Veganism is going viral across the globe as more and more people are choosing to change to a lifestyle of plant and fruit-based eating. The Philippines, however, is proving a difficult bastion to conquer. One young and gutsy restaurateur and entrepreneur based in Davao City, Sahara Lara Casteel, is on a mission to educate lechon (roasted pork) loving Davaoeños about alternative eating habits that are good for them, their environment and the planet as a whole.
Family fish farm
Sahara spent her childhood in an environment pretty far removed from the vegan lifestyle she would later adopt. She grew up on her family’s milk fish farm in Palili in Davao del Sur that her grandfather built. He passed it on to his seven sons and daughters and now most of Sahara’s cousin and uncles run the farm. “The farm production is now bigger than ever because milk fish has become a popular bait to catch wild tuna with,” explains Sahara. “The milk fish are fed a lot of feeds, which I believe ruins the environment, to make them grow big fast. Considering my current views on food and health, it feels a little strange that I once played there with my cousins making little fish farms. But I also think that working on a farm spurred my interest in the environment and laid the foundation for my choices later in life.”
Those choices would in no small measure be informed by the new environment she became exposed to when at age nine Sahara with her two sisters, but without their parents, moved to Davao City. Just before, Sahara’s father—from whom she had become estranged—had been tragically shot in Manila by a drug dealer who mistook him for a policeman. Sahara’s mom was in South Korea running a rolling convenience store out of a big van. In Davao, the girls stayed with their aunt, Tarhata, their father’s eldest sister. Being away from the farm, in a big city, without traditional parental oversight, Sahara had ample opportunity to pursue new interests and develop her own ideals and principles outside of the mainstream.
“Classmates would question my choices. “Why are you just eating the eggs? You are not even religious!””
One of the new influences she was exposed to in Davao City was environmentalism. “When I was sixteen, I attended a meeting of Greenpeace and learned about what we can do to preserve the planet, stop pollution and live meat free. In high school I started to get more serious about activism. That’s also when I became a vegetarian. As a university student at Ateneo de Davao University, I found that no one really understood what I was doing. Classmates would question my choices. “Why are you just eating the eggs? You are not even religious!,” some of them would say. Waning myself from fish was the hardest, because I grew up eating lots of it. A few years later, when I was in Australia, I stopped eating fish altogether, although for the first month I stuck with salmon to please my mom. She would insist on it, especially when she cooked it herself. Soon, though, I gave that up too.”
Thinking of “Down Under”
Sahara’s mom was absent from her daughter’s life for fourteen years, including the nine years that Sahara spent in Davao City. They did stay in touch over the phone and when Sahara learned that her mom had moved from South Korea to Sydney, Australia for work, she started contemplating moving there herself. With most of her cousins working on the farm and her friends dead set on staying in Davao, Sahara was ready to get away from the Philippines and experience student life abroad. So she went for it. “It was weird seeing my mom again after having been apart for so long. I even moved in with her, if only temporarily. We lived in an apartment in Vaucluse, a suburb of Sydney, a forty five minute bus ride from the city.”
After a month, Sahara found her own place and started studying at the Australian Institute of Higher Education. Over the course of eight years she obtained two degrees, one in business management, one in marketing and a partial degree in accountancy. “I had realized that to put my ideas about sustainability, zero-waste and eating whole foods into practice, solid business acumen would be essential. Sydney was bustling with entrepreneurs doing just that. It was a good environment for me to be exposed to.”
Enjoying her newfound Aussie independence, Sahara started noticing the alternative foods that omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike seemed to be enjoying. “Fellow students were eating fish substitutes and chicken nuggets from a place called ‘Lord of the Fries’. It was amazing and completely unheard of in Davao.”
Going “tofurkey” in Sydney
Inspired and emboldened by what she saw happening around her, Sahara went pretty much straight from vegetarian to vegan shortly after arriving in Sydney. “You could say I went “cold tofurkey”, but it wasn’t so difficult to do that there,” she admits. “Australia is the third largest market for vegan products. Unlike in the Philippines, there’s a big community and many support networks.” Support did not come from her family who found it, and still finds it, difficult to understand her position. Sahara: “Like most Filipinos, my relatives all love meat and they would say things to me like: “Just have one piece of liempo (grilled pork belly)!” As I got skinnier they thought it was just a diet thing. They don’t understand the advocacy behind what I do.”
My relatives all love meat and they would say things to me like: “Just have one piece of liempo!””
One of the ways Sahara expressed her advocacy was as an active member of Greenpeace in Sydney. She joined a protest again agrochemical giant Monsanto and advocated for the release from a Russian prison of the Artic 30, the crew of the Greenpeace ship Artic Sunrise, who were fighting against Shell’s oil drilling operations in the polar region. She was also an active donor and supporter of Sea Shepherd International and was able to tour around their legendary Steve Irwin ship. When she finished her studies she took on a job at IKU Wholefood. “IKU is a Japanese word meaning “go”,” explains Sahara. “Everything at IKU is takeaway and it’s all macrobiotic, unprocessed food. They follow the logic that a balanced diet helps you have a balanced life. I learned a lot there and I applied those lessons in my own restaurant that I would open in Davao a couple years later.”
The Vegan Dinosaur comes to life
After eight formative years in Sydney, a place regarded as the pinnacle of all things vegan, on January 28th, 2015 Sahara moved back to Davao City, a carnivore’s paradise. “Australia was and will always be my favorite place in the world, but I felt that my hectic lifestyle there prevented me from doing the things I’m really passionate about, such as blogging, recipe developing and traveling for food research.”
A changed person nevertheless, Sahara was determined to apply what she had learned in Australia about nutrition and the environment, but she was unsure about the best way do to that. After three months of unsuccessfully sending out job applications she decided to open up her own café.
Her decision to become a small business owner was in part informed by simply not having a place to eat in the city. “I came back from Australia as a fruitarian. Although I do eat vegetables when fruits are not in season, I found it hard to find restaurants that cater to people with similar food preferences. All I could find was mock meat but my body doesn’t respond well to that kind of food.”
“The Vegan Dinosaur,” as Sahara named the café, was first located at Red Lion Dormitel on Bacaca Street in Davao City’s Garcia Heights neighborhood. For the name she drew inspiration from a movie that is one of her childhood favorites: “The Land Before Time.” All the protagonists in the film are dinosaurs and, you guessed it, they are all vegan. “The first location was tiny,” Sahara recalls. “We had just two tables and there was hardly any parking space. Not surprisingly, business was slow at first. I worked alone and on really bad days I would make a measly thirty pesos. After five months, things slowly picked up and I hired one employee and then a second. Three months later we moved to our current location in the Values School Building on Ruby Street in Marfori Heights.”
In business: the early days
“It was scary to start a business,” reflects Sahara. “I didn’t have a lot of money and I even had to sell some of my stock of Jollibee and SM Malls that I had bought when I was a student in Australia. Also, I had to withdraw and effectively end my pension funds, also known as “superannuation.” That fetched me about 4.000 Australian Dollars. I actually had to sign a document stating I was not going to go back to Australia to work there. On top of all the financial matters, I was worried about how the people of Davao would react to a vegan restaurant. I mean, people here really like meat. Saying I was more likely to fail than to succeed is an understatement.”
“I was worried about how the people of Davao would react to a vegan restaurant. I mean, people here really like meat.”
Her concerns were certainly valid, but Sahara didn’t start her restaurant venture ill prepared. Besides having an academic background in business she had tons of experience with cooking vegan food, especially raw cakes and “bliss balls.” In Sydney she would sell them to classmates and customers of IKU. Her entrepreneurial spirit also came from having been raised in a business. Sahara: “The fish farm operated according to a business plan, a strategy. That way of thinking must have stuck with me until it was my turn to build something from the ground up.”
Perks of a prime location
And build she did. The Vegan Dinosaur’s formula is inspired by what Sahara learned and experienced at IKU in Sydney, with a few twists, like the many different raw cakes that she makes herself. To promote the restaurant she tapped into a favorite Filipino pastime: posting pictures on social media. “I already did food blogging and photography in Australia and I learned early on that posting good quality pictures on Facebook is a must to drive traffic to your website and your business. I relentlessly pushed our dishes and philosophy to online audiences. And slowly but surely, more people started coming through the door.”
The recent success not only made possible the move to the much better situated Marfori Heights location, but Sahara now also has plans to redo the kitchen space and add a small bulk store with unpackaged produce in the restaurant. She’s also thinking about opening up a vegan burger place in Matina Town Square (MTS), a popular open air city hub with bars, restaurants and life entertainment.
With the MTS location Sahara hopes to attract students from two universities in the area. The biggest share of the clientele of The Vegan Dinosaur is, surprisingly, made up of people who are ill, suffering from cancer, for instance. “They come here, because their doctors advise them to follow a plant-based, whole foods diet,” explains Sahara. “We are still the only place in Davao City that can offer that to them.”
Veganism: regional variation
Precisely because Sahara is doing something unique in Davao City her ideas to grow the business might just work. Although several vegan places have opened in the city and more and more restaurants offer vegan options, The Vegan Dinosaur is still the only one cooking with just whole foods. Sahara welcomes the competition, though. “I want people to put up more vegan businesses in Davao. The more businesses, the more people will learn about the lifestyle.”
Having traveled to many countries in Southeast Asia, Sahara is surprised at the lack of a vegan food culture in the Philippines. “Buddhist countries like Thailand typically have a lot of vegan options because that’s congruent with their views on compassion and non-violence. Taiwan, for instance, has an amazing offering. There, restaurants don’t even label dishes as “vegan”, most of the items on the menu just are. I don’t know why the Philippines is different, perhaps it’s because we were colonized by the Spanish and later the Americans. Their omnivore ways must have rubbed off on us.”
“Eating plant-based foods is not a “hip” lifestyle for people who have lots to spend. It’s not difficult to be vegan in the Philippines.”
Indeed, it’s puzzling that, given the abundance of cheap vegetables and fruits in the Philippines, especially in predominantly rural Mindanao, plant-based eating is not more readily adopted. Sahara illustrates the point with an example from her mother’s family. “My maternal grandmother lived until 86 (the average life expectancy of a person in the Philippines is 68.5 years). She ate simple and inexpensive foods, like cassava, sweet potato and rice. Eating plant-based foods is not a “hip” lifestyle for people who have lots to spend. It’s not difficult to be vegan in the Philippines.”
What about plastics?
Another area that negatively sets the Philippines apart from some of its neighbors—and this is a focus of Sahara’s advocacy as well—is how it deals with the issue of plastic pollution. As far as Sahara is concerned, zero-waste should be the end goal. That, however, might just prove to be an even bigger challenge than waning Filipino’s from eating huge amounts of meat. “We are obsessed with small packaging and plastics,” says Sahara. “If people would buy directly from the source, from the farmers, from the markets, we could be healthier and have a lot less plastic pollution.”
Making matters worse, and Sahara recently experienced this herself, most big shopping malls and supermarkets don’t allow shoppers to bring their own bags. “That happened to me at Victoria Plaza mall the other day, and I was outraged,” says Sahara, still clearly annoyed about the incident. “I even sent a complaint email to Davao City’s major, Sara Duterte. I’m waiting for a reply.”
The Davao City government announced earlier this year that it is considering a “waste to energy” project that would in large part be funded by the Japanese government. “If that would mean we would not use those hideous landfills anymore, great. So far, however, I haven’t seen any evidence that it will actually happen and I have no idea how it would be implemented either. You can’t just put random waste items in a bag and expect to turn that into an energy source. We need to become serious about recycling our waste, as currently we don’t do any recycling whatsoever. We’ll see what happens.”
Barriers of social injustice
So why are the Filipino people not eating and living more sustainably? Sahara puts the question in a broader context of social injustice. “Even though it’s relatively inexpensive to, for instance, only eat unprocessed foods, many parents still struggle to provide for their families. Families are large, with usually around four to five kids. Many mothers are still young when they conceive and lots of families end up living in slums. The Reproductive Health Act, which guarantees universal access to contraception, fertility control, sexual education and maternal care, languished in Congress for thirteen years until it was finally approved in 2012. We’re a very Catholic country, but this is the 21st century and unless we get with the present, we’ll fall farther behind as a country.”
“It’s scary to think about the issue of overpopulation because in the Philippines we don’t have an equal division of things.”
“It’s scary to think about the issue of overpopulation because in the Philippines we don’t have an equal division of things,” Sarah continues. “Not of wealth, not of property, not even of food. There’s too much corruption which only widens the already massive gap between the haves and have-nots. What personally annoys me is that many young people don’t get a fair shot. Bizarrely, we don’t have a system of apprenticeships in the Philippines, so how are you supposed to gain experience? And then when you do find a job, more often than not you’re fired within six months, releasing the employer from having to pay employee benefits. It’s twisted.”
Country’s fruit basket
The status quo frustrates Sahara who with her advocacy work tries to bring about change in an environment where people don’t seem to want it. The projects she does, like The Vegan Dinosaur, involve supporting people who are trying to make the world a better place with their food choices. That has led to several interesting initiatives. She co-founded “Vegans of Davao,” a community for vegans and non-vegans alike to exchange ideas, online and in monthly meetups. In 2016, Sahara and her friend Mirabai—a.k.a. The Healthy Pinay—organized the first annual vegan fruit festival in the Philippines called Madayaw Davao Fruit Fest. The 2018 edition is being planned for September. “Mirabai and I thought that we would like to have like-minded people gather in Davao City, the country’s fruit basket, because if more vegan people come to the Philippines, this might encourage locals to try veganism as well. However, this is a festival not just for vegans and foreigners, non-vegan locals are also welcome to join.”
In the past, Sahara had a cooking show on a regional television station. She would prepare vegan meals and inform viewers about veganism. Sometimes she does free health talks and live cooking demos. “I don’t do that a lot anymore, though,” Sahara explains. “They are expensive, because I’m basically giving away free food. You need a venue and I can’t just close The Vegan Dinosaur. If I would charge, people wouldn’t come, I’m afraid.”
Sahara is always grateful for the opportunity to promote veganism and plant-based eating as it gets the idea of a healthier and cruelty-free lifestyle out there. “It is not easy to promote something in a city where most people have no idea what veganism is. I’m happy that slowly, it’s getting recognized here.”
Wow wat een doorzetter. Ontzettend knap hoe ze het zover gebracht heeft. Bizar dat veel mensen toch kiezenvoor het dure vlees terwijl haar oma zo oud is geworden op groente en fruit. En terwijl dat ook nog goedkoper is. Haar gerechten zien er super lekker uit. Ik ga haar volgen. Oh en geweldig dat in Taiwan de gerechten op de kaart meestal sowieso vegan zijn!
I commend you Sshara for educating us about Vegan. I’m intetested to shift from being a meat-eater to veganism
wish I learned about this when I visited Davao last year. I will sure put this on my list for a must-visit and must-try. Hope the business runs good!