First annual Toronto Black Vegan Festival brings community together

By Severina Chu

The first annual Toronto Black Vegan Festival was a chance for the black Canadian vegan community to connect. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

The first annual Toronto Black Vegan Festival was a chance for the black Canadian vegan community to connect. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

The black Canadian vegan community came together to feast in celebration at the first ever Toronto Black Vegan Festival on Sunday at Artscape Wychwood Barns.

Hosted by the Black Vegans of Toronto, a support group for black Canadians looking to make the switch to a plant-based diet, the festival featured various black vendors selling vegan products, including food, clothes, and cosmetics.

“The idea came to me to present vegan options to traditional African and Caribbean foods in an exciting cultural setting,” said festival manager Joe Thomas in an email statement. The festival aimed to not only bring together the black vegan community, but to also expose others to a new lifestyle.

“When people like us are already educated in the vegan world, festivals like this help to enlighten people who are not in this world,” said Jacqueline Taffe, vegan chef and creator of Natures Butter.

Vegan chef Jacqueline Taffe created a vegan and gluten-free butter that she hopes she’ll be able to get into stores in the future. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

Vegan chef Jacqueline Taffe created a vegan and gluten-free butter that she hopes she’ll be able to get into stores in the future. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

Taffe believes that a better awareness about food can help some make the switch to a plant-based lifestyle, especially with so many Caribbean diets being so dependent on meat.

“We were never actually supposed to be eating this much meat. So when people like us say that we’re vegan, we can teach others the same thing,” she said.

Creating a Cultural Connection

Melissa James, founder of Eastend Vegan, echoed the sentiment and emphasized the importance of being open to a healthier diet, especially within the black community. She said she hopes that more people will broaden their tastes and try to have a better understanding of the connections they have with food.

The Eastend Vegan’s almond cheese came as a result of founder Melissa James’ lactose sensitivity. She said that it is a light and healthy alternative to regular cheese. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

The Eastend Vegan’s almond cheese came as a result of founder Melissa James’ lactose sensitivity. She said that it is a light and healthy alternative to regular cheese. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

“What people don’t realize is that the impact of not just slavery, but just leaving home takes away a lot of connections,” said James.

According to James, many immigrants try to recreate tastes of home with what they have.

“You start to adopt a new culture and you no longer have the connection the way you would back at home,” she said.

In order to maintain these connections, people like Owyna Alexander, founder of Caribbubble, wanted to create a product that managed to tie a part of their culture into a vegan diet.

“I love bubble tea and I was looking for more relatable flavours to my culture,” she said. Alexander offers the popular drink in various traditional Caribbean flavours, including sorrel and ginger beer.

Owyna Alexander wanted to create her own version of bubble tea that included flavours from her culture. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

Owyna Alexander wanted to create her own version of bubble tea that included flavours from her culture. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

She said she aims to provide a more accessible version of the drink, in terms of both flavours and dietary needs.

“I wanted to be able to provide it to everyone, and I didn’t want the vegans to be left out,” said Alexander.

Fighting the Misconceptions

With the variety of innovative and flavourful products available at the festival, many vendors wanted to combat the stereotypes and misconceptions about vegan food, such as the supposed lack of flavour and food options.

“Flavour’s the biggest [misconception], just because people are so used to eating a certain way,” said James. While it is possible for people to emulate their favourite foods while eating vegan, she said that people need to realize that there will have to be some adjustments made to a recipe and that a change in flavour doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of flavour.

“It’s a first step towards health, so you have to understand that there will naturally be less salt and it’s going to change the flavour because you’re not putting in the same things you used before,” she said.

With this being the first event of its kind in Toronto, many vendors hope that this will encourage more black Canadians to become more open to a vegan lifestyle and prove that it is doable for people in all communities.

“A misconception is that veganism is mainly for white people because that’s what you see in the media,” said Shaleena McGregor, owner of The Sweet Tooth Vegan.

In order to make healthier versions of normal baked goods, Shaleena McGregor swaps out sugar for ingredients like coconut sugar and maple syrup. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

In order to make healthier versions of normal baked goods, Shaleena McGregor swaps out sugar for ingredients like coconut sugar and maple syrup. (CanCulture/Severina Chu)

McGregor personally went vegan after doing research into the dairy industry and finding out the impact it had on animals. She now strives to provide healthier alternatives to normal baked goods and reach out to more of the black vegan community on her podcast.

“You don’t really see much diversity, so I’m glad that this event is showing that veganism goes across all races,” she said.

Hopes for the Future

With the event’s success, the Black Vegans of Toronto are planning for more events, starting with a Fall Harvest Festival in September. The hope is that these kind of events will educate more black Canadians on a vegan lifestyle and encourage them to make the changes to their diet.

“In all communities, and especially the black community, we’ll start to see that we actually have a connection to this food,” said James.

“We can create it, we can make something new from it, and we can grow from it and become healthier. The black community is really coming together.”

Winterlicious at Fonda Lola

By Sophie Chong

General Manager Rafael Bastidas said they tried to incorporate things inside Fonda Lola that referenced Mexico. Included in the decorations are also memorabilia of the owner’s late grandmother, whom the name of the restaurant was inspired from. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

General Manager Rafael Bastidas said they tried to incorporate things inside Fonda Lola that referenced Mexico. Included in the decorations are also memorabilia of the owner’s late grandmother, whom the name of the restaurant was inspired from. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Nestled along the edge of Little Portugal in Toronto, Fonda Lola has brought traditional Mexican cuisine to the west end of Toronto for the past five years.

This year, Fonda Lola is participating in one of Toronto’s most anticipated food events, Winterlicious.

Rafael Bastidas, general manager of the restaurant, said Winterlicious has given them the opportunity to explore with their menu based on what their chef has available at the time.

“We want to experiment with our menu in Winterlicious to see how people are reacting to our food and if we have to promote some dishes more than others,” he said.

Rafael Bastidas, who immigrated to Canada from Venezuela, currently works as the general manager of Fonda Lola. He is in charge of the front of house operations, and is also the in-house mixologist. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Rafael Bastidas, who immigrated to Canada from Venezuela, currently works as the general manager of Fonda Lola. He is in charge of the front of house operations, and is also the in-house mixologist. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Fonda Lola serves a plethora of mexican-style alcoholic beverages including fusion cocktails, margaritas, tequila, mojitos, and beers. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Fonda Lola serves a plethora of mexican-style alcoholic beverages including fusion cocktails, margaritas, tequila, mojitos, and beers. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

For a fixed price of $33 plus tax and gratuities, Fonda Lola offers a prix fixe menu of a select number of appetizers, entrées, and desserts.

Fonda Lola offers the staple dish of chips and salsa as an appetizer (usually $12), made with house-made corn tortilla chips, and pico de gallo that is seasoned with red onion, lime, and cilantro. The tomato salsa is tangy but not overly sweet like many store-bought salsas. The tortilla chips are light, not too salty, and adds a great crunch to the house-made salsa.

Fonda Lola boasts house-made and handcrafted ingredients in all of their drinks and food that they serve. All ingredients used in dishes are locally sourced within the Toronto area, and they offer vegan and vegetarian options. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Fonda Lola boasts house-made and handcrafted ingredients in all of their drinks and food that they serve. All ingredients used in dishes are locally sourced within the Toronto area, and they offer vegan and vegetarian options. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

For the main course, they have Carnitas Tacos (usually $16), which contains Mexican pork confit topped with red onion and cilantro. The pork is tender and moist and pairs nicely with red onion and cilantro. Fonda Lola also sources their pork meat from a local Portuguese supermarket in Toronto.

However, if customers are looking for vegan or vegetarian options, they also serve Cauliflower Tacos (usually $16). The dish includes cauliflower sautéed with garlic and guajillo pepper, topped with cilantro, red onion, and house chipotle and aioli.

Bastidas recommended the Cauliflower Tacos, made with sautéed cauliflower with garlic and guajillo sauce, topped with cilantro, red onion, and house chipotle aioli. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Bastidas recommended the Cauliflower Tacos, made with sautéed cauliflower with garlic and guajillo sauce, topped with cilantro, red onion, and house chipotle aioli. (CanCulture/Sophie Chong)

Desserts at Fonda Lola typically range from $8-$15. On their Winterlicious menu, they featured the Tequila Flan (vegetarian), which is not a regular item on their menu. It’s made up of a sweet custard infused with tequila and cream cheese, baked with a layer of house-made caramel. It has a smooth, creamy, light texture with a slight taste of alcohol, the sweetness of the caramel adding depth to the tangy tequila and the cream cheese.

What is Winterlicious?

Winterlicious has made its 16th annual appearance in Toronto this year, with reportedly over 200 participating restaurants. From January 25 to February 7, Torontonians are encouraged to explore the city’s diverse culture through the food scene.

“They showcase diverse cuisine, they’re talented chefs. This is an opportunity for people to dine out and explore Toronto’s food culture,” said Eirine Papaioannou, event support supervisor at the Toronto Office of Partnerships.

Hosted by the city, customers and avid food lovers get a chance to grab a taste of Toronto’s ever-changing restaurant industry. The event allows both newcomers and native Torontonians to expand their taste buds at cuisines for a reasonable price. Fixed prices for three course meals vary from restaurant to restaurant. There are three fixed prices for both lunch and dinner includes: lunch for $23, $28, $33, and dinner for $33, $43, $53.

“The event is open to everyone who lives here, or is visiting here, and because of the price points it is accessible at different levels,” said Papaioannou.

At toronto.ca, interested customers can customize their search for the type of cuisines, neighbourhood, and price point in order to find exactly what they’re looking for. The search engine also allows for visitors to easily find information on which restaurants offer vegan, vegetarian, and accessibility options.

“Toronto has one of the best culinary scenes, such as diversity of food types...this is a way for people to explore the world in their hometown,” she said.

Is it worth it?

Winterlicous can be a way to narrow down possible food options for customers who have a hard time deciding on what to order from a new restaurant. Prix fixe menus give them a taste of the restaurant, and a new culinary experience that can seemingly be five to eight dollars cheaper than ordering from the regular prices. They may also be pleasantly surprised by great hospitality, the atmosphere of the restaurant, and other aspects that could drive them to visit again.

Some customers may be disappointed that even with the set prices, their bill can almost amount to the same price as if customers had ordered from the regular menu. This is because the prix fixe does not cover alcohol, taxes and gratuity.

For students on a budget, Winterlicious would be a great option if they're willing to; spend some money to try something new, go out for a date night, a special family function, or a night out with friends. However, students should be wary that even with the fixed prices, their overall meal can still cost four times more than your everyday Big Mac combo at McDonald’s.