The Rasta, Ital, and the Vegan: Decoding the roots

9 Mins read

Ital diet though is a plant-based diet, is nothing close to the modern Vegan diet. It is deeply rooted in culture and serves a higher purpose.

While we say food is political, the Vegan diet has more political affiliations than any other because the choice to adopt a vegan lifestyle is often driven by ethical or moral concerns.

It is often used as a form of activism or resistance to the dominant culture of meat eating. While it may be a personal choice for some individuals, it can also be seen as a political stance that seeks to create change at a societal and systemic level.

But why do people think that the roots of veganism are essentially white rather than seeing the other layers of culture that underlie it?

The idea that veganism has predominantly white roots stems from the history of the modern vegan movement, which emerged in the West during the 20th century.

Some of the early pioneers of veganism, such as Donald Watson and Francis Moore Lappé, were white, and much of the early literature on veganism was written by white authors.

Furthermore, many of the animal rights organisations and vegan activists that emerged during this period were predominantly white in leadership and staff.

This, combined with the fact that veganism has been marketed as a lifestyle choice that focuses on individual consumer choices, has led to the perception that it is a white Western phenomenon.

However, it is important to note that veganism has its roots in many different cultures and traditions. That is when the Ital diet and Rastafarianism come to light.

Rastafarianism: A Spiritual and Cultural Movement

For every non-vegan individual, vegan food is always bland, and colourless; except for some greens scattered over the plate, particularly smelling and boring. But Ital proves to be wrong.

The Ital diet, a plant-based diet followed by Rastafarians, can in many ways be seen as the forerunner of the modern vegan diet. The Ital diet is based on the principles of natural and organic agriculture and includes the consumption of whole and unprocessed foods.

This diet does not contain meat, dairy products, and other animal products, as well as processed and refined foods like salt and sugar, etc. The focus on plant-based whole foods is similar to the principles of the modern vegan diet.

Jahson Peat is a Rastafarian who runs an Ital restaurant ‘Zionly Manna’ in the heart of London, but in a very quiet place of the marketplace in Bermondsey. No-one would find it unless you came in search of it.

One could think this is what this Vegan-Caribbean food joint wants.  They want people to come in search of them. Once entering the restaurant, Zionly welcomes you with a collection of records carefully placed on the racks along with some artistically rested antique pieces.

There is a record player in the far-left corner that is ready to play music all the time. They had still time left to open, so the tables remained empty. The owner was busy prepping in the kitchen along with his young colleague.

The Picture of Jahson Peat, the owner of Zionly Manna sitting in his restaurant.
Jahson Peat, owner of Zionly Manna.

Jahson Peat remains quirky in his way. Over the years, this South London entrepreneur has created a diverse range of African-inspired art and antique businesses in Brixton and Peckham.

He now remains invested in Zionly Manna. He was born in Brixton, and raised in Jamaica. He has been running restaurants for the past 20 years, in Brixton, Peckham, and now in Bermondsey.

According to Peat, the word ‘Vegan’ alienates a lot of people, calling themselves very affluent, in a Western sense of it.

“Vegan food used to be something that separated the elite. Before, it used to be the poor people’s food. The ones who couldn’t afford meat had only vegetation. But it has become affluent. Now with the Western high badge of honour, people chose to be Vegan calling out animal cruelty. But this is after they have made cruelty happen on the face of the earth, right? Thus, the consciousness, which is guilt, came to the next generations,” he told me.

“In Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia, it is animal husbandry. Animals and life live together. You’ll have your cow eat plants and ploughs the field in the afternoon. We use the dung to fertilise the ground. You won’t actually necessarily kill it unless it was for festivals, celebrations, and things like that. I grew up in that culture.”

The Power of the Ital Diet

In the Ital diet, one would eat food within seasons, they follow a procession of nature. They wouldn’t actually have foods out of season. One couldn’t grow them because everything had its cycle.

In Ital, they eat food devoid of salt and sugar. Because they consider it is what’s giving you the slave to the sensation and the feelings that you say taste nice.

In Rastafarianism as a culture, it’s a rebellion against the slave food which is awful. Which is the foot of the animal, the intestines, the tongue, and the tail. Thus Rastafarianism is about relearning, wiping the slate clean of how we’ve been engineered to eat. Which is only going to be detrimental to us in the long term.

According to this faith, our body is the temple, which is all religious structures are about it. God dwells within this clean vessel and within this clean vessel, you can communicate higher and higher.

Zionly Manna offers a wide range of Ital food that is self-developed by Jahson but is inspired by different cultures like the Caribbean and Asia. If we read out the menu, it would look like any other Vegan/Vegetarian restaurant.

When I asked Jahson to recommend something out of the menu, he without any hesitation came up with the ‘Chickpea and Potato Curry’. Though anyone would expect anything bland, I was served with a warm plate that was bright in colour and smelled great.

The sweet potato and chickpea in the curry made it sensational to my palette, which is used to a meat-filled diet. I had it along with the fried rice. I would happily choose Ital if this was what I was served every day.

I also had a Chocolate cake to finish it off, which no one would believe was without any processed sugar.

So, the children whom benefitted from the high industrialisation of meat production, who realised it was detrimental to nature and life and so on, now fighting against their own elders who created that life.”

Jahson Peat

Victor is a Rastafarian whom I met accidentally. He was raised in London but originally from Ethiopia. His mother used to cook him Ital food in clay pots back when he used to live with her.

For a long time, he hasn’t had Ital food. I took him along on my visit to Zionly Manna. He said it tasted nothing like what his mother cooks but different and better.

“I started following Rastafarianism because it connected me to my African roots. Ital food is nothing like the Vegan food you see. It has deep cultural roots and a higher purpose. When we say we don’t add processed salt or any other spices, you may understand the food as it might not have any flavors. But it is nothing like that,” Victor explained.

“Each vegetable or fruit has its own flavour that adds to the food we cook which makes it tasty. Also, we emphasise on traditional cooking methods such as steaming, roasting, or boiling while avoiding the use of artificial additives, preservatives, or chemicals.”

Rastafarianism is defined by a belief in Haile Selassie’s divinity and a rejection of the white-dominated culture and social systems that arose in Jamaica during colonialism. He was the former emperor of Ethiopia. They commonly express their ideas through music, art, and language, and the movement has had a considerable impact on Jamaican culture and identity.

The movement places a high value on social and political action, and several Rastafarians have been associated with social justice and liberation movements, such as the fight against colonialism and racism. Furthermore, Rastafarianism and the Ital diet are predominantly based upon finding a higher sense of consciousness.

“There had no food or restaurant to come and eat, which was strictly Ital, in London. So, I had to put one there. I had to put the name Vegan along with Ital because no one knew what Ital was. I had a battle among the Rastafarians as well. Because some of them would eat fish along with their diet,” Jahson said.

“So, I had that kind of debate in relation to consciousness and who and how we should eat. We never use Aluminium pots in here. The Rastas knew from long ago that this was harmful. Even the vessels like plastic and stuff, we weren’t using any of those.

“We used the coconut shell and calabash to eat off. I only use cast-iron pots here in the restaurant. We used to use earthenware as much as possible. But now that I got to fly them from another country, I am forced to find an alternative,” he explains.

The Ital v/s the Vegan

Picture of the dining room of the restaurant Zionly Manna. There are wooden tables placed. There is a plate of food with the Chickpea and potato curry served along with Fried Rice on the table.
The Chickpea and Potato Curry with Fried rice

While veganism emphasises the avoidance of animal products, the Italian diet goes a step further by emphasising the eating of complete, unadulterated foods. This means that the Ital diet generally avoids processed foods, refined sugars, additives, and artificial substances.

The Ital diet encourages the use of moderate cooking methods to preserve food’s inherent flavour and minerals. Foods that are raw or minimally cooked are preferred, with a focus on steaming, boiling, and sautéing. Deep-frying and excessive oil use are normally avoided.

The Ital diet emphasises the use of seasonal and locally available ingredients. The diet is built on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Organic and sustainable farming practices are frequently advocated by Rastafarians.

The diet promotes mindful eating by encouraging gratitude, appreciation, and mindfulness of the food ingested. It entails taking the time to prepare meals with love and care, as well as eating in a calm and pleasant setting.

Aside from dietary choices, the Ital lifestyle frequently includes the use of herbal treatments and natural therapeutic methods. This includes the use of medicinal herbs, teas, and tonics to treat a variety of diseases and improve overall health.

It is crucial to remember that the Ital diet varies between individuals and groups because there are no specific rules or recommendations. Some Rastafarians adhere to a more rigorous interpretation of the Ital diet, but others take a more liberal approach, integrating certain modern vegan food options.

The roots of Veganism

Veganism has multiple roots and influences that extend beyond the present vegan movement’s Western or white-centric origins. Asians remain predominant among them.

The Buddhist and Jain cultures started following veganism about thousand years ago. Being part of the spiritual practice of nonviolence and compassion, many Buddhists in Asia eat a plant-based diet.

Many Tibetan, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese Buddhists practice vegetarianism and veganism and have done so for hundreds of years. While Jainism which originated in India, emphasises kindness towards all living beings and involves a strict vegetarian diet that is often vegan.

For thousands of years, many Jains in India and elsewhere in Asia have practiced veganism. In traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, which is an Indian system of medicine, diet is regarded as an important aspect of health and fitness.

Many Ayurvedic diets are plant-based and include a range of grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, as well as medicinal herbs and spices. Additionally, Macrobiotics is a Japanese dietary philosophy that foregrounds the intake of entire, natural foods such as grains, vegetables, legumes, and sea vegetables. Many macrobiotic diets are plant-based and frequently incorporate vegan ideals.

While the Vegan diet, in all its forms, continues to gain popularity globally, however, have recently been several commotions around the diet choice. Some doctors and nutritionists have expressed concerns about whether vegan diets are enough for supplying all of the body’s dietary requirements.

While a well-planned vegan diet can be nutrient-complete and healthy, some nutrients, like Vitamin B12, iron, and Omega-3 fatty acids, can be more challenging to get from plant-based sources.

Concerns regarding cultural appropriation and the erasure of the contributions of non-Western cultures and traditions to plant-based diets have been raised in response to criticism of how veganism has been pushed and sold by primarily white, Western voices.

While concern for animal welfare is frequently the driving force behind becoming a vegan, some vegan products’ production and sourcing practices have drawn criticism, especially those that use soy or other crops that contribute to deforestation, altered land usage, or breaches of human rights.

The war between responsible eating and meat-based diets will continue to do so. But it would be more damaging if we forget the cultural roots of the choices we make, be it any lifestyle alternatives.

Cultural erasure or deliberate ignorance of the heritage for whatever reason could result in the loss of identity of a community. It could lead to misrepresentation and exclusion in the near future.

If you’ve been told to eat in a particular way by someone who doesn’t care about your cultural representation or your best interests, you need to start learning. Rastafarianism is about relearning, about clearing the slate of how we’ve been programmed to eat, which will only be bad for us in the long run.

“It wasn’t just about the food; it was about the entire experience, which began with your food, what you put into every orifice of your body, ” Jahson Peat tells me.

“So, food is important, but so is what you see and hear. You know, and their feelings and so on. So, all that the body needs, how are you feeding it?”

All images by Praveena Sankar.

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