This Day (Lagos)

2 August 2014

Nigeria: A Day At Nigeria's First Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurant

interview

Whether you're craving for eba and efo riro or sharwarma, Veggie Victory, Nigeria's first vegan and vegetarian restaurant located in Lagos is aplenty with tasty fare that even meat eaters will want to chow down. OMOLOLA ITAYEMI spent a Tuesday afternoon sampling house favourites and talking to the founders and owners of the restaurant, Hakeem and Bola Jimo

As more people embrace a healthier lifestyle, the vegan lifestyle is becoming an attractive option with celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Erica Badu, Oprah Winfrey embracing it. In one of the food shops at the Freedom Park, Lagos is Veggie Victory, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant debuted a year ago. It is the perfect option for people craving for their dishes free of animal products. Not only is the entire menu free of all animal products, seafood and eggs, but Veggie Victory actually uses soy products and wheat gluten to recreate traditional meat products. For example, Veggie Burgers have fake "meat burgers" and their Sharwarma is the house specialty. Omnivores will get a kick out of testing the authenticity of the menu items, while vegans and vegetarians will enjoy not being relegated to limited dining options. Much more than food, the owners of this restaurant see it as a lifestyle. Bola Jimo, wife and co-partner is a walking advertisement for her belief. She extends her love for natural products to her beauty regimen. Bola spots natural hair and uses only natural products for her hair and other beauty regime. They are championing the cause of soy milk as a replacement for animal milk and are doing a good job of it. Daily, there are converts who though might not embrace it immediately, can envisage the foreseeable future of embracing it. I had a Sharwarma which sells for N1,000, it isn't only delicious, it staved off calories that come with the regular Sharwarma. The Nigerian meals which sell for the regular price of N1,300 was a better option for my friend, Ada and she was pleasantly surprised that the meat that accompanied the meal wasn't regular beef or chicken because she could have sworn it tasted like one. I left with two sticks of Vegan Suya at N200 each and it made a fantastic late-evening snack.

How did that idea come up?

Hakeem said: "I have been a vegetarian and a vegan for over 15 years, and as a German/Nigerian who grew up in Europe, I was lucky to have access to great restaurants. When I moved to Lagos a couple of years back, it became really difficult to eat well, and when I travelled to Asia sometime last year, where they have vegetarian and vegan restaurants all over, I thought to myself: Why not open one in Lagos?

What's the difference between vegetarian and vegan?

"Vegetarian means no meat and no fish, while vegan cuisine leaves out all animal products, including eggs and dairy. The key is to replace traditional ingredients with vegetarian/vegan ones; that way you don't miss out on the food variety. For instance, instead of meat we're using Tofu and Seitan. Tofu is a soy product, while Seitan comes from wheat. The feedback has been really encouraging. The general perception among Nigerians is that vegetarian cuisines are healthier; so that's a first step. Bola added: "The secret is making Tofu and Seitan delicious enough to eat. I actually relocated for sometime to Ghana to learn how to cook it deliciously. We don't use processed foods including additives. I remember my grandmother doesn't use Maggi or Knorr when cooking. She uses Iru (a local spice) and other natural condiments. We tried it here and people were like, wow it's tasty. When we first started, I refused to let people know we didn't use Maggi. I serve them first and leave them to eat. Afterwards when I inform them that the meal was devoid of Maggi or any artificial condiment, their reaction is the same surprise.

So what kind of dishes are on the menu?

Hakeem said: "You'd be surprised! Veggie burgers, vegan shawarma, soy dogs, and a lot of the traditional Nigerian dishes like Egusi Soup and Pepper Soup, but my favourite is the Vegan Suya. The response has been phenomenal. Many people that try our food for the first time say: How can it even taste so good!? We also have desserts, delicious vegan cup cakes, and we also offer Smoothies. You're welcome to bring your own ideas, too. We've had a bunch of people come with their own ideas, which is great. We don't do soft drinks at all. We do smoothies. That's freshly squeezed juices. We have shakes but we use soy milk and soy yoghurt made from scratch instead of cow milk because we don't use it."

The names of your shakes are not the usual, how did you come about that?

Bola said: "From everywhere, we are just being creative with their names. Freedom Shake derived it's name from this location, Freedom Park. Go Slow from the incessant traffic gridlock in town. Kailani is Hakeem's daughter name. VV shake is named after the restaurant. Kombucha is a lightly effervescent fermented drink of sweetened black tea that has awesome health benefits, interestingly that's it's natural name. These are some of the creative names we have come up with and more will definitely come in the future."

What kind of people patronise this restaurant?Are they all health freaks and foreigners?

Bola said: "Not at all. In fact, we don't have that many die-hard vegetarian customers. I would say around 9 out of 10 customers are health-conscious individuals, who realise that the modern lifestyle -sitting in an A/C cooled office all day, with little physical exercise - slows down our metabolism and the heavy food we usually consume isn't good for our body. Eating vegetarian and vegan cuisine makes you feel lighter and more agile, the health benefits are undisputed."

How come they selected Freedom Park as the location to open the first restaurant?

Bola said: "I came here for a Nneka concert and fell in love with the place. Good food needs a good environment and a park with lots of greenery is perfect. Also, a lot of people come here to relax or eat in other eateries. So, it's a good place to introduce food that isn't so known yet."

Hakeem said: "It's the World Veg Fest & Healthy Living Expo in Nigeria happening on October 10th to 12th at the Freedom Park in Lagos Island as part of the World Veg Fest 2014 in Accra, Ghana by the International Vegetarian Union. Nigeria has not seen an event like that before. We are going to bring together people who have dedicated their lives to a healthy, delicious and sustainable living. Around thirty booths are available so exhibitors can showcase their products and services. It's a three day event, the kick-off for a healthier and more sustainable Nigeria. Changing Nigeria one bite at a time!

What is your mission?

"Our story began with the need to replace a societal norm that authentic Nigerian food could only be gotten in a shanty. From then on, we chose to start a culinary revolution with our customers at the centre of the service matrix. It took more ventures than Gullivers to get the best for your service. We dish out fresh, hot, vegetarian meals, spicy local and pan-African delicacies. At Veggie Victory, a delectable parade of fresh catch is as delightful in the mouth as it is to the eye.

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