Evolving Vegan, Mena Massoud’s first foray into publishing, is, as the book title suggests, a vegan cookbook, but that doesn’t mean the actor ― who played Aladdin in the $1B-grossing Disney remake — expects or wants his readers to go completely vegan.
“I’m not telling people to go vegan. I’m not,” Massoud told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview.
“I’m telling people to eat more plant-based. That’s basically as simple as I can put it: just eat more plant-based — it’s going to benefit you, your health, the environment and the animals.”
Evolving Vegan, which is out today, is dedicated to Massoud’s mom, Gorgit, (the “Love you, Ma” sign-off may melt your heart) and it’s clear from our conversation that she is a force — culinary and otherwise — in Massoud’s life.
“Growing up, I ate everything you can think of: stomach lining, intestines, cow hooves, kidney, heart — I even tried brain. Basically anything you can think of, I tried, because it’s all in the Egyptian cuisine,” he said.
But vegan staples, including okra, beans, chickpeas, eggplant, and “a lot of falafel,” were also prominent in the Massoud household.
As a Coptic Christian, “you grow up three months of the year vegan anyway, because for Christmas and Easter you give up all animal products.”
It wasn’t until five years ago that the “Reprisal” star decided to make the switch from casual plant eater to full-time vegan. The process, he said, didn’t happen overnight, and the result is Evolving Vegan, a cookbook (as well as a company by the same name) that includes recipes from his favourite restaurants across Canada and the U.S. (which he and his business partner travelled to while researching the book), his own personal dishes and his mom’s favourite meals.
Read our Q&A below to find out why Massoud believes the world is “evolving vegan,” get his tips for people looking to eat more plant-based, and learn how he’s taking his career into his own hands.
(Note: this interview has been edited and condensed)
HuffPost Canada: Why did you decide to go fully vegan after eating meat your whole life?
Mena Massoud: I was living with my two best friends and we started doing a lot of research, [and] it just spiralled into animal products, how they affect the environment and our health ... Being three macho guys, we kinda had to encourage each other to try it [go vegan] because meat is targeted towards men a lot of the time.
When you see Burger King commercials, the grill and barbecue, it’s targeted towards men so there’s a stigma of men going vegan. I just started feeling lighter, I was having more energy, I was making progress at the gym and I knew the positive environmental impact by not eating it [meat].
How did you start making the switch?
I started out by cutting out red meat, cut out eggs and then chicken and so on until I got to a point where I was really like, ‘I don’t need to eat meat again.’ If I was stranded on an island and needed to hunt my own game. I would do it, but now with all the resources we have, we don’t need to eat meat the way that we do. So I just stopped eventually and it’s become second nature.
How did your mom spark your passion for food and cooking?
She cooked every night. My parents were hustlers. My dad was a satellite engineer back in Egypt and came to Canada and had to pick up any job he could get, so he was delivering pizzas and working at a VHS factory when we first got here.
My mom was working in coffee shops, but as soon as we all got back home from work, me and my sisters from school, she would get into the kitchen right away and start dinner. Seeing her do that every single day for my whole life really inspired me, and her food was delicious, [and it’s] not just the family that said that but she was renowned in our Egyptian community for being one of the best cooks.
What mom-cooked meal from your childhood stands out for you?
Easter dinner always stands out because she would go above and beyond. When I was growing up, before I went vegan obviously, she would make turkey and duck and lamb. She would make this dish in Egypt where you soak pita bread in cow fat and then you mix it with rice and you eat it alongside cow hooves, and then there would be some kidney and liver stew as well.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has made more people eat plant-based?
I am a true believer that the whole world is evolving vegan and will evolve in that direction because of what you just mentioned: meat shortages, pandemics, all that stuff.
Me talking about it to my friends is one thing, but you’re seeing it in a marketplace. Beyond Meat went from $40US a stock almost a year ago to like $150US a stock now [as of press time, Beyond Meat was sitting at $143US a stock], Impossible Burger is going to launch their IPO soon. [Impossible Burger hasn’t announced an IPO date but the company is launching its plant-based burger in Canada soon.] Every single big food manufacturer is coming out with a vegan line.
It’s this weird thing; you talk to networks or studios or publishers and they all go, “Vegan is niche,” but the food manufacturers are realizing that it’s not about vegan being niche, it’s about that’s the way the world is going so we have to evolve in that direction.
Any tips for people who are interested in going vegan?
I have one of two ways: you can find the animal protein that you like the least. Let’s say you like chicken the least — just cut it out. That’s a good start. It’s a good positive impact you’re having on animal agriculture by refusing to eat at least one kind of animal protein.
The other thing you can do is just eat plant-based twice a week, two days in a row, just because you will feel the effects of them more. And that way mentally, it’s easier to swallow, no pun intended, because you know you’re going to have it [meat] in two days. It’s not like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t eat meat forever.’ No, see how you feel, see what you can come up with.
A lot of people who just go vegan overnight end up reverting back much quicker to their old habits than if you just implement it slowly — because there’s a lot to learn to be able to do it in a healthy way.
You worked in a restaurant (as a busboy and server) while studying theatre at Toronto’s Ryerson University; how did that experience shape your relationship with food?
It made me view it from a professional level. When you work at a restaurant, you start seeing it from a whole other perspective, especially because I was there for three years pretty much full time, doing that at night and hustling as an actor during the day. So when you view that, you get to see it from a commercial perspective.
I understood more people that I admire [like] Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain — I started to understand them more because I was viewing it from that lens.
What have you been cooking during quarantine?
I haven’t been cooking as much as I want to be just because I’ve been exhausted from being in the kitchen and cooking [while researching for the cookbook], but I intermittent fast until about 1 or 2 p.m. and then I make my morning oatmeal — it’s filled with things like chia seeds, poppy seeds, goji berries, so I make sure I get a lot of my iron, a lot of my B vitamins in there.
For lunch, I’ll usually do a pasta salad or rice bowl and then for dinner I’ll either do a pizza or a stew of some sort, whether it’s a bean chili, something heavy in protein, or Indian food, like a chana masala or a red lentil dal. I have a pretty big repertoire, but sometimes you just feel like getting takeout, you know?
What are some of your favourite recipes from the cookbook?
All of my mom’s and there’s eight [recipes]. I definitely recommend you try one of my mom’s recipes sooner than later, because it’s authentic Egyptian cuisine, which I think people just associate with falafel and hummus, but it’s way more than that.
It really depends on what you’re feeling. If you’re feeling something more hearty, there’s tons in there. If it’s a cold day outside, there’s soups. There’s a butternut squash soup in there that’s amazing; there’s my mom’s soup in there that’s amazing.
Do you bring any of your home-cooked meals with you on set or are you eating craft service?
[While shooting] “Aladdin” I was on a regimented diet, so the chef did cook me food there but it was really simple; it was brown rice, some grilled tofu and veggies. I was looking to get into really good shape.
But on “Reprisal,” I had craft when they had something I could eat but one thing I could always bring was my go-to chickpea salad, that’s easy to make in 10 minutes. So sometimes I’ll just make something and bring it to set if I have time but sometimes it’s really simple stuff.
What are your favourite vegan restaurants in Canada?
I’m a bad Canadian in the sense that I haven’t been anywhere except Toronto and Montreal, but I can definitely give you recommendations for those two.
In Toronto if you want a vegan pizza my favourite spot there is Apiecalypse Now [editor’s note: Apiecalypse Now is temporarily closed] — they’ve got a big mac pizza and ‘The Pig Destroyer Destroyer’ pizza. But it’s not healthy, it’s not healthy at all.
If you want a healthy pizza option, I think Virtuous Pie just opened up in Toronto [editor’s note: Virtuous Pie closed its doors indefinitely in Toronto but it has two locations in Vancouver and one in Victoria] and they do pretty clean pizzas that are delicious and they are featured in the book.
And Planta is obviously incredible.
What’s keeping you busy now?
My production company is what’s keeping me busy right now — Press Play Productions. I’ve come out before and talked about my struggles being an ethnic actor and that obviously hasn’t changed, especially with [the pandemic]. COVID-19 has made it difficult for every artist, no matter who you are, so I’m really just focusing on my production company. We’ve got a few things on our slate that I’m very excited about and just learning what it means to be a producer and to take a hold of my career.
I look at Tyler Perry as someone who’s a real inspiration to me. He wasn’t a mainstream actor by any means but [he] really just grabbed his career by the horns and now I think he’s the newest addition to the billionaire club, so that’s really what I’ve been focusing on during the shutdown.
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