Okra and fonio: Dubai vegan restaurant Veghana brings West African flavours

The online business is trying to change the perception of plant-based dishes being bland

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If vegan cuisine is considered bland, cooks are partly to blame. Nana-Serwa Mancell reached that realisation when embracing the lifestyle. As a Ghanaian used to the hearty stews of her homeland, she says she has found limited vegan culinary options on offer in the UAE.

“It is shocking, the lack of variety,” she says. “You go to places that claim they are all healthy and modern, and you realise they only have one or two vegan dishes - and even those feel like an afterthought.”

Mancell took matters into her own hands, and Veghana was born. The online delivery restaurant has built a devoted following with its West African take on vegan cuisine in less than a year.

Veghana works from a cloud kitchen in Downtown Dubai, and its vibrant and focused menu features refreshing takes on African staples. The sturdy jollof rice, a popular dish in Ghana and Nigeria, comes with a zesty tomato sauce that’s offset by the sweetness of the fried plantains. Deliciously spiced yam balls and coleslaw are served on the side.

Also on hand is red red, the much-loved Ghanaian dish that is a black-eyed bean stew served with fried plantain and gari foto – the latter is a potent combination of mashed cassava, tomatoes, onions, carrots and green peppers.

Both dishes are uncompromisingly flavoursome, attributes of West African cuisine Mancell wants to transfer to the vegan palate.

Food that connects

She knew she was on to a winning formula when formulating the dishes at home in April 2020. At the time, she was cooking for friends alone at home in Dubai because of health and safety measures in light of the pandemic.

“If you remember, many of the restaurants were closed at the time. So I created these care packages of meals for my bubble of friends, who were all vegan, and since I got tired of just making the same old pasta with a boring tomato sauce to suit their palate, I thought maybe they should try what I make for myself. They immediately told me how delicious it was.”

The word quickly spread and before long Mancell was giving away free dinners for more friends. Despite the investment and labour involved, Mancell says doing it this way allowed her to evolve her cooking without the pressure.

It also made her confront some of her own culinary misconceptions. "In most parts of Africa, there remains this view that a dish without meat is a poor man's food," she says. "We have been brainwashed into believing that and the more vegan dishes I made for people here in Dubai, and seeing their reactions, helped me shake out of those beliefs and realise what I am cooking is worthy."

The future of vegan cuisine

What also helps is the majority of West Africa’s landscape and produce are tailor-made for a vegan-friendly diet. "We don't have grazing animals, as you might see in east or southern Africa, so meat was never naturally part of what we ate over there.

“That’s why whenever we cook meat, we either boil it or fry it to death, and then put it in a sauce. The only reason why we ate it really was for that status symbol.

"But if we really embrace the produce we have, from the okra and spinach to the beans and the plantains, and cook them the way it’s meant and with the right sauces and spice combinations, what we have are some really delicious, and in many cases healthy, dishes."

One of which is the brilliant okra stew. Gently cooked with a light tomato and onion sauce, the okra is served with a fluffy bed of nutty flavoured grain called fonio.

Mancell says fonio is "Africa's answer to quinoa" and it’s the future of vegan cuisine. "It's the most mind-blowing thing and I am quite evangelical about it," she says. "It grows in arid deserts of northern parts of Africa, it has as many nutrients as quinoa and it's gluten-free.

“It is so good and yet unknown globally. Even in Africa we don't eat it as much and prefer to eat imported rice. That is just crazy to me.”

Come and get it

With such an exciting and adventurous menu, it didn’t take long for Mancell to transform her hobby – she previously worked in marketing – into a business. After moving into private catering towards the end of the year, Mancell took Veghana online.

With each dish cooked to order, requests from Dubai are normally delivered within two hours, while Abu Dhabi customers are requested to pre-order 24 hours prior.

Despite Veghana's growing popularity and participation in various pop-up events, Mancell refuses to move into a brick-and-mortar store. “I love the freedom and flexibility it offers,” she says.

“Maybe it’s part of my heritage, but I have always been nomadic. I am also so inspired by what I am doing that I can’t wait for more people to try this kind of delicious and healthy food.

“That’s why I want to do more pop-ups and festival appearances. I am not waiting for you to come to me, I am coming to you.”

More information is available at veghana.life

Updated: February 17, 2022, 7:53 AM