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Meet Sara Naqvi - Pakistani vegan and co-founder of the Punjabi Spice Company.
Sara opens up about how she became vegan, despite growing up in culture that emphasized the importance of meat.
I love writing about people in the Atlanta area who are doing surprising and unexpected things - folks who are pushing boundaries (real or perceived) and striving for something better for themselves, and their communities.
Sara Naqvi, publisher of the blog The Pakistani Vegan, is one of those people. She and her husband Abbas are the founders of Punjab Spice Company - a metro Atlanta based vegan Pakistani pop-up that specializes in street foods like roll parathas and bun kababs. They started it in 2018, but paused the business when they moved to Atlanta and were hunkering down during the height of the pandemic. They just started hosting pop ups again this year (four so far and more to come!).
I recently bought Sara's e-book - "Plant Based Pakistani Recipes," which I was curious about because the title itself felt like an oxymoron, given how meat-centered Pakistani cuisine can be. And - 100 percent of the proceeds for the book went to Pakistani flood relief efforts.
I connected with her about what her journey has been like and what advice she has for others who are considering a vegan lifestyle.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Vegans in the Pakistani community are rare. Meat-based dishes like nihari, haleem, and aloo gosht dominate traditional meals. Tell me about your vegan journey.
I grew up in Queens, New York, with Pakistani parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. Growing up, meat was always emphasized as important for every meal, and of course a glass of milk was considered necessary for a growing body. As a child, I remember not really enjoying the meals with meat in them, and just eating it because I was told to. It was what was expected of me.
As a child I also remember being mortified whenever "bakra Eid" or Eid Ul-Adha, the Muslim festival, came around, because it revolves around the sacrificial slaughter of a goat. In New York on Main Street in Flushing, Queens there were several halal butcher shops. During the lead up to Eid, Main Street would be full of meat trucks with the whole body of the slaughtered goat being carried into the halal markets. I remember feeling so sick looking at that. It was the first time I was really confronted with a dead animal body, and the experience just scarred me.
As I got older I learned about the concept of veganism. I had two older brothers who I was heavily influenced by, musically and culturally. They always were into "alternative" types of music, and got me into punk rock music in high school. Through them I learned about punk bands that promoted the vegan lifestyle and movements like "Straight Edge," where people abstain from alcohol, drugs, and maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet. I started reading up on animal rights and activism later in high school, but didn't actually become vegetarian until I was 20, after I watched a video about what happens to animals on factory farms. It really exposed the cruelty and suffering that is involved, and it didn't sit well with me. I knew I couldn't eat meat any longer.
So I went vegetarian first, and I stayed that way for years. I was blissfully vegetarian for animal rights, not really doing the research on dairy and how cruel it was for the cows. Finally, I forced myself to look into dairy more deeply and learned how the dairy cows are forcefully impregnated only to have their babies taken from them shortly after giving birth. And then that cycle continues for them until they are no longer able to give birth, and then are killed anyway for their meat. Learning that truth was the deciding factor in me sticking with being vegan. I'm not going to lie - the transition from vegetarian to vegan was mostly hard because of cheese and dairy being in everything. But this was also back in 2008, where vegan options and replacements weren't as readily available. Now there are so many more options at grocery stores and restaurants! The vegan cheese is way better now haha.
Now I've been vegan for about 14 years, and I feel like it's definitely a part of my identity that will not change. Even now, I can't watch footage of factory farms without bawling - the horror and trauma these animals endure really affects me.
I also think when people think about vegans, they think that we only care about the animals. For me and for other like-minded vegans, our veganism is centered on the connection of fighting against all other forms of oppression. My feminism and social justice advocacy is tied to my advocacy for animals, and for me human and animal rights are inextricably linked. Amplifying the voices of BIPOC vegans in the community is also really important to me because solidarity and listening to other marginalized communities builds and sustains a progressive, informed movement.
The meat and dairy industries are also directly linked to human oppression - factory farm/slaughterhouse workers are often undocumented immigrants and suffer from PTSD as a result of this job. Also factory farm facilities, or also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are usually built in low-income communities and can threaten the health of the local population and cause immense pollution to the water and air. Finally, there's the environmental aspect of meat and dairy - raising animals for meat, eggs, and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. Most recently the devastating floods in Pakistan displaced more than 33 million people - all a direct result of climate change! These global environmental impacts are happening constantly, and no one thinks to or wants to tie it at least in part to animal agriculture. These issues all inform my decision to be vegan.
How did your parents and family members respond when you first decided to be vegan?
I went vegetarian first, and it was not well received. My parents thought that a non-Muslim friend must have influenced me. They were worried I was abandoning Islam and everything it stood for. I assured them I was not leaving Islam, and in fact the Holy Prophet Muhammad advocated for kindness to animals, and if he knew the treatment of animals on modern day factory farms, he also wouldn't stand for it. I also just said I simply did not want to eat animals any more. At first there was a lot of resistance - my mom would tell me she was giving me veggie sausage when in fact in the garbage I would find a box for real beef sausage. At the mosque, pickings were slim. Whenever there was a mosque event, I would always just eat naan and salad. If I was lucky, there was a daal or lentil dish.
Eventually my parents came around, and my mom would often make me vegetarian and vegan versions of the traditional Pakistani dishes I grew up eating. Now she actually eats a plant-based diet too! She made the switch in 2018 to help her reverse negative side effects from her diabetes, and it worked! Her negative symptoms disappeared, and her blood sugar levels decreased dramatically. She sticks with it to this day and promotes the lifestyle to her friends and family. I am so proud of her, because I know within immigrant families it can often be hard to break out of the cycle of how you grew up, with everyone being conditioned on how "important" meat and dairy is. Obviously when they teach us this growing up they don't have any ulterior motives, but they were just trying to do what they thought was best for us. We have to be the ones who have to change their perception and the more opportunity we have to talk about this and to show them, the more minds we can change. I have a daughter now, and I am teaching her about food and understanding where your food comes from and how it impacts you, your health, animals, and the environment.
Is it hard to find vegan dishes to eat when you're at family gatherings or Pakistani restaurants? Do you find yourself eating the same foods (chole)?
Family gatherings are usually ok, as long as the hosts know my whole family is vegan. They usually create a few lentil and/or veggie Pakistani dishes that are safe for my family. We do end up eating the same types of foods, but we love a good chole and a good daal. I've always loved those foods, so I don't mind if they're the only options. As long as there IS an option! :) Also recently at a family gathering, my cousin's daughter made us a vegan dessert. We really appreciated the effort and thought!
We've also had the opposite experience. Last year we went to Pakistan and visited my khala (aunt) in Lahore. She served this elaborate spread of dahi bara (yogurt dish) and store-bought pastries, and was so confused that we don't eat dairy at all. The concept had never occurred to her. So you do often meet people that don't even understand the concept and sometimes will take it personally that you aren't eating what you serve them. I think my mistake there was that I didn't let her know beforehand that we don't eat dairy - might have saved some effort in her preparing foods that we couldn't eat!
So my advice is to always let your host know ahead of time, and be ok with being served some Pakistani lentil/vegetable staples! If you're at a Pakistani restaurant, let them know you have a dairy, egg, and meat allergy, and see what dishes they can provide for you. Usually the vegetable and lentil dishes are cooked in oil and not in ghee/butter so it's easy to order those with plain rice.
Is there anything that has surprised you, either about yourself, or about those around you, since becoming vegan?
I think the most surprising thing was how much I learned about nutrition and my own personal health. After becoming vegan, I took an interest in making sure I was getting the proper nutrients and was better about taking a multivitamin, and actually checking up on my blood work and health stats. I definitely felt a lot better in general after making the switch, but I also felt more empowered to take care of my health. Another surprising thing is how much it has made me excited to cook! I was never really a "foodie" before I became vegan - now I go out of my way to veganize the Pakistani dishes I had growing up, and experimenting with new foods in the kitchen all the time. For example, I never had sushi before I became a vegan. Now I make it at home all the time! So it's just been much more exciting thinking about food now - and the ways I can experiment and make something taste so good that even non-vegans can't tell the difference.
Do you have any advice for people who want to become vegan, but feel like the obstacles (whether within themselves or with their community) are discouraging?
I would say first know WHY you want to do it. Make sure that there’s strong enough of a reason for you to stick with it. Otherwise, you won't be committed to it. For me, the initial reason was animal rights. It kept me going and still does. I would recommend reading books on animal rights, health benefits of a plant-based diet, environmental impacts of animal agriculture, or whatever it is that has interested you in being plant-based and/or veganism. Get educated as much as you can before you make the switch so you're solid in your foundation.
Secondly, make sure you're armed with cooking/nutritional resources on transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle. What are the best sources of protein, what are the affordable/cheap staples you can keep at home, and what are some go-to meals you can make? There's a Daily Dozen checklist that is super helpful to ensure you're eating a varied and nutritious plant-based diet, and this helpful guide by Rainbow Plant Life is also really handy. Also be sure you take your supplements (B-12 and Vitamin D especially, which minorities can already have deficiencies in anyway).
Finally, if eating vegan is not the norm in your community, it does not mean that it can't be accepted. It may be a bit of a struggle at first, but as mentioned earlier, I find people can be open to new perspectives and ideas perhaps they weren't exposed to before. Of course there will also be the people who will say you are wrong and won't budge. But no one should ever live their life based on those types of people and how they will judge you. The biggest obstacle would be your immediate family. Perhaps your family won't support you initially, but they will eventually come around to at least accepting it after they see that it’s something you are serious about and committed to. And maybe you'll get more people interested along the way with you!
What are some of your favorite Pakistani vegan recipes? Vegan shami kababs made with black chickpeas, Peshawari chapli kabab made from Impossible "beef", pakora toast (street food first tried in Islamabad), and my mom helped me figure out a seitan biryani. If you're not familiar with seitan, it has a meat-like texture made from wheat gluten. We also just made a gulab jamun trifle for a wedding we are catering, which is made of layers of biscoff cookie crumbs, vanilla custard, and vegan gulab jamun made of breadcrumbs topped with cardamom sugar syrup and a coconut whip. So delicious!
Wow, yum. Ok, so what are your favorite vegan places to eat in Atlanta?
I really love Vegreen in Duluth for vegan sushi, Slutty Vegan's burgers, Calveritas vegan Mexican food, Malaysian food from Mamak Vegan Kitchen, brunch at Dulce Vegan, spicy vegan ramen from Jinya Ramen Bar, Grass VBQ for vegan bbq, and the oat milk soft serve at Big Softie. The Bien Vegano monthly pop-up markets are also a great place to try vegan food!
Thank you Sara!
And follow Sara on Instagram at The Pakistani Vegan.