Three years ago, after an 8-month stay in Germany, I made the decision to stop eating meat (red meat, chicken and fish), triggering all kinds of backlash and mockery from my friends and family, as if desecrated all what they hold dear. I stayed in Egypt for one year as a vegetarian, and then moved to Germany, where I’ve been living for 1.5 years now. I can go through the reasons behind my vegetarianism elsewhere, but having lived in both countries as a vegetarian made me realize the stark difference in people’s relationship to food, leading me to revamp my philosophy about my diet, reconsider the centrality of meat in my meals and of course realize how our food choices are inherently political.
Germany is famous for its ambitious sustainable development targets, aspiring to slash carbon dioxide emissions and maximizing renewable energy sources integration. This top-down decision is not just reflected in its governmental policies, and the ubiquity of electrical cars and bikes, but also in the food choices that are sustainable and ethical. The global livestock industry is responsible for greenhouse gases that surpass those of planes, trains and ships combined, making people’s food choices impactful in combatting against an existential threat such as climate change.
Meat, especially red meat, has a complex relationship with the sector of the Egyptian population that can afford it. They regard it as an absolute necessity in any meal, to the extent that they even started to include meat in originally vegetarian dishes, such as vine leaves and moussaka. It’s quite common to angrily ask “where is the protein?” when lunch does not include red meat or chicken. What’s striking is that sometimes this question is asked when the plate contains mushrooms or broccoli or green beans or peas or lentils, which are also protein-rich.
Germany has a growing vegetarian movement for a variety of reasons, but even within the omnivores, who’re still the majority, never have I found this unjustified attachment to meat that I encounter in Egypt. Germans who identify as omnivores can eat meat twice or three times a week, while Egyptians include meat in their diet sometimes more than twice a day, ignoring the other sources of protein which they could be consuming (such as eggs and cheese). The difference is shocking, yet the meat-centric food culture in Egypt remains unchallenged, even by the most educated sectors of the population. I often hear lazy mockery of vegetarianism, as vegetarians often take a “holier-than-thou” attitude towards meat-eaters. But sometimes these omnivores, usually males, tell me that meat is essentially indispensable, which is a myth. Several reliable studies, most prominently The China Study, showed how people can completely abandon animal products while still maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, so long as they diversify their plant-based protein sources. Several Egyptian celebrities, such as Bassem Youssef, have even adopted Plant Based Diet whilst body-building (which needs more protein intake than average). These are all extreme examples of people (and populations) who cut out animal products out of their diets, still maintaining healthy and different lifestyles, yet I still get an indignant knee-jerk reaction when I question an Egyptian’s meat-eating habits or simply propose the idea of reducing meat intake.
Being a vegetarian in Egypt is radically different than in Germany. Aside from the easier accessibility of vegetarian meals/products in German restaurants, it hasn’t completely morphed into an elite cult, only practiced by privileged groups like the ones in Egypt. I personally met German vegetarians from all social classes, races and genders who still practice vegetarianism without subscribing to the online cult of having to buy quinoa, chia and flax seeds, or overpriced protein-rich green smoothies to maintain a healthy diet. It’s not like these expensive foods are scarce in Germany, quite the opposite, but vegetarians, especially in a student city like the one I’m living in, have the option to spend a lot less in their grocery shopping and in restaurants. Even the university canteen offers a vegetarian meal every single day for all students, at a cheaper price. These meals are usually filling, diverse and rich in nutrients. But living for a year in Cairo as a vegetarian, I noticed a quite elitist culture surrounding “healthy” food choices. Given the option between eating a healthy version of moussaka (without drenching it in grease) or a salad, containing Gruyere, chia seeds and walnuts, the latter preference is always more available, albeit more expensive than a chicken Caesar salad. Thus, for those who don’t have the time to prepare all the meals from scratch, vegetarians in Egypt are given very few options to eat affordable healthy food, creating a bourgeois version of vegetarianism even though it was supposed to be initially about jettisoning the most bourgeois food: meat.
It’s about time to take a step back and reflect on our eating habits, and question what’s being blindly transmitted across generations about the importance and benefits of certain foods. Just like the myth that milk is a necessity has been propagated and globally popularized by a strong pro-milk lobby in America, and subsequently debunked, we now know that meat consumption could be reduced, and in some cases completely replaced. Meat centrality in Egyptian diet, in my opinion, has very strong cultural and class components; meat is a symbol of status masked behind a veneer of “protein necessity”. Even those who try and abandon it for health/environmental reasons still insist on substituting it with foods that are only accessible to their class, and overplay their importance in the vegetarian diet. So, regardless of your vegetarianism, what people choose to eat in Egypt is still an essential tool in reinforcing a class divide through creating exclusive meals, only reachable when you cross a certain financial threshold; for example, flaunting one’s wealth by stuffing eggplant with meat instead of the commonly-used rice (yes, some people cook ‘Mahshi’ with meat).
On a more positive note, Facebook has several platforms for people who are vegetarians/vegans or curious about the movement. The biggest of them is Plant Based Diet Egypt (459,360members) where people share the best, cheapest and easiest plant-based dishes. This group is run by Egyptians and contains people from diverse social backgrounds, discussing diet-related issues and giving each other advice about how to transition and maintain to Plant Based Diet. Based on the testimonies I personally witnessed, there has been incredible results; with people reporting better skin, less hair loss and reduction in back/neck/join pains as well as dramatic weight loss. They even cooperate in surviving Ramadan on a Plant Based Diet. As people are getting more exposed to the movement, more groups are formed to educate people about vegetarianism and help them though their diet. There’s even an Egyptian vegan cookbook. So, if you even reconsider your meat-eating habits, there are many great places to start your journey on a truly transformative meatless experience that could be easily tailored to your personal lifestyle and goals.