree. I think there’s so much deep connection there with the place and just seasonal eating that I wasn’t even aware of because it was just kind of what I was brought up with. Just even the idea of imported foods… I think about this quite a lot because I remember growing up in Jamaica and realising that I’d be really jealous of apples and stuff like that that we just couldn’t have in Jamaica and its really funny that now I’m here and the whole culture of living here is having produce from so many different countries. I’m trying to get back to eating seasonally and making that more of a habit. But yeah I think that’s probably my favourite part of Jamaica, how fresh everything is.
S: What’s your personal approach to food?
D: I think for me when Dee’s Table started the table physically just existed in my head so I’d write so many hypothetical menus drawing inspiration from different places, but I think the main source is my head? Dee’s Table is just as much of a mental space for me as well as a physical space, and when I go into the kitchen and it’s me fleshing out ideas of things that I think could work together but me just kind of experimenting and seeing how it is. A lot of it is rooted in nostalgia and things I love and miss that you can’t really get anywhere else. The fun for me is really just experimenting and working through these ideas. I think food for me became really exciting once I realised I could kind of just play around – there are no rules with food! You can just have fun. I think it really started for me when I stopped using recipes and just trusting my intuition.
S: Have black women helped shape your relationship with food in any way?
D: Absolutely, I think all the food I make is based on nostalgia. My mum is the main cook and she’s a very hard worker, she’s had pretty senior roles at schools as a head teacher which requires her to work quite a lot so she wasn’t around to cook when I was younger. My aunt would come and look after me and my grandma is a very renowned cook in the family so I’ve grown up with all these black women making food for me and there’s so much nostalgia in a lot of the practices we had growing up. I’m doing a supper club really soon where I’ve got this dish called Milo vs Horlicks. It really offends me a little bit that Horlicks isn’t vegan (laughs), I grew up having it every single night and I miss the flavour of Horlicks, there’s something really warming about it to me. So yeah I’ve definitely grown up watching my mum cook. she never really followed any recipe either, I’ve seen her make fried dumplings so many times but for some reason I can never make it like her! So I think a lot of it is kind of reconnecting so many food memories and just bringing them back with me. My food is like… a warm hug!
S: Let’s talk about the pleasure. What have been some of the highlights in your journey so far?
D: I literally only started the end of October last year it’s crazy, so many things have happened! But like I said, it’s been existing in my head for so long, for like a few years, and I think there’s a reason for everything and I just had this moment after coming back from Jamaica last year where I was like, I’m just gonna do it, start a stall and see where it goes. I think it’s amazing because I’ve been getting a lot of vegan Jamaicans coming to the stall and just being like omg I don’t remember the last time I had stew peas, don’t remember the last time I had like a ‘beef’ patty that tasted like actual beef, I can’t remember the last time I had saltfish or stuff like that, and I think there’s something to be said about that and it makes me really happy to see that. I feel like I’m helping to bridge the gap. I feel like a lot of people are intimidated by the vegan world, especially from the black experience, and see it as really ‘white’. It’s really interesting because I feel like they kind of make it about culture but when I think about it veganism is a healing thing and it’s about connecting back to yourself, which is what I’ve discovered. So I think it’s really amazing that a lot of Jamaican people that might not even be vegan can have the food and still see something that their mum would have made. I think that’s definitely my biggest highlight, bridging the gap, and also just existing, because I had so much frustration trying to find food like this. There’s lots of ital food, and I love it, I just didn’t grow up eating it. But it’s really cool because I think now since I’ve started there’s been quite a few Caribbean vegan stalls now which makes me think a change is beginning to happen.
S: Black vegan takeover!
D: Exactly. I think the most important thing for me is just to keep authenticity based on how I view my headspace and making sure I’m always creating. I think with this community there’s a tendency for things to get really trendy and everyone jumps onto a bandwagon, but I think it’s important to source inspiration for myself and from myself. Just making sure it’s always authentic and it’s from me. I’ve been slowly doing a lot more stalls and supper clubs which is probably my happy place. I would love to have some kind of more actual physical space, whether it’s temporary or something like that.
S: Let’s talk about the pain. What concerns you about mainstream veganism?
D: I grew up with things like really fresh coconut water, I had a fresh coconut tree, my uncle has a coconut tree as well. And in places like Indonesia and Bali as well- they have this thing called jamu jamu, this immunity drink that they have that has like fresh turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, lime all this stuff that now has been commodified almost? And it’s really funny because obviously stuff like coconut water is something I’ve had since a child, but now in the food industry it’s booming and people are like omg coconut water this newly discovered thing and it’s like, wait people have been drinking this for time. People have been having turmeric for time. When I think about some of these superfood powders, even grains like quinoa and stuff in south America, in Peru people have been eating that grain for time, but now it’s so expensive. It’s interesting how it’s been brought to the forefront now as new things.
S: I think that’s veganism’s next challenge, decolonising veganism so that it can be accessible to all, especially for indigenous people.
S: I wanted to talk to you about your music. I think it’s so interesting how connected food and music are and how important both are for the culture, you have Kelis, Speech Debelle, Questlove all coming out with cookbooks. One of the first vegan cookbooks I used was Bryant Terry’s Afro Vegan, and each recipe comes with a different song. Are the two connected for you in any way? Is it the same creative process?
D: I think it’s the same creative process because I think any creative process always starts with self-validation and I think that’s kind of what I’m realising, your headspace is the spark, it is the source and when you flesh it out, when you’re trying to work out a song, you kind of validate the spark in your head, you’re seeing it, you’re acknowledging it and you’re letting it become something physical and you’re taking it out of that context. So yeah I think it’s the same process because it’s validating your ideas. I think a lot of people always think they have to exist in one space but I don’t think that’s very human. I think it’s really interesting when someone is doing so much people see it as a negative, this person does too much, doing the most or whatever, but naturally you're just into loads of different things and I think for me it’s always been something I wanted to do. It was always either food or music for me, and I just realised I could do both. And it actually works at well for me as I’m writing a new record at the moment, I’m not really on the road as much, so it’s given me the perfect space bracket to do Dee’s Table and be in a new world. There’s something so refreshing about that. It’s really funny because I really do consider myself a passionate amateur and I think when you think about yourself in that way then anything is possible. I read the most amazing book recently called pretentiousness: why it matters and he just talks about the idea that the word amateur just means ‘lover of’ and if you think about yourself in that way, as opposed to the negative, I think people are scared of being an amateur or being at the beginning stages but I think it’s the love of something that keeps you returning to whatever it is. When I realised I was talking about food so much, and I was waking up every day excited, I was making plans for dinner at breakfast (laughs), I was like wait a second, I need to actually physically do this. A few years ago I just kind of blagged a restaurant job and it was amazing, it was a new path but there was something so exciting about that.
S: What advice would you give to someone transitioning to veganism?
D: Don’t be too hard on yourself! I think a lot of people start and really heavily criticise themselves for still having a craving. If you’ve eaten meat all of your life and you suddenly change it’s going to be difficult. Especially cheese, I mean we all know cheese is addictive. People cave, have a bit of whatever and think it’s over or something. Also just being self-aware of what you endorse. I think everyone should do that actually, just being more connected to what you're consuming and funding. I think that’s how we really make an impact on the world is what we endorse and what we spend our money on, so that’s been a massive change for me, is just being more self-aware, like wait a second, this brand is really problematic, I probably shouldn’t support this. I think it’s just more about connecting yourself with the food that you’re eating. I don’t know, I think a lot of people go in and feel like they can just not do any research on what they’re getting from different foods, different ingredients and produce, and then feel unwell. I think there are certain things you should just be aware of. People are pretty clueless in general about nutrition, there’s such a general lack of education, especially for a plant based diet. I didn’t even know lentils were a source of protein, I just wouldn’t have thought about it! I’ve been vegan three years and I’m still learning, I went to a talk the other day, and try and educate myself more and more. The biggest tip for me is definitely don’t be too hard on yourself, there’s been so much hardwiring from the diet we’ve been conditioned to have, you just can’t feel like the vegan police are gonna come and shame you or something! It’s a gradual journey. Do all the research you possibly can! Earthlings did it for me, it destroyed my soul… I read the Russell Simmons book and that was amazing. I also watched a lot of YouTube. I think the best example is just living, and thriving, I’ve literally transformed on so many levels. Sleep-wise? When I wake up I have so much energy.
Check out Denai’s next Supperclub on 14th June, 10 Cable Street.