Every significant celebration of my youth - weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and baptisms has been feted with a lechon. This is a whole suckling pig roasted on a spit then served on banana leaves with an apple in its mouth. Back then, I thought it was the most delicious thing ever. Now I’m a vegan, just the thought of it horrifies me.
But growing up in Australia’s Filipino community, this was standard celebration fare.
Filipinos love pork. We had our own giant rotisserie at home and my dad would gut the pig and fully prepare it himself for the lechon.
Everyday meals included lots of Spam and corned beef with the only vegetables that I could recognise being potatoes and onions until I moved out of home at 17.
Eggs and rice were a staple. One of my favourite foods was adobo (perfectly balanced soy sauce, vinegar and chicken). Then there was Filipino-style spaghetti which had a whole lot of processed cheese, sausage and about half a cup of sugar!
Nine years ago I did some beginner yoga courses on You Tube. My original motivation was to get a nice bum.
But I fell in love with yoga so deeply that I studied yoga teacher training. During a philosophy class I was introduced to “Ahimsa”, the yogic principle of “do no harm”.
Suddenly it clicked. I fully understood that I could directly contribute towards the happiness and freedom of all beings with this simple decision, to be a vegan, so how could I not?
My family didn’t really understand my choice to become vegan or my devotion to yogic philosophy and lifestyle at first, nor did the Filipino community around us.
I went straight home and donated all the food in my pantry and replaced it with plant-based wholefoods. I guess you could say I’m a pretty extreme person. My parents found out at a family gathering when I had pre-warned them that I would be bringing my own food to share as I wouldn’t be eating meat.
My family didn’t really understand my choice to become vegan or my devotion to yogic philosophy and lifestyle at first, nor did the Filipino community around us. We grew up Roman Catholic and I was in youth groups and pretty active in our church as a kid. We all were part of a church band too.
My mum was concerned that vegetarianism and yoga meant I’d joined a cult or become a Hare Krishna.
My family did their best to accommodate my new lifestyle despite their concerns. Thankfully they’re super progressive in many ways.
I remember a family gathering during the time I had just become vegan. Mum got that I didn't really want to see dead animals on the table. So when the lechon was served, she replaced the pig's head with a head of iceberg lettuce. It had little carrot ears, cherry tomato eyes and a raisin smile. It was the creepiest thing I've ever seen but the intention was kind.
Inspired by the really delicious meals I share with them, my family have all embraced vegan food and lifestyle to a degree. In fact, all my immediate family have become vegan for periods of time. None of them are now, but they eat considerably less meat and less processed foods.
Mum and dad have green smoothies every morning and have slowly incorporated healthier alternatives like cooking with coconut oil and using unrefined sugars. Seeing how much energy I have for life and my creativity with food has awoken their own creativity and curiosity around recipes and meals.
Mum got that I didn't really want to see dead animals on the table. So when the lechon was served, she replaced the pig's head with a head of iceberg lettuce.
My brother lived with me for three years and was vegan for that entire time. The main reason was that I wouldn’t let him live with me unless it was a vegan household. It was and still is an important part of my spiritual practice and thus a non-negotiable in my home.
He just wanted to move out so he said “yeah, whatever you want.” He loves cooking, like me, so he had fun with creating vegan recipes with me.
My commitment to yoga and veganism have shaped my diet, my career and my spirituality. So I recognise and appreciate that my mum’s religious faith is what guides her life and sense of purpose. I’m stoked we can accept and respect one another's beliefs and values despite how differently we can often see the world. When I experience any challenge or hardship, she often still encourages me to pray, and lets me know she prays for me and I’ve learnt to be grateful for that rather than challenge it.
For mum, the most important things are faith and family. It’s vital that I see and remain connected to our extended family, many of whom live in New York.
When I went to visit a few years ago we went to their favourite Filipino restaurant in Queens, Ihawan (which translates as “to grill”). Since everything on the menu was meat-heavy, I asked the waiter for “gulay”, or vegetables. I was very firm, because I’ve been through this a thousand times. “Gulay ONLY, no dairy, no animal fats, no animal products at all.”
The waiter was troubled. “But, there won’t be any flavour. Are you sure?”
Yes, I confirmed, vegetables for me.
When my meal arrived I discovered there was pork mince tossed amongst my veggies. I called the waiter over.
“Excuse me, is there a mistake? There’s pork mince in my vegetables when I asked for it to be vegan.”
“Yes, I know,” he replied. “But where is the flavour going to come from?”
Maz Valcorza is the founder of Sadhana Kitchen and author of The Naked Vegan and Uncooked.