How to be vegan in a country where meat has social value
Dio Gramkow Leitis was about eight years old the day he heard a shot followed by a scream. It was the pig’s last breath. The animal had been slaughtered that day in the family’s farm. “My cousins and I had even given her a name (Little Pink Pig). I cried so much,” he recalls. “It was a family tradition (read more below) and I was too young to know what veganism was, but it was probably my wake-up to a change that would come later in my life.” The public servant is one of the 18,000 people living in Ibirama, a Brazilian town located in the State of Santa Catarina (600 kilometres south of Sao Paulo) and whose economy relies mainly on agriculture. Vegan products aren’t easy to find. Dio buys fruits, veggies, legumes and roots from grocery stores, and seeds and seasoning from warehouses located in a nearby city. Eating out is not a habit — the restaurants in town don’t have vegan options on the menu.
Going vegan in his town required motivation. But the impact of animal agriculture on the environment — and Little Pink Pig’s story — has helped him be focused.
When did you adopt a plant-based diet? In the end of 2015. But I was never a heavy meat-eater, which is a surprise, considering that my family always lived in a farm and raised animals such as chickens, cows and pigs. I never felt comfortable about it, but the advantage of living in that environment was the abundance of veggies and fruits.
In which circumstances did you make your decision? In the last three years, I put on 20 kilos due to an unbalanced diet. So, in October 2015, I looked for medical support. The doctor reinforced that, if I wanted to live long, I should eat animal products. My diet included chicken breast and fish, but my body started to reject them. I didn’t want to contribute to animal cruelty. So against my doctor’s recommendations, I cut off meat. I read books by vegan doctors and nutritionists, and did some research to learn what I needed on my plate to be healthy. I went vegan for the animals, but in the end it improved my health.
Do you miss anything? I became vegan overnight. I had to be firm and forget all the animal products I was used to such as milk, cheese, the traditional pizza and stroganoff made with table cream. What I missed was granola with yogurt (made with cow’s milk), so I replaced it with yogurt made of soy. But I didn’t eat it for long: the taste wasn’t good, and I didn’t want the risks of GMO.
What about cooking? I love it. I feel free and creative in the kitchen. When I wasn’t vegan, I cooked only in the weekends, and the dishes were always the same. Now, I realized the variety of ingredients and colours. There are endless possibilities.
How do you compare plant- and animal-based meals? I have to mention food hygiene. Vegan culinary is clean, no blood or fat to remove from the pans. It’s easier to handle and sanitize everything. The only dirt in our hands is from veggies taken from the garden. Besides, it’s auspicious to work with foods created by Mother Earth.
Do you create your dishes or follow recipes? In the beginning, I followed recipes from vegan and vegetarian books, and chefs who have YouTube videos. After some time, I learned how to adapt typical dishes to a vegan version and keep the ideal flavour, texture and nutritional aspect. Although I’m always checking what chefs are doing, I create my own dishes.
What are your favourite dishes? For my everyday life, brown rice and beans seasoned with turmeric and black pepper (a typical Brazilian meal) with kale and broccoli on the side. For the dessert, I can’t say no to brigadeiros made of green banana biomass rolled in peanut candy. [Note from the editor: brigadeiro is the most popular candy in Brazil, and is originally made with condensed milk.] In-between meals, I like fruits such as banana, star fruit, persimmon or kiwi with grated coconut and sunflower seeds. In special occasions, I’d have roulade made of lentils and quinoa, farofa and stroganoff cooked in a pumpkin (photo on the right). [Note from the editor: Dio told me that this dish was made with hearts of palm, mushrooms, onions, carrots, broccoli, green corn, peas, curry and Worcestershire sauce.]
How is it to be vegan in Brazil where the culinary relies heavily on animal products, and meat has social value? Being vegan is easy and fun. It brings me an indescribable inner peace. The hardest part of going vegan is not the food itself, but people's behaviour. My true friends accept my lifestyle. But when I’m invited to barbecues, for example, I prefer to bring my own food to avoid embarrassing situations and not feel hungry. Veganism is not only about food, but clothing, beauty, hygiene, leisure… It requires patience and openness. In Brazil, the animal-product industry is powerful. They control the media and the Congress because of the money involved in the production of meat and milk. They’re deforesting vast areas, including the Amazon, to turn them into land for animal agriculture. While some developed countries are realizing how damaging this industry has become, we’re going backwards. Brazil is proud of being a world leader when it comes to exporting meat. [Note from the editor: the Brazilian Vegetarian Society (website in Portuguese) informed that 8 per cent of Brazilians declared themselves “vegetarian” in a 2012 national survey by Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics. This percentage is the same in Canada. The country with the largest vegetarian community (40%) is India.]
What is it like not finding all the products you want to eat? I enjoy making almost anything at home, including non-dairy cheese and milk. By cooking my own food, I know the quality of the products I’m consuming, and make everything exactly the way I want. Veganism is our future, so the offer of vegan products tends to increase. What matters now is I’m vegan for a peaceful, loving and compassionate world.
Photos credit: Dio Gramkow Leitis’s archives