The Bedouin Vegan: meet the chef pioneering plant-based cuisine in Saudi Arabia
'While I believed in veganism, I was panicked and overwhelmed by it,' says Almaha Aldossari
Busy in her kitchen, Almaha Aldossari constructs a mouth-watering, gourmet burger with all the trimmings – creamy avocado, crisp alfalfa sprouts, caramelised onions and mushrooms, oozing cheese, and a tender, juicy patty. Except that this burger is all plant-based, including the cheese.
When the Saudi chef and consultant first heard about veganism, she was unconvinced. Fast-forward three years and Aldossari, 30, now goes by the moniker The Bedouin Vegan on social media and is one of the earliest advocates of the lifestyle in Saudi Arabia.
Proponents of veganism exclude meat and animal by-products, such as dairy, eggs and honey, from their diet, and typically eschew products that have been tested on animals or animal-derived products, such as fur or leather. Aldossari first came across the concept as she was finishing her culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in London. It was a conversation with her sister – who remarked that humans are the only creatures who consume the milk of another species – that got Aldossari thinking. “It was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me and forced me to start learning more about veganism by researching, reading and watching documentaries,” she tells The National. “While I believed in veganism, I was panicked and overwhelmed by it.”
Still unconvinced, Aldossari decided to dip a toe into the lifestyle. She started slow, by cutting out dairy and incorporating one plant-based meal into her daily eating plan. “Two months into the diet, my health improved and I was feeling better and more energetic,” she says. “Initially, I did it for my health, but soon realised the bigger ethical and environmental issues behind veganism.”
Now a staunch vegan, Aldossari felt compelled to educate others about the lifestyle choice. She turned to Snapchat and Twitter, the two most popular social media platforms in Saudi Arabia, to generate an interest and give her followers enough information to make their own choices.
“As The Bedouin Vegan, I hope to clear some of the misconceptions that are associated with veganism, like that eating healthy is boring and bland,” she explains. “I want to shake people’s beliefs and give them an option, to see what they like better.”
While having options is all very well and good, Aldossari also acknowledges the difficulties that come with changing people’s habits. “Veganism in itself is controversial,” she says. “Moreover, the Saudi diet is meat-heavy. More than being simply food, meat signifies generosity, hospitality and wealth. And to tell people not to eat the food your grandmother served or that you should stop eating meat … there was a lot of backlash and resistance.”
On the other hand, her channels have also created a positive dialogue. While some followers agree with her stance, many comment that it is a matter of convenience and there are limited options for vegans in Saudi Arabia. “It made me realise that there is a lot of interest. People want simple, wholesome, nutritious and nourishing food, and it is only a matter of creating more options.”
When creating a burger from beets and beans, it is important to replicate the appearance of what we are used to seeing.
Once she returned to the kingdom in 2017, Aldossari toyed with the idea of opening her own vegan restaurant, but with a rise in popularity of meat-focused diets, such as keto and paleo, she decided to instead offer plant-based options to local restaurants, cafes and private clients. Soon, her dishes at upscale burger joint, Blac Fine Burgers in Riyadh, won over diners. The simple menu consisted of crunchy chickpea salad with mixed greens and a cashew nut-tahini dressing; fries with vegan cheese, jalapenos and Chips Oman; a barbecue burger made from jackfruit; and peanut butter brownies served with banana coconut ice cream.
Some of her other popular creations for private clients and events have been fish tacos made with jackfruit, gazpacho soup made with smoked watermelon, and pine nut and chilli mango kale salad, plus an inventive “roast beef” also made from watermelon.
“When creating a burger from beets and beans, it is important to replicate the appearance of what we are used to seeing,” she explains, adding that she believes the eyes create a visual association first, and that the look of the food can make the transition to plant-based meals easier for meat-eaters.
Beliz Tecirli, who recently went vegan, stumbled upon Aldossari’s YouTube videos while researching plant-based nutrition.
“The Bedouin Vegan’s approach is creative and instructive, which is ideal for learning new vegan recipes,” she says.
Only about a year ago, Tecirli found that most cafes in Saudi Arabia did not stock non-dairy milk or vegan options, but now many places offer almond, soy, oat and coconut milks. Tecirli says she is also starting to meet more and more like-minded people. “It’s very promising to see a growing network of vegans and options for practising a vegan lifestyle. I think the future is vegan.”
Aldossari has also noticed more acceptance and inclusion of the diet in the kingdom, as people have more information at their fingertips. “Millennials and Generation Z,” she says, “will drive this movement.”
Updated: December 26, 2019 06:26 PM