Shanna-Kay Wright uses simple ingredients to make the vegan dishes at Yardie Ting in Portland. The owner of the Jamaican restaurant in the Public Market House, Wright says the menu’s many vegan choices reflect the influence of Ital food on the island.
Ital food, eaten by members of the Rastafari religion and movement, is usually vegetarian and always minimally processed. However, Wright points out that Yardie Ting’s vegan dishes don’t qualify as Ital, since to suit local tastes she uses non-Ital ingredients such as salt and garlic powder.
“All my years growing up in Jamaica, you would not use any all-purpose seasoning,” explained Wright, who has run a catering business in Portland since 2013. “Ital means food that is from the earth. No powder seasonings. No salt. All organic. All natural.”
Ital or not, the Yardie Ting vegan dishes, including jerk tofu, coconut curry, the Mon Hungry sandwich, spinach patties, and the fried plantains, taste great and sell well.
But Wright reports foot traffic at the Public Market House remains slow, with many of the surrounding office buildings still empty. Even so, the brand new restaurant is “staying afloat.”
I’d like to see Yardie Ting doing better. And it’s not just because I like the food.
It’s also because Wright is Black, and I want to take action to promote equity and demonstrate that Black Lives Matter. As a white ally in one of the whitest states in the nation, one of the simplest actions I can take is to spend my money at Black-owned businesses, such as Yardie Ting.
In Maine, we’re blessed to have the new directory blackownedmaine.com, which allows users to search by business category and region of Maine. When the site launched in June, it confirmed what I suspected. Portland is home to many Black-owned restaurants, and most offer robust vegan choices.
One of the longest-running vegan-friendly, Black-owned restaurants in Portland is Asmara on Oak Street, which owner Asmeret Teklu opened in 2004. The Eritrean restaurant was shuttered for many months because of the pandemic before it reopened in June and it remains takeout only.
All of Asmara’s vegetarian dishes are vegan, and Teklu told me she sells more vegetarian than non-vegetarian dishes these days.
“We’re doing well, so far,” said Teklu, who grew up in Eritrea and moved to Maine in 1988. “It’s not like it used to be, but it’s good for this time.”
She said the vegetarian sampler plate, which is made to feed a family of four and costs $49.95, is a strong seller right now. Asmara’s sampler plate “has a little bit of all the vegetarian options,” such as steamed greens, stewed lentils, ground and roasted chickpeas, and spicy stewed okra and potatoes. All the meals come with either rice or traditional injera, a flatbread made from a fermented dough of ground teff grains.