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.
Asmara, named for the capital of Eritrea and located near the Maine College of Art, is one of at least three Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in Portland offering vegan dishes to pair with fresh injera.
It’s not surprising these restaurants offer robust vegan choices since both national cuisines heavily emphasize vegetarian dishes. The strong vegetarian tradition reflects the regions’s large number of Coptic Orthodox Christians, who must eat vegetarian food on more than 200 days a year, and the significant Muslim community, who observe stretches of vegetarian days throughout the year.
The Eritrean and Ethiopian eatery Red Sea, which opened in 2014 on Washington Avenue’s restaurant row, also offers a vegetarian menu that is all-vegan. Owned by a husband-and-wife team, Red Sea reopened two tables for dine-in last month. The owners ask that customers call ahead to reserve a table. Yemane Tsegai manages the front of house while his wife, Akbret Batha, is the chef.
Red Sea’s vegetarian sampler plate includes red lentil stew, simmered greens, and stewed vegetables. The restaurant also offers falafels and lentil sambusas, both vegan.
“Most of our business this year is takeout,” Tsegai said. “Business was good in July, and August was OK, but after Labor Day it’s slowed a bit.”
The newest Ethiopian restaurant in Portland is Niyat Catering, which opened in 2017. All year it’s been offering pop-up lunches and dinners at the Fork Food Lab and the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market. Chef and owner Aklilu Tsaedu also offers private dinners for up to eight guests in Fork Food Lab’s tasting room. The sampler plates at Niyat’s pop-ups cost $20 each.
Niyat recently partnered with the City of Portland ’s Office of Economic Opportunity to offer a Recipes for Welcoming meal kit. Participants received a free package of ingredients for vegan lentil stew and then could cook it along with Tsegai, who was filmed making the dish and broadcast on a social media livestream.
Tsaedu said as the weather cools, the outdoor pop-up dinners will end. Yet he plans to continue doing private dinners and offering takeout from Fork Food Lab through the winter.
Another Black-owned catering business now serving takeout vegan meals is Black Betty Bistro, which chef Louis Pickens launched three years ago. He said business was brisk until the pandemic hit. He’s pivoted to offering weekly grab-and-go meals.
The menus, which he posts on social media, always include a vegetarian choice that is often vegan or easily modified. Recent vegan entrees include pan-fried tofu with roasted red pepper chutney and banana peppers stuffed with herbed risotto, vegan mozzarella, and basil lime sauce. Each meal comes with a choice of vegetarian and vegan side dishes.
“We’ve been doing a vegan quinoa cornbread,” Pickens said. “We like to do things that vegan people don’t experience a lot.”
Pickens grew up working alongside his chef grandparents and more recently has worked at The Black Tie Company and the Portland Harbor Hotel. He runs the catering business out of the kitchen at the Portland Club, with meal pickup around the corner at 120 Spring Street.
This summer, the Black-owned food truck Actual Foods hit Portland’s streets and outdoor brewery scene. The truck menu allows customers to craft their own stir-fry bowls, starting with a base of wild rice, zucchini noodles or roasted sweet potatoes. These are then tossed with a choice of vegetables, greens, mushrooms and sauces.
“All our sauces are vegan now that we removed pesto from the menu, which had Parmesan cheese,” said owner Steffy Amondi. “We substituted any dairy-like butter in the apple crisp with coconut oil. And coconut cream is our go-to milk substitute. That was used in our red cabbage slaw and now in our coconut-lime sauce.”
Actual Foods will go back to the garage at the end of the month, yet Amondi plans to offer prepared meals and packaged sauces through the winter at Fork Food Lab, its operations base.
It’s no coincidence that Portland’s Black-owned restaurants sell vegan meals.
In addition to the cuisines of many Black majority countries having strong vegetarian traditions, Black Americans are much more likely to be vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians than other groups of Americans. Polls regularly find that 8 percent of Black Americans are vegans or vegetarians, compared with just 3 percent of the overall population. At the start of the year, Gallup released survey results showing that people who don’t identify as white had cut their animal consumption in the past year by more than 30 percent, while people who identify as white had trimmed their animal eating by less than 20 percent.
A disturbing trend among the far right could also be driving Black American’s embrace of plant-based eating. In recent years, cow’s milk has become a symbol of white power to some white supremacists. The New York Times wrote about this phenomenon in 2018 and shared a video of shirtless young white men guzzling cow’s milk. White nationalists have embraced cow’s milk because more than 75 percent of people with African ancestry can’t digest lactose in cow’s milk after infancy, a figure that drops to less than 26 percent of people with Northern European ancestry. At the same time, this digestive tract difference has caused some academics and activists on the left to label cow’s milk promotion by government agencies and institutions a racist policy, since it can cause acute health issues for Black people.
Finally, the inequities perpetuated by major meatpackers has been much in the news in tumultuous 2020. These facilities have suffered many COVID-19 outbreaks, exposing the harsh working environment, the unsanitary conditions and the skin color of those most likely to work there.
Food has long been used as a tool of colonization to assert cultural dominance. Here in Portland, we have the ability to disrupt those forces by supporting these Black-owned restaurants while ordering from their significant vegan menus.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]