The cruel legacy of colonialism


This week’s post is inspired by our recent journeys in South East Asia and the experience of many naturally vegan (and gluten free!) traditional cuisines. So what happened? What led us away from being cruelty-free? Dear readers, cruelty creates cruelty. You might be surprised to find out that the non-vegan additions to the otherwise plant-based cuisine can be a result of… colonialism! Read on to learn more.

The legacy of condensed milk


Do you believe in your food’s energy? Do you believe that your food follows a certain legacy? We do. Meat on your plate is essentially dead animal, and we have long been advocating for “the vegan turn” on the ecological, empathetic and energetic level!
With this introduction, how would you feel consuming on a daily basis a product that has been created as a field ration for the military? Many of us tend to forget or simply bypass the circumstances under which certain foods have been created. But items like coca-cola, or condensed milk (see here: History of condensed milk) were essentially meant to serve the soldiers in extreme conditions where regular food was not available.

Long story short, canned milk is produced by slowly boiling cow’s milk to let the water simmer off and adding sugar as a preservative. Adding sugar allows the milk to last for years if the can remains unopened. The first “boom” in production and sales of condensed milk appeared around The American Civil War, as it was used as a military field ration. After the war, the demand decreased, and many condenseries went out of business. Until… 1st World War came! With an increasing, or rather revived need for easily-transportable, almost non-expirable foods, condensed milk once again found its way to the soldiers’ backpacks.

Maybe it would make sense to stop and ask ourselves:

Are we really living in conditions that demand us to use those processed foods? 
Are we in the fields, on a military mission where food and drinks are scarce and we must maintain physical fitness and mind alertness for the next 36 hours? Probably not. 

If you exchanged all your meals with the compressed food-bars made for space-missions, you would probably think that something is not right in your dietary choices. For some reason we do not longer feel the same way about processed foods or… meat (in times when plant-based alternatives are plentiful)!

Colonialism and dominion

So far we have used the word “Dominion” twice on this blog already, or tater in two different contexts. First time was related to the Australian documentary presenting the dark side of several businesses that rely on animal-derived products/resources in both the food and fashion industry. Second time we discussed “dominion” in terms of modern slavery and the fact that a percentage of very wealthy players in this world imposes certain rules on the less privileged, without taking ethics into consideration. Today, these two merge.

During our recent travels in Cambodia, we stayed in Sacred Lotus - it is Phnom Penh’s first vegan homestay and café (highly recommended!) run by Krishan from the UK and his girlfriend Neth from Cambodia. The café serves many traditional Khmer dishes that are naturally vegan, which made us think - how and when did the Khmer cuisine become non-vegan? Why were the animal-derived ingredients added, “out of the sudden”? The answer is… colonialism.

Typical Thai dessert: sticky rice with mango and COCONUT milk on the side.  Image source:  Unsplash .

Typical Thai dessert: sticky rice with mango and COCONUT milk on the side.

Image source: Unsplash.

As early as 1868, Anglo-Swiss sold over 374,000 cartons of condensed milk. Demand was led by Great Britain and its colonies […]

- From “A condensed history: the Page brothers and Anglo-Swiss

And following a 2018 article form The Huffington Post, sometimes the passing of “the condensed milk tradition” happened quite spontaneously, by simply maintaining the colonizer’s (Britain’s) traditions in the new country, not by imposing in any way the use of the condensed milk in the local cuisine.

For the British expats who had made their way to places such as Hong Kong, tea time was still a national pastime, and sweetened condensed milk allowed them to keep many of their traditions and, perhaps unwittingly, pass them on to generations of Chinese.

- “Condensed Milk Toast, A Hong Kong Staple Loaded With Nostalgia

Asian and South-east Asian cuisines are normally dairy-free. Yes, meat is used, however, it is very expensive, and hence only used for special occasions/in minimal amounts. And further research has brought us to discovering more (ancient) cultures that obtained from eating meat and animal-derived products. Veganism is not a “hip, new thing”, quite the contrary!

In ancient Greece, early veganism was referred to as “abstinence from beings with a soul”. In 500 BCE, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras advocated the idea that all animals had immortal souls which would be reincarnated after death. He shunned harming animals and along with the mythical poet Orpheus, also abstained from eggs. Apollonius of Tyana shared these strong views on animal rights and the Greek philosopher Plotinus even eschewed medicines made from animals.

- The Independent, 2017 “Who were the world’s very earliest vegans

Does veganism have color?

Piece of fresh jackfruit in Cambodia.

Piece of fresh jackfruit in Cambodia.

Doing the research for this article, we also stumbled upon an interesting debate discussing the profile of “an average vegan”. Nowadays, social media and other popular information channels present a very biased picture of veganism. Looking for “vegan” on the internet or social media, you will likely see images of lean, caucasian models or yoga teachers eating a beautifully decorated smoothie-bowl. You will find blogs with recipes for smoothies with fancy ingredients, superfoods and freeze-dried berries on top. That’s… not the full image of a vegan lifestyle. That’s actually commodifying the vegan lifestyle.

And coming back to the discussion of color… The mainstream images rarely show a racially balanced (or gender-balanced, for that matter!) image of the vegan population. Hence, the current trend tends to misleadingly present veganism as attributed to the caucasian, educated middle-class, almost tauntingly omitting people of color. Isn’t this paradoxical? The European colonizers brought not only dairy products, but imposed a racial and cultural dominion on other nations, and now it’s the group seen as the promotor of a cruelty-free lifestyle? When in fact indulging on many foods that are not naturally a part of the Western diet! Ask any vegan person you know about their love for tofu, tempeh, quinoa or “pulled pork” made of barbecue-spiced jackfruit. Their eyes would probably glow enthusiastically. And all of those foods are truly great! But do we ever think of the consequences of implementing those in a “hip” Western dietary trend?

Even with that much star power, mainstream veganism still manages to elbow out vegans of color as it's convenient. In the most striking example, foods most associated with vegan meals -- crumbly blocks of tofu, fluffy quinoa, pots of chia pudding, "wraps" made from collard greens instead of tortillas, pulled-pork sandwiches made from jackfruit -- originated in ethnic communities who have been eating these items for hundreds of years before they were plucked and reclothed as "superfoods" or clever meat alternatives, stripping of them of their identities. "They borrow from so many different cultures, for sure," says Claiborne with an exasperated laugh. When anything gets sucked up into the current of what’s trendy, the price goes up, making it harder for the communities that have long depended on these ingredients to afford them. "When a thin, white vegan lady says something is cool, tons of people listen," says Badillo.

- Thrillist: “The Vegan Race Wars: How the Mainstream Ignores Vegans of Color

Food trends might not be something that we would immediately associate with racial supremacy, but sadly, it is the case. Access to healthy foods and access to information abut what those healthy foods are, is not available to everyone, and producers of fast, processed foods are happy see the profit poles rise, not really thinking whether (an excessive) consumption of processed foods may be negatively effecting communities with a relatively limited access to information on health and nutrition.

Many people say that what we eat is essentially a question of choice. And it is. But to make an educated choice, we need to be informed on pros and cons and have a certain understanding for what those pros and cons might imply!

And since education remains a privilege, so do food choices.