Why is being vegan so damn hard?

One glance down this page- the duck, the dumplings, the pork, the eggs, the yoghurt, the milk- scream like a vegan hit-list of undesirables. Up until recently, considering issues of sustainability for me meant being aware of our finite and limited resources, namely the issues of energy, waste, clean water, plastics and other long-term landfill items. I still think about those elements in my lifestyle. But why didn’t I think of applying this to food?

First there’s making the connection between food and sustainability- the acceptance that eating less meat is a more sustainable choice. This isn’t a new idea. This war-time exhibition recipe book suggests just one meatless meal a week would save the country £52 million a year- presumably the equivalent is a much higher figure now.


Most recently it’s been likened to taking 24 million cars of the road. The emphasis may have shifted, but whether it’s saving the planet or your own wallet- eating less meat is more sustainable.

Next there’s the image. No-one likes being preached to and vegans either by virtue of it being a very different lifestyle choice or meat being so tasty, have been labelled as didactic, whether they are or not.

And then there’s the tipping point. You can accept the best arguments in the world, know the theory and yet do nothing in practice. My turning point came in the glorious form of comedian Simon Amstell and his show “Carnage”. It was his humorous and witty “mockumentary” set in a vegan future, that made me feel more comfortable about giving it a try.

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3 months later and I think it’s time for a vegan review. I have lapsed on only a handful of occasions, not as I and my friends thought I would- when drunk- when we’re intoxicated I think we tend to make bad food choices in general. No, I lapsed at events such as when I went to my mother’s at the weekend and birthday celebrations, and yes sometimes I was also drunk. Take for example my friends’ birthday cake- she isn’t a vegan or even a fan of sweet things- so we made her a lasagne cake. To miss this was to miss out on a tiny part of the celebration:

IMG_6021.jpgFor my birthday meal I was faced with a dilemma. To go to a vegan place or to not go to a vegan place  I distinctly remember promising my carnivorous friends I would never drag them to a vegan establishment against their wishes. And I wasn’t going to disown them with the line “It’s not you, it’s me” and hang out with vegans only for the rest of my life. Even if I did want to go to a vegan restaurant, most were pop-ups, small, far from central, didn’t take bookings of large groups or just weren’t celebratory enough. I wanted somewhere like burger and lobster- without the burger and lobster, not the hipster cafe on the other side of town. In the end I went for Yauatcha which had a vegetarian set menu which could be made vegan. Unfortunately I had to confirm 2 days in advance by email for the vegan menus, so on the day I ended up with the vegetarian menu. It was overpriced, and not the experience I was hoping for.


My mother’s cooking. When you become vegan, your memories don’t just go away. My mother said she was supportive, but really she was at a loss. Even though a lot of the dishes she’s been making since forever are vegan- any veggie stir fry, gluten and shitake, peanut and sour plum, sweet and sour aubergine, she just didn’t know what to make me. We tried reinventing dishes- dumplings for example, but we had to make two fillings and in untested, untraditional waters. It wasn’t a comfortable experience venturing into the unknown and a hassle. In the end, I think being vegan drove a gigantic wedge in our relationship. I had to cook separate meals, I knew I was being a pain at family dinners and being vegan became the recurring topic in a negative way. When we should have been catching up about her life and mine, the question from her was still- why are you doing this to yourself?


The health benefits. I lost no weight and am still classified as overweight. Weight aside, I became spotty and moody. Apparently this may have been because I was unwittingly putting myself on a detox diet, during which my body decided to expel toxins to the surface causing me to erupt in unattractive, post-pubescent spots. Another explanation might be a temporary hormonal imbalance from not eating meat and dairy. Overall, I felt slightly better, but then again I wasn’t unhealthy to begin with.

I live to eat. A bad meal really ruins my day, whereas an outstanding one can make my year. My mood is lifted by comforting, familiar food. This isn’t the same for everyone, I once had a flatmate who lived on spinach tortellini and orange juice for an entire year. I look forward to mealtimes, I have to eat something different every day and am constantly thinking up new ways to make something taste better. After a lot of happy meat and seafood and cheese eating memories, I felt I was starting almost from scratch in terms of new dishes, but also memories and associations. I was consciously changing my relationship with food.

Even after all this, I do not regret becoming vegan. There have been moments where I really couldn’t give a flying pig’s bottom and been tested by my mum’s delicious, festive cooking. I’ve been lucky enough to share my journey with my lovely boyfriend who makes a mean chickpea curry whenever I feel down.


We’ve tried new, exciting foods and developed a better awareness of what we eat. We’ve also been lucky- this adventure has coincided with a general rise in vegan foods across the capital and, perhaps most importantly, the launch of Ben and Jerry’s peanut butter vegan ice cream.

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For now, we’ve decided the benefits outweigh the negatives. And if eating animal products is at least the exception rather than the rule I feel like I’m making a small difference. If I can make it any easier by sharing some of the recipes that helped us, then I will. Cos for foodies, the road ain’t easy.


A foodie in Beijing

For the past three years almost, I have been living and working in Beijing. I couldn’t access my blog, even with several vpns, and I thought I’d lost the whole thing altogether. And today miraculously, I’m writing, not from scratch, but continuing my written journey on food, love of food and more on said food.

It’s safe to say I ate a lot of food. Enough to summarise some of the absolute highlights of Beijing here on the little dumpling.


From the more well-known Peking duck (Dadong for the haute cuisine, Liqun for the traditional version served in hideaway hutong surroundings) and delightful bubble tea (I am forever in love with the CoCo and their passionfruit tea with coconut jelly), I also ventured forth into the unknown, the slowly disappearing, late-night world of barbecued chuanr and street food.


When I think of chuanr I think of drinking a light Yanjing beer with friends after work, sitting on a stool the height of an encyclopedia and shelling edamame and boiled peanuts under a smoky night sky, waiting for each kind of chuanr to cook: first the fish tofu, then varieties of gristle, lamb on a stick, bread, aubergine, peppers and lastly, the chicken wings. Recent regulatory crackdowns have shut down most of these outdoor spots, forcing small businesses and families to relocate and making real outdoor chuanr hard to find. If you look hard enough in some hutongs or ask a local, you might be able to find one. Otherwise, look out for the neon chuanr sign.

Along Dongzhimen outer street, to a backdrop of buskers and burps of hastily slurped drinks, numbingly spicy vats of frogs legs and langoustines await the bravehearted. Steaming hotpots of yin and yang flavours, sichuan style (like at the reknowned chain HaidiLao)


Or the more traditional Beijing-style, coal-chimney-esque pots at the table with clear rich soups and addictively nutty sesame sauce, handfuls of coriander and a dash of fermented tofu (for the best taste of traditional Beijing hotpot head down to Jubaoyuan and don’t forget to order sesame rolls like a local).



And of course we made and conquered countless dumplings of different fillings, including my favourite although unexpected: courgette and egg (the cheapest and most cheerful of all, available in most mall canteens or head down to the pricier but still affordable English-speaking joint Mr Shi’s).

Like any other city, there were also many other cuisines to sample. Even after a trip to Japan my favourite yakitori bar is still in Beijing, Sanlitun: Beyond yakitori serves perfectly seasoned and barbecued morsels on a stick, washed down with a pineapple cocktail or two in a copper cup. We luxuriated in Korean barbecue- long lunches of chargrilled meats dipped in salty, earthy seasonings and hastily wrapped and wolfed down in lettuce leaves with tea or fresh watermelon juice.


I had my first foray into seriously good American barbecue, smoked in house, smothered in healthy pools of sauces and served with cornbread, beans or potato salad at Homeplate BBQ. Right next to it you’ll find Taco bar, the best fish tacos in town and pitchers of Gato, a cucumber variation on gin and tonic.


I was spoilt for choice. In addition, apps like meituanwaimai and Sherpa’s meant many of the above could be delivered home for little or no charge, within half an hour. My particular weaknesses on home movie nights was Annie’s Italian food (meituanwaimai) and Korean fried chicken covered in sticky sweet chilli sauces from The Flying Chicken (Ordered via wechat account fly168668 by request in Chinese). With Wechat pay everything was dangerously available and cheap, just a click away.

Fastforward to the present and I’m sitting at my desk, back in the UK. I like having tea with fresh milk, I like the familiar brands of yoghurt and cereal, the water from the tap, bread that isn’t sweet, cheese on crackers and crumpets. I went cherry-picking with my mother in the rain and drank last year’s elderflower cordial and sloe gin. I’ve been to the pub once or twice, got food poisoning and spent over £100 on said bad meal for 3. I’m cooking more at home again. And I’m getting used to the fact KFC doesn’t deliver.


Chips Mayai

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After 2 months of enjoying my fridge and all the accoutrements of modern day living I found myself still wanting. Tanzania seemed like a vague memory somewhere, somewhere hot, somewhere I ate carbs on top of carbs and still felt like a good human being. A very different world in which I revered a seventh of a chicken egg like summer rain. In town things were different. I remember walking into a cafe in Singida during our midway break after a month of village camp life and ordering what seemed like the most wonderful and desirable meal on earth. Chips Mayai.

Pronounced “chips my eye” this sunny plate offered everything I wanted. Starchy, moreish, greasy chips held together by a delicious eggy omelette batter. When it arrived I forced myself to take my time, drizzling a radioactive pink chilli sauce and crisscrossing over it in ketchup. I savoured the weight of first the fork then the knife in my hand (i’d been using a plastic baby spoon and bowl for the last month) and cut myself an elegant, wedge-shaped morsel.

So when I woke up this morning with a greyish cold light streaming through my badly chosen John Lewis curtains I found myself thinking back to that sunny plate with new determination.

Here’s what I did:

Stick a handful of McCain fries in the air fryer for 10 mins.

Beat 2 eggs

When the chips are done pour some sunflower oil in a smallish non-stick pan.

Turn the pan onto high heat

Put the chips in the pan and spread roughly

Pour over the beaten egg

After about 1-2 mins flip once, confidently

Flip onto plate. Sunny side up.

I only had a bottle of sweet chilli sauce at home and the chilli sauce I remembered was more acidic so I diced a few chillies and added a dash of cider vinegar to the pan. Ketchup is just as good.

The difference between my meal in Tanzania and my meal in England was that I could follow that stonker with dessert. And do no exercise for the rest of the day.

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The last of the season’s strawberries, sugared with rum-soaked, spiced pineapple, greek yogurt, honey and a sprinkle of muesli.

For all my travelling, all the food I had for breakfast made more of an effort to get there than I did.

Sustainable cooking

Ever since I was little, I remember my parents’ apprehension at me using the fuel-guzzling monster, called the oven. To this day I still feel wary about using it too often. I enjoy baking cakes, from madeleines to macarons. I also like Beijing roast duck. On the other hand, on the occasion we do use it, I feel so guilty at its inefficiency, I’ll generally scatter some raw nuts on a tray and shove them in to cook in the residual heat.

In rural Tanzanian villages where there aren’t electric or gas cookers at all, people generally use the three-stone method. A fire between three stones under a perched pot or BBQ grid. One of our secondary projects was building the more efficient “rocket stove” and entrusting the knowledge and brick-making resources to different groups in the village. The difference between the three-stone method and the rocket stove in terms of efficiency is probably something like between an old Beetle and a new eco car.


Air is drawn in through the bottom, feeding the flames at the back and the heat rises to cook the food. All you have to do is put your hand above a three-stone and a rocket stove to see the huge difference in the rocket stove’s efficiency. To the women in the village, a more efficient stove meant less time collecting firewood, less smoke inhalation and a more efficient method of boiling and treating water. To us, using a microwave instead of an oven means more time to do other things as well- but for these women, life is exceptionally hard already. And I doubt any of them would’ve liked a ready meal.

The reason I have my doubts will be made clear in a second. We managed to build 5 rocket stoves, one of them strategically placed at the market next to the meat stall. One day we entered the market and our team leader chuckled. I couldn’t figure out why until we walked to the meat market. They were barbecuing meats on the traditional 3 stones… next to the new rocket stove. Old habits die hard. We had given the community all the reasons they should take it up with our demonstrations but we needed to give them time to see for themselves the real benefits of using the rocket stove. We made tea and chatted to them, we invited various groups of people for chapati making competitions on rocket stoves and tea and mandazi at our camp. Slowly, we could tell they were catching on and more and more people were asking about them and how to build them in their own houses. We tried cooking foods from home for them too, which they didn’t like, so we stuck to the foods they were used to. Anywhere you go, the foods that are the most loved are the foods that you grew up with. Including the methods.

I remember when I was younger and still at primary school, a lady came in to tell us all to stop using our ovens and start using the microwave instead. A boy put up his hand and said he much preferred a jacket potato out of the oven, than from a microwave, even if it took less time. And despite everything she’d said about being efficient and saving energy, the lady had to agree. Some people will choose the old beetle over a new eco car- for whatever reason, nostalgia, a piece of the past, or just because they like it.

We have a vast range of choice when it comes to what we eat and how we eat. It’s not anyone’s job to dictate what we should or should not eat. Being sustainable is a choice, and one that is balanced alongside the foods and memories that we have. If we installed a microwave and ready-meals in the village tomorrow noone would take it up, even if it is efficient and time-saving.

So if someone said to me stop using your oven, start cooking things in the shortest time possible, I’d have a bit of a problem. But if someone said to me try and think of the most efficient and tasty way to cook the food you love- I’m still listening. Food is culture and culture needs time to change and grow.

Free-cycle free-style

One of my lasting memories will be when we left the village of Mingela and the children came to say goodbye. Their eyes lit up at the sight of our empty cardboard boxes and tins and they hoarded them like gold. In the village it was easy for me to identify kids and remember their names, because apart from special occasions they wore the same clothes everyday. The kind of clothes that I would have thrown away because they were so broken and worn. I lived out of a suitcase and rucksack for 2 and a half months with a couple of outfits to change between and I was happy. I’m not a lavish person, but I have been guilty of complaining in the most irritating of tones: “muuum… I have nothing to wear…” When I came back I emptied my uni clothes, (note not even all of my clothes) onto the sofa.

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The sad thing is, if I had known how much a T-shirt would have meant to someone in Mingela, I would have brought more of my clothes with me. On our way back, we stopped for a transfer in Doha airport, Qatar. The shiny, enticing, and superflousness of high consumerism hit me like a brick. A dazzling sports car, beautifully airbrushed women in fragrance adverts and oo look, 3 for 2 on shiny big packets of chocolate… the number of things I have bought because of a 3 for 2 deal… the number of times I go and still go to the supermarket and come out with things I do not need and did not want… the money the supermarkets pay for the design and layout that ensures we all go out with more than we wanted. Every single stall in Mingela sold something that was a basic necessity.

A friend from the village took me to the tailor’s once to get fitted for an outfit. She wanted to treat me and give me something to remember her by after we left. Her gesture was so generous… how could I say I had nothing? You always have something, it’s just whether you feel generous enough to give it away.

When I came home, I avoided the shops and consumerism altogether. I couldn’t face it. Instead, I had a little root through our garage. I found more than I bargained for:

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Pearl and jade necklaces, a brand new watch still in its packaging, a scarf for a special occasion, one of those mini travel makeup sets that look so useful and then you never use it (this one was so old some kind of fungus had started to eat the plastic on the outside) in addition to the entire professional drum kit that my mother bought and my brother never played… cardboard box upon cardboard box. Only after living in Mingela, in the middle of nowhere, in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, made me realise the sheer volume of stuff we buy and forget about.

And this isn’t a post about how lucky we are. For the vast majority of the time I was in Mingela, I never felt the need to describe the village as a poor one. Their generosity, the warmth of their greetings- children would rush out of their mud brick houses just to call out: “Mambo! Mambo Louisee!”, the singing and dancing in their crowded churches, at festivals and weddings, just how rich, abundant and colourful the culture was shielded me from the thought.


There’s something to be said for living in the absence of consumerism, everything’s simpler and more straightforward. It was clear what they did not have materially, they made up for in other ways. But when I saw the children on the last day, the veil lifted from my eyes. So did Doha airport and even just walking down the bread aisle in the supermarket when I got home.

The price we pay for having everything we want, is to also produce a hell of a lot of stuff we don’t want, ultimately in the form of waste. It makes sense to mass produce, to keep costs low, to keep the price down for consumers. It does not make sense to mass produce, so that we have to pay the environmental price of an ever-growing mountain of waste. We may be spoilt for choices now, but what about in the future? We are distracted by choice, distracted from the end of the consumerist chain, which is the landfill that does not discriminate between brands, or packaging, or quality, like a constantly overfed rat. When the rubbish is on our doorstep, maybe when it knocks down a housing price or two, maybe that’s when we’ll start thinking of it as a problem.

I’ve racked my brain and I can think of some solutions that might ease the waste problem, but nothing to cure us of consumerism. It took me a 2 and a half month trip to Africa to make me realise it was a problem.

Something thrown away is something we want to forget about in the first place. And our rubbish is handily collected and taken away from under our nostrils once a week. In Mingela there was no rubbish collection service, the rubbish we had, we burnt. On a small scale for 14 people this was ok. But we still managed to accumulate 2 full sacks every night. What if waste became something valuable and useful? Like to the kids who fought over our cardboard boxes? Websites such as https://www.freecycle.org/ create a healthy attitude where people consider first if what they’re about to throw away might still be useful to someone else in their local area. We can also develop our attitude about the treatment of waste itself. There are many ways of utilising it by turning it to biofuel and building more biogas plants (capturing gas produced via bacteria breaking down waste). There’s always recycling, for those who can be bothered. And maybe we need to set an example for other countries who have so much land they don’t feel the need to recycle or have landfill tax (cough cough USA). Maybe waste could be the common denominator for all countries- after all, every country has it. Waste is universal. But our attitude towards that waste needs to change.

New ways of doing old dishes

Mashed potato, rich and creamy. Spaghetti cooked in boiling salt water, till it’s just soft. Plain rice fluffy and steaming… That’s is how I like it and that is how I’ve always cooked it. When something is as comforting and as good as these three dishes, it doesn’t seem worth the effort of doing it differently. What if it goes wrong? What if I don’t like it?

Well, in the interests of peace and harmony at Mingela camp, Tanzania, it was certainly worth trying. There were 7 Tanzanian volunteers in our group and time and time again they surprised me by cooking food in a way I would never have even considered. Because I had gotten in my mind there was only one way of doing these classic dishes, I had forgotten that every dish, even the classic ones had to start from somewhere. They were created in a certain milieu, with certain ingredients more available or at hand than others, to certain desires and tastes. For the Tanzanians there was an apparently set way of doing things too. Like having to peel tomatoes. In the end, we learnt quite a bit from each other, and as they say, the proof is in the eating.

Kelvin’s mash

Kelvin was the Tanzanian team leader. He kept quiet about being a great cook until a few weeks in and this was the dish that blew us away.

There are no fridges in Mingela, let alone fresh cream or milk or any dairy to put in it. This mash is based on the simple principle of frying onions with the whole peeled potatoes first before adding boiled water. This adds flavour to the finished product and if cooked for long enough the starchy potatoes break down and the water boils off until you’re left with a very moreish and potatoey mash. Season to taste


Our pots weren’t great, needless to say they weren’t non-stick. We also had to cram a lot of spaghetti for 14 people into one pot, while the other hob was used to make the sauce or side dish. Our UK team leader, Alex was an expert at cooking it just the way we have it at home. Dispersed in a circular X, the spaghetti went into a pot of  slightly salted, boiling water until soft and slippery. This required some careful quantity and temperature monitoring on Alex’s part and also meant waiting an age for the water that never quite reached a rapid boil on our petty little gas hob. Over crowding the pan with spaghetti would lower that temperature further and produce clumps. None of these would have been a problem on our powerful stove at home.

The other way of doing it was to add only just enough water to the pot, salt and some sunflower oil. The oil worked on several different levels. A) It raised the temperature of the cooking spaghetti mixture. B) It prevented the spaghetti from sticking to each other as much. C) And it also meant you could pretty much just leave it to dry out and form a crispy base on the bottom. Less careful monitoring, better for an unpredictable heat source.

Tanzanian Pilau rice

Pilau with Beef - Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania

Historically, Arabic trade routes brought this dish, along with coveted spices to Tanzania as far back as 800AD. Pilau spices can be bought readily mixed and includes a delicious mix of cinnamon, cardamon, black pepper, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds. I recommend finishing off the dish also with a lime garnish.

First burn thin slices of red onion in hot oil. Yep that’s right. Chuck them into hot oil, watch them turn translucent, golden, golden brown and just keep going until a chocolate shade of brown. The next part is very dangerous and I would never do this at home without a lid or at least a splatter guard to hand. Add boiling water to the oil (at least let the oil cool down a bit- we were cooking al fresco and didn’t have a kitchen or house to burn down) until the pot is just over half full. Stir and boil out the burnt onions in this watery mixture for 5 minutes before adding the rice and spices to cook. I know. crazy, unsafe and totally the opposite of what I would normally do.

For a risotto bianco I would have been extremely careful to not even let the onions go beyond a translucent white colour, I would have added the rice grains to the oil to coat before adding a splash of wine, then stock or water. It seems the reason the water is added first in the case of pilau is to make a sort of onion stock first and let the onion flavour permeate the water before adding the rice. Burnt onions also have a very different taste to lightly sautéed ones. Along with the spices, it gave the dish a rich brown colour and an exciting flavour that more than compensated for the lack of wine.

In general we used more oil and salt whilst cooking in our camp. I almost had a heart attack when I saw someone adding salt to cooking plain rice. I got over it soon enough; from a health perspective we needed the additional sodium and the calories, because we were sweating so much during the day, doing a lot of exercise carrying water and sometimes hard manual labour too. What we might have described as unhealthy in the UK was vital in Mingela. With this new experience I came to realise that hardly any element of cooking is indisputable. But I’m no Ferran Adria, throwing away the rulebook altogether in the endeavour to create entirely new dishes and even a whole new art form. Cooking for me is still inextricably linked to a person’s experience, environment, culture, history and even politics. There are still rules, they just keep changing.

Cooking in Tanzania

The first time we walked to market in Mingela I was quietly scared. We weren’t in the city of Morogoro anymore where we’d spent the first week training in field base, we were in a remote village, amidst arid, agricultural territory in the Singida region.

A few tomatoes sat dotted on a stall made of sticks. I remember thinking we’d have to buy up the whole stall before my team leader suggested we buy half so the villagers wouldn’t be left entirely bereft of tomatoes that day. I nodded in silent agreement as we took around 6 tomatoes and an onion while I quietly wondered how we were possibly going to feed our team of 14 on this fare.

Next he guided me to another stall, this time creaking under the weight of 2 buckets of rice and dried beans. The idea was not only to spread the wealth, we were trying to make a good first impression. We weren’t going to tactlessly show ourselves off as rich “mzungus” buying the whole place up.

These were the 4 things we could rely on the market to have, tomatoes, onions, rice and beans. And small fish, but the UK volunteers weren’t a huge fan of them, maybe it was the fisheye to body ratio of the small, salty “daga” fish that was so offputting. Over time we managed to source more ingredients. Potatoes appeared. Maize flour and wheat flour came from the mill, the former which the Tanzanians enthusiastically turned into snowy lumps of “ugali”. Prized for it’s ability to taste of absolutely nothing and form a sort of mouldable playdough spoon, it was pressed tightly in the palm of the eater, possibly to make it easier to swallow and dipped in more flavoursome sauces, often made with the little fish.

I missed vegetables. If we went early enough on the right day sometimes there were green bananas like plantain and “umchicha”, a spinach like green, which the Tanzanians enjoyed picking and eating the leaves only, leaving me to wail over the tossed stems on a regular basis. Near the end of our stay we even had peppers, aubergines and okra a couple of times. Once in a blue moon, I managed to get hold of two small eggs after a church auction, I then had to think about how to divide it between 14 people.

However scarce our supplies were in the village, we definitely had it easy. Over time we got to know where to find food if we wanted it. The best discovery was fried catfish from nearby Lake Kitangiri. In addition to what we could buy there, we had the provisions Raleigh had given us, pasta, packets of soup and tomato paste, tins of beans, chickpeas, corned beef, fruit cocktail and some spices.

Our team leader fashioned a few rocket stoves and even built a brick oven in a sort of deep arch, where the fire could be lit at the back of the closed off tunnel and the food placed at the front. We adapted to cooking on our 2 hob gas stove and when the gas ran out, the rocket stove and oven.

What struck me was the length of time needed to cook. Boiling a full kettle took half an hour. The rice came with tiny little stones and bits of chaff in it that had to be painstakingly removed and washed hours before cooking. The beans had to be soaked overnight before being boiled for at least 4 hours.

Cooking on an open flame was an art in itself. I went through half a packet of matches one morning trying to start an “upside down” fire for porridge. Fetching water, even though we were one of the closest to the pump, less than 200 yards away, was perhaps the most energy-consuming task of the day. The women and children of Mingela would be taking out these tasks everyday.

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

It was a common sight to see children as young as 5 carrying buckets of grain and water on their heads. The time it took for them to fetch water home was anything between 10 mins to 2 hours. We at least took these tasks in turn.

It is difficult to relay the mindset I developed whilst cooking in Tanzania. Nothing would keep, everything was shared, food needed to be planned, divided up, we had to cook huge quantities of food after long days in the sun and everyone became a grouch if there wasn’t enough. Food became the focus of so many arguments, which mainly resulted from the overwhelming suspicion that everyone felt they were getting less than everyone else. Halfway through someone melted the plastic of my bowl so I had to replace it with an even smaller one, so I accepted and controlled my portions. But it was wearying. I felt my group was very selfish. They were happy to eat more even if it meant someone else didn’t get to eat. Sometimes they withheld it on purpose for some junked up reason or another.

I got a glimpse of what it was like to be hungry, but I also got to be at the heart of an all too human struggle for limited resources.

The problem wasn’t always a question of how much food we had. We had a budget of 3000 shillings per day per person for food, roughly £1.20 and more than enough to supplement the provisions we had. But after a bowl of spaghetti and potatoes I can appreciate any additional items as a luxury. At home I hardly eat any carbs so I can indulge in a whole array of vegetables and protein. Yes. Vegetables are a luxury.

The good thing that came out of all this, I soon realised after a couple of weeks of coming back home. I am a noticeably better cook. It’s true I had to be resourceful, but I also had to cook with different ingredients with rudimentary cooking utensils. A combination of starting up my own fires, trial and error without recipes or scales and not being able to reach for the soy sauce whenever I wanted to make something tastier has made me a better and more confident cook. And I enjoyed cooking on a rocket stove, I remember marvelling at its heat and efficiency, perfect for a stew, cooking beans, or boiling a tin of condensed milk into toffee. I loved our brick oven and the excitement of bringing out our first batch of bread. So I’d like to share some of the best culinary moments we had in our camp in Mingela. In the interests of sustainable cooking, but also for the sheer enjoyment of creating something from so little.