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A very healthy conversation with Jackie Kearney on her vegan travelogues and Italian wellness plans

Seven years separate your latest book, Healthy Vegan Street Food, from Vegan Street Food (and amazingly it’s over a decade since your statement breakthrough on MasterChef). How has the profile of plant-based cuisine changed in that time?

The landscape has changed so much I hardly recognise it any more!  Plant-based food has become incredibly politicised through the growth in veganism. Which has been both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, there exists quite a hard and sometimes judgemental line about a strict vegan lifestyle but also the increase in the number of people, all people but especially omnivores, eating plant-based food. With the wide availability of products, it’s such a big shift in how people eat. I think people (esp. the younger generations) have embraced this more flexitarian approach to eating and it’s definitely a good thing for them and the planet. Like anything in life there also appears to be a polar opposite response too, that’s quite hardline from dedicated carnivores. As a former sociologist I find all that quite interesting.

How important to the growth of veganism is the kind of South Asian food you promote?

I think we should all be incredibly grateful to the cuisines across Asia because there’s so much more function, health and respect in their cooking overall. South Asian food is more evolved from accessibility and seasonality, rather than relying on Dutch hot houses or globally shipped foods. And, of course, it has many ancient cultural and religious practices that have informed and shaped how people eat. We have so much to learn from Asian cultures in terms of plant-based food. Vegan mock meat was essentially invented in China by the Han dynasty over 500 years ago. 

The new book is no rehash. Hardly a duplicate recipe in there. Even the travel element is updated. The emphasis is on that word healthy, all aspects of which you explore. Is that growing awareness the main difference?

I think the book reflects both my own journey and also what’s going on around us – that people are more interested in wellness and health now. Although I grew up in a family that was always quite healthy, I think we just know so much more now. Having the opportunity to travel has taught me a lot from other countries approaches to health and wellness. Functional medicine is huge in the US. Sadly it’s quite hard to access that kind of healthcare here in UK. And even those who do have access pay a high price for that.

But I’ve always been interested in wellbeing and health. I worked for the NHS as a researcher in evidence-based practice for 18 years before MasterChef. After I became unwell due to an autoimmune disease I began studying nutrition and developing my expertise in creating healthier food (that’s still amazing to eat).

What are your major healthy eating tips?

Mostly plant-based whole food most of the time. The whole food part is important. If you’re eating vegan ready made crap from the supermarket then you’re going to feel like crap. 

My main tips are firstly making some time for prep. Having real food prepped makes it a lot easier to eat healthier while leading busy lives. Number one for me is batch cooking. You can also prepare one meal while prepping some things for other meals. So I always make at least one sauce (such as a simmered tomato sauce) that I can use in two or three dishes. I usually make this while making another meal such as batch cooking a stew, soup or dal. Something that’s protein-packed, with mushrooms or tofu/tempeh plus lots of fresh veggies. I always have cooked rice in the fridge, as cooled, cooked rice has a much lower glucose curve – and is the easiest thing to stir-fry with fresh veggies. Make it black or red rice and you’ve seriously raised the antioxidant and fibre game! Black rice is also higher in protein and rich in anthocyanin – the same thing that makes blueberries so blue (and good for us).

I always take prepped food when I’m on the go as well because we tend to eat more rubbish when we’re caught out hungry out of the house. I don’t eat gluten, so instead of grabbing a sandwich I’ll have homemade energy bars in my bag – there’s a fab recipe or two in Healthy Vegan Street Food. Or I often post recipes on my Instagram for healthy snacks and treats.

I also try to eat seasonally and locally where possible – apart from my spice emporium at home. Now I’m living in Italy it’s easier to eat like this as it’s simply how their markets and produce are run. Imported goods are super expensive.

How big a part has your own auto-immune problem played in this?

It’s played a big part really. I was always pretty healthy until my 40s. Being a former researcher I became laser focused on finding answers. But what I’ve learned, like any good researcher, is I have a lot more questions. Social media would have us believe we can cure ourselves of all kinds of diseases but I think this is unfair at best and dangerous at its worst.  It can make you feel like you’ve failed if you don’t get better. But the truth is, you can only make the best of your own situation. There are no cure all easy answers sadly. We can keep ourselves in the best shape possible, so we are in the best place to handle whatever comes at us, physically or mentally. That’s all we can do.

What are your feeling about the rash of vegan ready meals?

It worries me a lot. On the one hand, as I mentioned before, it’s drawn more people into eating plant-based. And to be fair, if they’re choosing a ready made vegan lasagne over a readymade meat lasagne, then at least it’s a small change. But we have to compare like with like, and ready made food is not great for us and should not be the main part of our diet. We need to eat whole foods, mostly plants, fresh and raw foods, fermented foods, healthy proteins and fats, this is true whatever our dietary choices and even more so as we age.

This is what I wanted Healthy Vegan Street Food to be about – healthy real food that’s more balanced and considered when it comes to nutrition. It’s a focus on making sure someone whose diet is primarily plant-based, would be getting most of the nutrients they need. If someone is solely vegan then you will always need to supplement a little. But to eat well for most of the time, the food has to be delicious and that’s what I wanted to create. So it’s possible to have treats and snacks as well as gourmet banquets, that are flavour-packed but also satisfying. 

How important is a plant-based cuisine in the fight against global warming?

We know that the commercial production of food impacts climate change in quite drastic ways. Obviously capitalism is, well capitalising, on the whole plant-based market. As it is too with the wellness industry. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need to take better care of the planet and ourselves. And while it’s just a small thing, I feel that creating exciting, healthy and delicious things to eat made of plants is a pretty good place to start. 

Tell us about your current location in Italy – a far remove both from Chorlton, where you lived, and your Far East adventures.

We moved to Italy just before Brexit. Then the pandemic hit, which slowed our project plans down immensely – as it did for everyone. We moved here to Liguria to create a business that was more aligned to a healthier way of life. We have been building a retreat in the coastal mountains. Nothing complicated or any nutri-nonsense. Just simple principles of Move Well, Breath Well and Eat Well. Looking at the evidence base, these simple principles can give us the longer, healthier and happier life we all hope for. So yoga and hiking, cold water swimming and biodynamic breathwork (think Wim Hof) and together with delicious food and plant forward cookery lessons.

Your ‘Winter Reset’ programme is about to launch. Tell me about the aims of your Wellness Italy project.

This is our first opening for the retreat, so it’s a bit of a soft launch before next year. Our aim is to test the programme before we open the glamping site in the spring. This Winter Reset retreat is focused on yoga and breathwork, with accommodation in the village rather than camping on this occasion. 

We have some incredible teachers coming to support our guests. I actually met one person at a retreat in Thailand and have done some work with her since. I knew I wanted her to be part of the programme as a teacher. We hope next year that we can offer affordable retreat places for people who really need the opportunity. 

I’m well aware that it can be an elitist type of holiday. But we’re aiming to make it something more accessible. Everyone deserves to feel healthier and happier, not just those who can afford it. So we hope to start a Pay It Forward scheme eventually to create a place for someone in need to come for free. I’m also very excited about finally getting to cook for people again. And with small intimate groups too, more like a healthy supper club. And if I get the chance, sneak into the yoga class at the back before I have to get back in the kitchen!

Healthy Vegan Street Food: Sustainable & healthy plant-based recipes from India to Indonesia by Jackie Kearney (Ryland Peters & Small, £20) Photography by Clare Winfield © Ryland Peters & Small. She has published four previous books with them and the BLOG on her ‘Hungry Gecko’ website is an essential background read. 

Don’t miss Jackie’s showstopping recipe for Nasi Campur featured on my website.

‘Winter Reset’ runs from December 8-12 at Jackie’s Italian base of Pieve di Teco, high in the Ligurian mountains.  To find out more email mywellnessitaly@gmail.com .

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  1. […] The former MasterChef finalist expounds on the health value of these tasty cuisines in my recent interview with her. What really impresses is, seven years on from her debut cookbook, the lack of recipe duplication […]

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