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NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The following is a guest post by Alex Tran – the most courageous woman in my life (medium.com/@alexgtran).

Enter Alex…

I was born and raised in Vietnam for 18 years. To us, food is culture, and culture is food. If you’ve been to any South East Asia countries, you would never go hungry, because street food is everywhere, cheap and full of flavours, spices, textures and colours. We use food to tell stories of where we are from, to celebrate holidays, to remind ourselves of parents’ love. In my younger years, I live to eat, that’s why I never question food.

I never questioned why we eat three meals a day — a good breakfast is the one served with pho and fried dough, or a hot bowl of short ribs congee (again, with fried dough). It makes your heart warm and your stomach happy, what is there to question about?

I never questioned why we eat so many different parts of animals — from pig ears, pig brains, pig intestines to ox tongues or even goose blood. My friends in Canada give me big ‘ew’ faces whenever I tell them what I used to eat, but to me they are the true delicacy.

I never questioned why we have to drink cow milk to be taller and have stronger bones. My mom shows love to me and my sister by providing us a glass of milk a day, why would I question that?

I never questioned the food we eat, why we eat, and how we eat them, but then, something changed. I turned 25 last November, and quarter-life crisis hit me hard in the face, yea, I’m growing old. I had no idea how I wanted my life to be, but I knew that I wanted to live a long healthy life to enjoy this beautiful world. That starts with food, and the journey I take to appreciate food starts here.

18 months ago…

If anyone asked me then if I could be a vegetarian, my answer is NO. I love meats more than anything in the world, and all the Vietnamese food that I love has to do with meats e.g. grilled pork vermicelli, pork feet stew, beef/chicken pho, braised pork belly, short ribs noodle soup, you name it. Even though I live in Canada, I cook a lot of Vietnamese food, they remind me of home.

At the same time, Jimmy (my boyfriend) and I were obsessed with health documentary series on Netflix and Prime, from Food Inc., What The Health, to Cowspiracy and Super Sized. As it turns out, animal agriculture is the second biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emission. As major animal production companies lobby the government, they get away with polluting the water, causing climate change and abusing animals. Do you know that the cow that produces the steak you enjoy eating so much was never fed by grass and was never free to run on a meadow?

I also learned that it makes zero sense to drink cow milk. My parents told me growing up that cow milk provides calcium and protein, but we’re human, not calf, why do we drink calf’s milk? And also, cows get all of the calcium from where? You guess it, grass!

I was never a fan of milk, so that was easy to let go, but still, I’m not ready to give up on meats yet. It’s like giving up on my culture and who I am. However, I learned that eating the right food can save the environment.

12 months ago…

Besides documentaries, Jimmy and I are obsessed with books. One day he came home with two requests: 1) Read the Blue Zone book and 2) Let’s stop eating meats. I was skeptical, and responded with a Yes and “I will think about it”, which technically means No in my dictionary. If you don’t know about Blue Zone, the book discovers secrets of how to live a long, healthy and happy life from the people that live the longest in the world. I started the book and I was hooked.

There are many lessons from the book, but there are a few takeaways that I really take to heart:

  • Diet: eat a lot of veggies, legumes, nuts, fermented soy and milk products, drink wine. Only eat 5% of meats in celebratory occasions.
  • Exercise: you don’t have to work out by going to the gym, but involve yourselves in movements and activities every day like lifting stuff, walking, hiking, biking.
  • Community: surround yourself with people that make you laugh and give you a sense of belonging.

Talking about diet, the Blue Zone is what got me started with the 95% plant-based diet, and I was determined for a change. I knew for sure that if we went from the meat-lover diet to 95% plant-based right away, that won’t be sustainable. Thus I started with Meatless Monday — making delicious food with just veggie, and slowly transition to Meatless Everyday. It was a challenge in the beginning because I had no what idea what to cook, but then it came to me very naturally. I added a variety of ingredients in our meals and was trying to be creative with it. Here is an example of our meatless meal:

  • Steamed purple rice (a mix of jasmine rice, brown rice, glutinous black rice, lentil)
  • Bokchoy stir-fried with garlic and hoisin sauce
  • Braised eggplants in tomatoes sauce
  • Cold tofu salad with green onions and cilantro
  • Green veggie soup

Once a week we have fish and shrimps and eggs. My biggest realization was that my grocery spending was cut in half when I don’t buy meat, and my cooking and prep time was also cut in half. All of a sudden, life becomes simpler and more basic. I no longer have to worry about the defrosted meat sitting the fridge for the past two days or waking up early to marinate a piece of steak. Eating plant-based feels so clean and lean. I noticed I have the same level of energy even though I cut down my meats, sometimes even more energetic as my body doesn’t have to work as hard to digest the food.

To make everything more fun, I started making nuts milk. I bought home a new blender and made all kinds of different milk: green bean and walnut, almond and honey, cashew and chocolate powder, etc. Sometimes I added coconut flake, matcha powder and chia seeds for more nutrients and flavours. I made enough of fresh milk and chia pudding for a whole week and even bring them to work.

Food is not just culture, food is health.

6 months ago…

Slowly, my taste bud adapted to my diet change, and I no longer craved meats. I said no to Korean BBQ and voluntarily opt for veggie options in parties, which never happened before. My only guilty pleasure remains Pho, my homemade chicken pho with recipe passed from my mom to me. When I lived in Vietnam, my mom used to make chicken pho every weekend and I love it so much. I learned to make the same pho in Canada, and somehow, making pho is my relaxing ritual twice a month. We die for that smell of grilled gingers and onions every Sunday morning. Our friend suggested vegetarian pho to me, but I know it wouldn’t be the same without that chicken. Though, we upgraded to organic, free-range chicken instead of the regular factory made chicken.

The rest of the 5% of meat in our diet comes from bone broth, because they are such amazing comfort food that I can’t substitute it with anything else.

I came back to Vietnam for 3 weeks around this time. Normally my parents would take me to all different restaurants and have all kinds of buffet, but this time I told her that I just want to eat veggie. No more pork feet or pork belly. I told my parents about what I learned about the Blue Zone and tried to influence them to change their diet and make it more clean. I think I succeed because my parents eat mostly veggie now, and very little meat. They no longer fry stuff, you know, spring rolls or “nem”. I still had blood sausage on my trip though, super high in cholesterol but oh well, I have it once every 2 years if I’m lucky enough — just another guilty pleasure.

We also change the way we cook while going camping. Our typical camping meals used to be BBQ pork, ribs, sausages, chicken wings. Now they become tofu banh my, beyond meats burgers (with lots of vegenaise), veggie skewers, grilled corns, and green beans soup. The new diet saved us so much headache from grocery shopping and preserving the food. Now we cannot go camping any other way.

One day after I came back to Canada from Vietnam, Jimmy shared with me his new food challenge: Intermittent fasting aka skipping breakfast aka keeping the gap from dinner to the next meal around 12–18 hours. My first reaction was pure shock and I threw at him multiple questions, “What is the benefit of that? Where do you get your energy for the morning? How can you sustain that long-term?”. He had all the perfect answers, that the intermittent fasting will help stabilize blood sugar level, reduce obesity, the body will burn the extra fat for energy, and that he can detox his body overnight. I did my own research and all of that was true, it made scientific sense, but I’m still emotionally attached to the idea of having hot noodle soup for breakfast with a cup of coffee before starting my day.

I have a lot of friends that fast on a regular basis for religious or health reason, or even for the ‘lazy’ reason. I never really get it. The idea of drinking water and tea instead of eating sounds crazy to me, and I thought that I would never ever give that a try.

Aside from that, we regularly tried out different vegan restaurants in different cuisines for inspiration: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and recently we tried South Indian vegan food. They all taste so good. I have no idea how vegan roasted pork and mock meats dim sum can taste as good as the real ones. New learning here? Food is creativity.

Two days ago…

Since our conversation in the summer, Jimmy has been skipping breakfast everyday while still being full of energy. He meditates, works out, and does deep work in the morning without eating anything at all. I’ve got used to the fact that intermittent fasting works for him.

The idea of fasting came up again after Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we had our friends over and had a massive hotpot dinner. On Christmas Day, we came over to our friends and had delicious Uruguayan cheese dumplings with ham and cream. Our body has simply become a system of garbage in, garbage out. Jimmy was going to do a 2-day fasting into our winter retreat near Algonquin, and I was not bought into it whatsoever. On the ride to the cabin, we listened to a podcast about how food can prevent cancer. Jimmy asked “Do you know that fasting for 3 days straight can help your body clean out all cancer cells?”. Say what now? If that is true, why don’t we all know about it and practice it, that would save the mankind from the disease that technically lives in every human body. I agreed to a 36-hour fasting to give that a try.

It felt so weird to eat nothing but drinking water and tea. I made ourselves tasty teas to keep our tummy warm, but my mind wandered off to food whenever it had a chance. I was so hungry but I kept telling myself that I will be too hungry to even feel hungry — I’ve been there before. The morning after, waking up with an empty stomach made me feel so light and clean. I had 10 hours to go before I could eat. So all I could think of was food. I started thinking about my whole journey with food and how it has evolves, about why we eat and why I never truly appreciate my food. I thought of all the fruits and vegetables that I’ve neglected over the years, if only I could eat them then, I would kiss them goodbye and sniff them before letting the flavours bust inside my mouth. We never gave food much of a thought, until we no longer have the privilege of eating. Fasting gives me so much perspective on food, and now that I’ve tried it, I will have that in our regular routine. Maybe I can do a 3-day fasting one day. We broke our fast by eating oranges and bananas, and veggie noodles, still, no meats. Trust me, that was the best banana and noodle soup I’ve had in my whole life. For the first time I realized, Food is spiritual.

The day after we went to a local butcher to buy grass-fed steak. We recently subscribed to Ben Greenfield and has been challenged by his nose-to-tail carnivore diet. According to his theory, the meats that cause cancer and all the health impacts are the GMO meats. For people like us that have no clue where our pork chops or beef sirloin come from, the best bet is not to eat meats. However, if we are certain our meats are grass-fed, organic and free of GMO, meats are our friends, not rivals.

End note

It’s been a fun ride exploring food and how it ties to our culture, and how some of the food tradition just can’t be explained scientifically, but we do it no matter what. I used to be ignorant. I love our food tradition but I’ve learned to question and seek for the right answer. Sometimes there’s no answer.

My goals for next year when it comes to food are keeping my plant-based diet, learning about gut health and inflammation and how to make the most out of fasting. There is so much more to learn and discover. Hopefully my relationship with food will reach a new level in 2020.

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