September 6, 2022
FabCafe Tokyo’s In the Loop event series initially stemmed from the GGJ (Global Goals Jam), a workshop program designed to guide participants through their first steps toward the big challenges posed by the Sustainable Development Goals. Organized in partnership with Ekolokal, In the Loop is a pop-up community that gathers collaborators working on SDGs-related initiatives and proposes a fun, open, and experimental approach to ecodesign and sustainability. After three successful volumes in Tokyo and one in Nagoya, the community circle is expanding with each event!
Tokyo’s volume 3, held in in April 2022, was focused on vegan and plant-based products. Ten collaborators came together to take part in a one-day market featuring organic vegetarian and vegan food and drink, as well as crafts made with plant-based materials. In the present interview, Shinji Imai of LOVEG, Natsuki of TOKYO VEG LIFE, and Kelsie Stewart of FabCafe reflected on the event and shared their thoughts on their activities.
―― What kind of activities do you two usually do?
Natsuki: Since 2018, I have been sharing vegan recipes, yoga, and lifestyle on a YouTube channel called TOKYO VEG LIFE. As a derived project, in November 2021 I launched a vegan cheese brand called “TOKYO VEG LIFE faux-mage”.
Imai: I am working on a plant-based food brand called LOVEG. I used to work as a manager at a plant-based/vegan restaurant called ORGANIC TABLE BY LAPAZ. It was a classic building with a great atmosphere, but it was eventually demolished because its structure was too old. I wanted to preserve the restaurant’s taste, and this is why I started a plant-based food brand that allows anyone to easily make our popular fried soybean meat at home.
―― How about you, Kelsie? What is your role at In the Loop?
Kelsie: My basic role is that of a curator. I scout out information from various people, research new players in circular economy in the local area, prepare a list of potential collaborators, and approach those selected. Then, with Ekolokal, I reach out to a diverse audience of people who care about sustainability to join our multifaceted popup event.
One positive remark I received from the In the Loop popup collaborator, Mai Saito of Rus Jewelry was that it was great to see so many people excited about a common concept. Unlike pop-up events at department stores, where customers may be coming simply to go shopping, Mai was delighted to experience the value of meeting customers who share the same awareness around sustainability as herself at FabCafe.
Also, instead of simply doing something for the people who gather, I plan these events with the intention of doing something together in the future. Since many of the visitors of FabCafe are creators themselves, my goal with In the Loop is to curate a roster of interesting people (the popup collaborators) and experiences (the event itself) that will lead to future works with experts in a variety of fields. My role is to create a place that can lead to such experiments.
―― What kind of food did you serve at this event, Imai?
Imai: I aimed at presenting a dish that conveys the fact that soybean meat is an easy and tasty ingredient, so I served vegan mapo tofu. Originally, this is a popular Chinese dish that consists of spicy tofu, fermented beans, and minced meat, which I change into soybean meat in my recipe. Tofu and soybean meat are both made from soybeans, so I think it is the perfect dish to convey their wonderful appeal and versatility.
Natsuki: It was delicious. The spices were skillfully adjusted, and it was very filling. I also liked that it is easy to eat without any weird heaviness.
Imai: Thank you very much. When designing the recipe, I visited different famous mapo tofu restaurants in Tokyo. I also made a lot of efforts to get the texture of the meat and spices right, and worked very hard to make it spicy and punchy while retaining the tenderness and lightness characteristic of plant-based foods.
Natsuki: It’s very satisfying, but you don’t feel like it will upset your stomach until the next day. I thought it was really inclusive recipe because it can be enjoyed not only by vegans, but also by people who want to stay healthy.
―― How about you, Natsuki?
Natsuki: I offered vegan cheese at my pop-up store. Vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products, but vegans cut those out as well, and only eat non-animal products. However, many people say one of the reasons it’s so difficult to transition from vegetarian to vegan is that they will miss eating cheese.
Real cheese is a fermented food, but most of the vegan cheeses available today are processed foods with additives to make them taste and feel like cheese. Taste-wise, they all have to be heated to be eaten, which gives them a strong image of “compromise food”. I wanted to make something different from that, a naturally fermented product free of artificial seasonings that would enrich people’s lives.
Imai: The creaminess of the cashews, the koji (the Japanese name for the mold Aspergillus oryzae), the gorgeous aroma of the yeast, the slightly spicy flavor… The concentrated quality of the ingredients that spread in my mouth made me enjoy your faux-mage beyond the simple category of “cheese”.
Natsuki: Thank you very much. When one says “vegan cheese,” it tends to actually refer to a “cheese-like product”, but my faux-mage is a completely new fermented food inspired by cheese. It is meant to be enjoyed as a delicious and healthy food by just anyone, beyond the labels of “vegan or no vegan”, “allergy free or not allergy free”, and so on.
Imai: The same goes for LOVEG. My products are often compared to something that has always existed, but I want to create a completely different path. I felt that we both share this desire.
Natsuki: I couldn’t agree more. I call it vegan cheese because it is easy to understand, but eventually, I hope it will become a new category called “faux-mage”.
―― With so many different ingredients and cuisines available, how did you two come to work with vegan cheese and plant-based foods?
Natsuki: It was my longtime yoga practice that led me to gradually switch to a vegan diet. At the time, there were not many options for vegetarians, let alone vegans, and the only sources of information were English websites. So I started the aforementioned YouTube channel called TOKYO VEG LIFE in the hope that some people would benefit if I provided information about my learning process.
At first, I mainly uploaded content, but then I thought it would be great if I could deliver something tangible that contained the essence of TOKYO VEG LIFE, and that’s how I started producing vegan cheese.
Imai: Earlier, I explained the beginning of LOVEG. I would like to add that the reason why I specialized in vegan cuisine is because I believe that it will help move the world in the right direction. All in all, everything is connected: through my activities, I aim at connecting with new lifestyles, and from there entering into new communities like the one of In the Loop, so that I can meet people who share the same values and with whom I can collaborate to strengthen and spread a positive movement.
Soybean meat is an ingredient that has been around for a long time. However, it is not often used for cooking at home, and I thought that if people knew the recipes and how to use it, they would be more likely to pick it up. In fact, soybean meat is easy to prepare, and it is a healthy ingredient that is rich in protein.
Besides, choosing soybean meat is also a sustainable action. I usually eat meat, too, but when I cook with meat, I need to use a lot of dishwasher detergent to clean afterward. However, when I use soy meat, I need less detergent because the cutting board doesn’t get dirty. The fact that no dirty oily water comes out of our homes is also good for the earth.
―― When I listen to your stories and activities, I get the impression that your stance is a bit different from that of conventional veganism. Can you tell us about your stance and how you view veganism?
Imai: Let’s say you have a meal with your friends and you are worried that you can’t go out with them because you can’t eat meat. If the menu has a vegan option, you too will be able to sit at the table with them and enjoy the meal. LOVEG soybean meat can be used to make a variety of vegan dishes easily, so we envision it as a vegan food that everyone can eat together.
Kelsie: In the community, In the Loop, we try to be mindful of these kinds of communication design elements, like vegan/non-vegan/plant-based, etc. I think it’s important to be careful with how we use these labels because they affect the way people pick up on the concepts we are trying to convey.
Overseas, there are some specific types of vegetarianism and veganism, and oftentimes they convey the personal values of those who identify as vegetarian, vegan, etc. Word and expression design enables us to have a proper discussion about why certain words are used in different ways in the first place. This is why I want to respect the choice of specific labels such as “plant-based” as well as “vegan”.
Natsuki: I became a vegan as a result of my search to make gentle choices that would protect different living beings, but I don’t want everyone to be vegan. Everyone has their own way of thinking and lifestyle, so I want people to think for themselves and make their own choices. Even if you are a vegan, you don’t have to call yourself a vegan if you don’t want to.
But as mentioned before, if you declare “I am a vegan,” it becomes easier to understand for everyone. That is why I use the word even though I don’t consider myself 100% vegan. I hope we can enjoy eating together while respecting diversity.
Kelsie: I believe the diversity you mention is very important. In particular, I think that looking forward to such diverse and exciting new dietary options is inspiring. Some people who care about sustainability use shocking and kind of dystopian numbers and images to promote sustainability, like pointing to depressing numbers about the Earth’s biodiversity decline, or the sad image of polar bears disappearing in 20 years. But these stories are not inspirational and do not incite a sense of hope like new and innovative food options.
Imai: In fact, having vegan meals changed my mind in a positive way. I am very happy that LOVEG can be enjoyed by a variety of people with different circumstances and needs. In that sense, I am glad to have learned about veganism, so I hope today’s event was an opportunity for people to give it a try.
―― What kind of society are you both aiming for through events like In the Loop and your daily activities?
Natsuki: Rather than simply increasing the available range of vegan food, I dream of a world where people can always make their own choices. I want not only vegans but all minorities, to be able to live their own lives with pride. I would like to contribute to such a society, even if only in a small way. To that end, I would like to create opportunities for people to get a glimpse of what this new world might look like through my YouTube channel.
Imai: We, too, would like to make an impact on society through plant-based food. I hope to support workers, the community, the farmers. As for our clients, I wish that the presence of LOVEG in the community will gradually help spread good vibes.
Natsuki: When people hear the words like “sustainability” or “SDGs,” they tend to associate them with things like not throwing garbage away or reducing the use of plastic, but there are many other goals in the SDGs besides ecology, such as reducing poverty and creating a society where minorities are free to share their thoughts and needs. I wish to promote a truly sustainable society through the vegan philosophy.
―― Lastly, what is your future vision for In the Loop?
Kelsie: There are FabCafes all around the world, in Bangkok, Taiwan, Barcelona, Mexico City, and more. Each of them have their own food traditions, history and culture. I think it would be interesting for example to bring Natsuki’s faux-mage to Bangkok and create a plan to collaborate with local chefs. Or, using LOVEG’s products, we could make mapo tofu in Taiwan, tacos in Mexico City, and so on. I would love to explore such culinary exchanges.
Domestically, I hope to collaborate with Japanese millet and soybean manufacturers to make this type of food more common. I agree with Natsuki and hope that there will be more options available for varying levels of society, whether they be adults, children, or the less affluent.
If you are interested in this article or any of In the Loop’s activities, please feel free to contact us!
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