I’ve always had a sentimental relationship with food. This can be directly traced helping my grandma add the meat filling to her homemade pastelitos as a young girl. I remember the proud feeling I would get knowing that I was somehow and in some small way, participating in making one of her authentic Dominican dishes. I not only got to spend time with my abuela, but the process made me feel connected to my culture. Making this food felt like the closest thing to the food of the island—of my ancestors—which is why, initially, the idea of encouraging my Dominican family to go plant-based seemed so terrifying. How was I going to help in preserving the dishes that have remained in my family for generations, while also making sure my family maintained their health and wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic? That was the question that presented itself when, after being laid off in July, I decided to move back home with my family.
I’ve essentially been what many refer to as an on-and-off flexitarian for years now. It just means that most of the year I make sure that my diet is centered on plant-based foods and seafood—occasionally adding other meat into the mix. It’s a personal decision I’ve made for my own health and wellness, and I have found that it’s what works for me. But I also wanted to make sure that in my efforts to see my parents and abuela eating more nutritious foods and vegetables, that I wasn’t pushing my lifestyle and my diet on them or making them feel like they were being robbed of their cuisine and their culture. My initial plan was to make vegan and vegetarian versions of most of the Dominican dishes I grew up eating. But as much as abuela liked them, I did notice a frustration, seemingly from seeing her dishes recreated without meat, the way she’s always made them. So after weeks of making everything into plant-based versions, I consulted with Latina nutritionist and dietician Dalina Soto, RD, who gave me some helpful advice on how to approach this challenge.
“You don’t have to eat meat at every single meal, but I also feel it’s important to keep our authentic dishes alive. At one point we’re going to be the only ones carrying that and if we are constantly re-creating them in a plant-based way, we are going to lose our traditions” — Dalina Soto, RD
“You don’t have to eat meat at every single meal, but I also feel it’s important to keep our authentic dishes alive. At one point we’re going to be the only ones carrying that and if we are constantly re-creating them in a plant-based way, we are going to lose our traditions,” Soto says. “These dishes meant something to our ancestors. They meant something to our people. We should keep it that way. If we want to be more plant-based, let’s try something else. Let’s look at other cuisines that are plant-based or let’s have both! But we don’t have to take away our meals, because those are our traditions and we don’t want them to die with us.”
Soto’s words resonated very strongly with me, especially after noticing the disappointment abuela was experiencing every time I said, “no, we’re not making that with meat.” I realized that the only way I was going to get my Dominican family to eat more vegetables, and get them up to optimal health (while still keeping them happy and satisfied), was to find a balance of these approaches.
Community food activist, chef, and founder of Happy Healthy Latina, Yadira Garcia reminded me that there are more vegetarian, pescatarian, and plant-based foods in the Dominican diet than many of us even realize, which I learned after a few weeks of being back home. Abuela would make things like rice and beans with stewed eggplant (instead of meat), and explain to me how she didn’t eat meat daily growing up in the Dominican Republic because it was expensive. Many would actually have meatless (but hearty) meals.
I soon learned that even my understanding of plant-based eating had to change. Plant-based diets are usually associated with just leafy greens like spinach or kale, when in fact there are a lot of other vegetables out there that are a big part of Latinx cuisine and just as good for you. Abuela for instance, has always enjoyed things like steamed batata (sweet potato) or yucca with grilled fish or scrambled eggs. Root vegetables like yautia, batata, West Indian pumpkin, yucca, and malanga are such a major part of the Dominican diet and they are more nutritious that people realize.
“It’s important to realize that our vegetables are very different from American vegetables,” Soto says. “For instance, yucca has so much nutrition in it. Malanga or yautia are also very good for you. These are all of the vegetables that we grew up with. You don’t have to make your plate super colorful because those are not the only vegetables that we eat. All of these root vegetables like plantain, yucca, and yautia, still give us all the same nutrition that some of these other vegetables are giving us. Sure they are starchy, but so are carrots. You just have to find a balance.”
Garcia also reminded me of how access often determines the kind of decisions Latinx communities make regarding the foods they eat today—and how that trickles down to the menu decisions we can make.
“Our ancestors… were living longer and were primarily stewards of land, or had very physical jobs with long work days, so at times they needed to consume more calories,” Garcia explains. ‘This prompted the tradition to start and end the day with a heavy meal. Yet those meats, fish, grains, fruits, vegetables—and the herbs that seasoned all of it—were also more likely to come from local farm lands [and] raised sustainably and/or organically. Here in the United States that is all an economic luxury. All these factors and more have deep implications on the current state of our community’s health, which is why it’s deeply important to work on the affordability and accessibility of these foods. There is a way to eat culturally relevant and include more of a healthful variety. Both can coexist.”
Another tip Garcia and I discussed was the importance of making sure that we were using fresh herbs and ingredients, and that there was a way to do it without breaking the bank. My abuela has always made her own sofrito from scratch, which is simply made by chopping herbs like cilantro, culantro, onions, garlic, red, and green peppers and blending them in a food processor. It works as the base of most of our Dominican dishes. Using more of that and taking advantage of the time we actually have to make it—because time is also equity for many folks—and using less store-bought seasonings was something we also sought to prioritize. Because I could afford it, I was able to swap out some of the adobo and sazon we had at home with organic versions (or at least versions with lower sodium levels).
Plant-based diets are usually associated with just leafy greens like spinach or kale, when in fact there are a lot of other vegetables out there that are a big part of Latinx cuisine and just as good for you.
Brown and black communities talk a lot about building generational wealth but like Garcia often says, an integral part of our generational wealth is generational health. With health issues like cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes affecting the Latinx community at disproportionate rates, it’s important that we not only prioritize our individual health, but make efforts to help our families prioritize their health, even if it’s in small ways like adding more veggies to their plates.
“[It’s about] going back to mother nature and eating as close to her as possible,” says health and wellness coach and founder of Glow Wellness Tour, Candy Calderon. “I know life gets in the middle so it’s’ not realistic to say we never eat processed foods but with this new awareness, [we can] now make better choices. [We can] fall in love with cooking again, embracing our traditional flavors and seasonings made from scratch like sofrito—instead of store bought. [We can] move our bodies and be more intentional with our mental wellness, same as we are with our physical wellness.”
And we can try our best to bring this knowledge and these changes to our families in a way that’s still respectful, thoughtful, and honoring our culture and the foods we grew up eating. Like Garcia says, I’m probably not going to turn my abuela into a vegan. But I can continue to make sure we eat healthily. While I rely heavily on the Dominican plant-based dishes we grew up with (like my abuela’s famous lentil soup that’s loaded with West Indian pumpkin and carrots), we also—like Soto recommended—look to other cuisines for vegetarian dishes, like zucchini lasagna stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella. I also figured out which dishes my family didn’t mind I turn plant-based, like niño envueltos (a Dominican dish that’s made with stewed cabbage stuffed with rice and ground beef that I was able to replace with rice and lentils), or monfongo sautéed with stewed eggplant on top (instead of stewed meat or fried pork).
While it took some time for my folks—my dad and abuela especially—to get comfortable with the idea of eating more veggies even on the days they did choose to have meat, making it an experience while also reminding them of the delicious veggie dishes that are already part of our Dominican cuisine made a major difference. Abuela actually goes out of her way now to buy okra and make molondrones guisado (stewed okra). My dad requests stewed eggplant or abuela’s lentil soup all the time, and everyone is happier about the small but significant changes we’ve been making regarding our diets. Within a few weeks my dad dropped some weight, and his cholesterol went down. My abuela and my mom felt satisfied, were more energized, and were able to keep their immune systems strong during this pandemic that has hit hard populations over the age of 60. I’ve noticed that across the board their energy and digestive issues have improved significantly—everyone is feeling their very best health-wise, and that was the reason for all of this.