BIPOC Portraits: Okonomi Kitchen (An Interview with Lisa Kitahara)

BIPOC Portraits is a series in which Best of Vegan contributors Val & Mani Latifi of Plant-Based Passport profile one BIPOC vegan creator each week over the course of 16 weeks, to shed light on the unique challenges BIPOCs face in making the decision to embrace veganism. For BIPOCs, the prevailing narrative that veganism is a white-dominated movement can often mean a perceived loss of cultural identity. The hope of this profile series is to make veganism a little less lonely for BIPOCs and to give courage to vegan-curious BIPOCs out there. In the eleventh installment of BIPOC Portraits, Lisa Kitahara of Okonomi Kitchen shares her journey to veganism as a Japanese-Chinese Canadian. She also provides a delicious recipe for Eggplant Unagi Don.

[The acronym BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color]

BIPOC Portraits: Okonomi Kitchen (An Interview with Lisa Kitahara)

Lisa Kitahara is a food blogger based in Toronto, Canada. Lisa became vegan almost a decade ago after watching Earthlings. She made the transition by eating mostly plant-based, then by slowly making changes in her day-to-day lifestyle, such as her makeup and clothing purchases. Her favourite thing about being vegan is getting creative in the kitchen! She finds the experimentation aspect difficult at times, but creating something truly delicious and seeing the reactions of her non-vegan friends and family is truly rewarding to her. Lisa enjoys working out, baking bread, spending time with her dog Subie, and working on cars. Currently, she’s revamping her website, re-branding and designing (for potential merchandise), and starting up on YouTube once again.

Follow Lisa: Website | Instagram | YouTube | TikTok

Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Eggplant Eel Rice Bowl)
Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl). Click on the photo for the full recipe.

When you first went vegan, did you see the vegan community as diverse? Did you see yourself as having a place in the vegan community as a BIPOC?

No, not at all. I think I may have been the only vegan person in my city (haha), especially where it was predominantly Asian. No one knew what ‘vegan’ was, what eating plant-based was like and there were zero options for restaurants and when eating out. Back then, I remember always having to eat beforehand or bringing my own food. When I would ask, people would look at me funny and say, “No, we don’t have anything on the menu” or have anyone offer an alternative. 

I think I may have been the only vegan person in my city. No one knew what ‘vegan’ was, what eating plant-based was like and there were zero options for eating out

Did you have any fears or reservations about going vegan? Did you feel like you might lose part of your cultural identity in your transition to veganism?

Yes. I was never really too interested in poultry or meats and am lactose intolerant, so giving up meats and dairy didn’t impact me too much. But coming from a culture that is big on seafood (Japanese) and eggs— and loving seafood—I did find myself missing certain dishes, especially when visiting Japan. It was extremely difficult to be vegan when I would visit each summer, and I also did miss eating my mom’s food because for a long time, she didn’t really understand what eating plant-based was.

Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Eggplant Eel Rice Bowl)
Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl). Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Did you worry about how your friends and family would react to your decision to go vegan? And how did they react?

Yes, 100%! My family actually didn’t know for a few years because I knew they would be against it. When I moved out to university was when I first spoke up about it to my parents, and my mom was against it for a few weeks, but she realized it was ultimately my decision and now supports me all the way. My family loves the dishes I make, and they enjoy the alternatives so many brands have to offer now! When I first told my close friends, they really didn’t understand but never said too much about it. Other friends would constantly make a lot of jokes about it (never in a way where they were trying to discourage me), but I just brushed it off because I knew people were just not accustomed to it. Now, my friends enjoy vegan food and love trying new dishes with me!

I remember the first time trying vegan cheese almost eight years ago and it tasted like plastic, but now vegan cheeses are amazing, and I really enjoy most of them

Did you have challenges finding vegan substitutes to make your cultural dishes? What substitutes did you make?

Absolutely. When I first went vegan, there weren’t all the amazing alternatives we have now. I remember only really having tofu, tempeh, beans, rice, and a wide range of vegetables (which I enjoyed and loved!) but now I really love that there are SO MANY alternatives for almost everything—even fish! I remember the first time trying vegan cheese almost eight years ago and it tasted like plastic, but now vegan cheeses are amazing, and I really enjoy most of them. For dishes where beef, chicken, grounds (and other meats) are the star, it’s so easy to swap it out for vegan alternatives now. I do hope that the alternatives for seafood will expand in the upcoming years, though.

Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Eggplant Eel Rice Bowl)
Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl). Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Article Val and Mani Latifi. Recipe and photos by Lisa Kitahara of Okonomi Kitchen.

Val Latifi is a first generation Filipino-American. She runs Plant-Based Passport—a food and travel blog—with her Persian-American husband Mani. They live in Houston, Texas with their crazy rescue pug Mango. She is an attorney by day. In a former life, she was a music journalist for The Village Voice. She has traveled to thirty-three countries and five continents together with her husband. Travel informs and inspires their cooking. The two of them recreate and veganize dishes they’ve sampled abroad, as well as dishes they grew up eating. Through their food blog, they seek to dispel the notion that you have to give up your cultural heritage in going vegan, while spotlighting underrepresented cuisines. 

If you loved this BIPOC Portrait of Okonomi Kitchen, you might also like…

Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl)

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Japanese Cuisine

 

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