Mena Massoud, star of Disney’s live action Aladdin and the new Hulu series Reprisal, is encouraging the world to “evolve vegan.” Massoud launched his Evolving Vegan brand in 2018, and since then he has been traveling across North America, speaking to the owners and staff at plant-based establishments and sharing his passion for their food through documentary videos on Instagram’s IGTV.
I initially heard about the Evolving Vegan project through Massoud’s Instagram (I began following the actor immediately after seeing Aladdin and falling in love with his infectious smile). After a few clicks, I learned about Massoud’s passion for plant-based living, which is focused on the health and environmental benefits of the lifestyle. In addition to the show on IGTV, Massoud plans to compile a lifestyle book featuring the best plant-based establishments across the country, showing the world that a plant-based lifestyle is “accessible, fun, and trendy.” The book will also cover Massoud’s own journey to veganism, along with the stories of the people, cities, and cultures he encounters along the way.
“I started this project to share the stories of incredible restaurateurs, chefs, entrepreneurs and above all, fellow human beings who are trying to make a difference in the world,” says Massoud on his website. “It’s not about labels, or eating habits or any of that crap. It’s about evolving in the right direction so that we can help save our planet, our bodies and our fellow living souls.”
Episode one finds Massoud at Trilogy Sanctuary in San Diego. The shot opens with the curly-haired actor sitting cross-legged, seemingly meditating in front of a yoga-inspired backdrop. “A rooftop patio, aerial hammock yoga, live music, fire-throwing dancers, new moon celebrations, and a 100 percent plant-based, superfood, gluten-free and soy-free cafe,” says Massoud. “This is Evolving Vegan.”
Massoud sits down with Leila, one of the owners and founders of the cafe, who tells us about her vision, the cafe and yoga studio, and what it means to be plant-based. Massoud tells Leila, “Evolving Vegan is just about evolving in [a plant-based] direction because it’s good for the environment, it’s good for your health, and that’s what it’s all about.” As the episode progresses, Leila serves up some staples from the restaurant and then shows Massoud a few aerial yoga techniques, his body dangling awkwardly, but adorably, from a hammock.
Massoud grew up in Canada, in an Egyptian family, and he references the foods of his upbringing, reminiscing on Egyptian fares from his pre-vegan days. Like Massoud, I also grew up in an Egyptian family, both of us having roots in Cairo. I often find myself counting down the days until I can be around family and eat some of the staples of my culture and childhood.
“Growing up in a Mediterranean household ruined my tastebuds a little bit because my mom, my sisters, and my aunt were all great cooks, and ever since I went plant-based, I’ve been missing a little bit of that Mediterranean affection,” Massoud tells us in episode four of Evolving Vegan. “Shawarma, shish tawook, labna — all things that I miss — until now.”
A few seconds later, we find ourselves in Portland, Oregon, where Tal Caspi has opened a vegan Israeli restaurant called Aviv. Massoud tells Caspi, “I was very excited about this place because I’m Egyptian, and ever since I went vegan, I couldn’t really have a lot of the food that I used to have … so I’m pumped.” Caspi says he opened the restaurant because of the lack of vegan Israeli food in Portland.
“I wanted to eat,” Caspi says. “I wanted to eat shawarma, there was no shawarma.”
Caspi is absolutely right in that regard. Mediterranean food is often very meat-heavy, without many vegetarian or vegan options. I can recall my past visits to Egypt when, for days on end, we’d eat kofta, chicken kebob, and various other meat dishes, without a vegetable in sight.
Aviv, though, serves up vegan versions of some of these classic Mediterranean staples, including, of course, shawarma, which prompts Massoud to stand up and thrust his hips forward in excitement. “Nothing has ever gotten a reaction like that,” Massoud says, laughing. “When your food gets a Mena thrust — the Mena thrust is the best thrust.”
Aviv gives Massoud everything he’s been waiting for: a vegan alternative to the often meaty Mediterranean cuisine. He even stops mid-bite to do a happy food dance as he chants in Arabic and then says, “That’s an Egyptian dance. It means ‘give it to me, give it to me, give it to me.’”
More than anything, Massoud shows viewers that a vegan lifestyle doesn’t mean sacrificing taste and culture. He’s able to enjoy the foods of his childhood and his homeland while simultaneously living a plant-based lifestyle. Traveling across North America brings him Mexican cuisine, Mediterranean staples, Soul food, pan-Asian fare, desserts, and more. At Souley Vegan, in Oakland, CA, Tamara Dyson has opened a Louisiana-inspired restaurant, where she makes the vegan Po’boy, “crusted with magic,” and the okra gumbo over grits, among other vegan, Cajun classics.
“I grew up loving okra,” Massoud explains, okra being a popular dish in many Egyptian homes. “This is different, but this is damn good.” As Massoud says this, I remember my mom’s okra, or “bamia,” as we say in Arabic, and imagine Massoud’s family would make it the same way, with tomatoes and Mediterranean spices over rice.
Even fast food can be made vegan, all without sacrificing any of the taste of the signature fast food burger. Massoud visits Plant Power Fast Food in San Diego, where owner Zach Vouga has created a plant-based burger that regular patrons often don’t realize is plant-based for quite some time, he says. Massoud loved their burgers so much that he even became an investor in the fast-food chain.
Massoud calls Evolving Vegan an “educational platform,” one in which he can show the world that plant-based life is not only healthy and good for the environment, but also very much accessible and appealing. “Our mission is simple,” says the Evolving Vegan team on the website. “It’s not about labels, it’s not about being a ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ or ‘omnivore’ — it’s about evolving. For the good of our fellow species, our planet and our health, we need to continue to evolve vegan.” Though I’m not vegan myself, Evolving Vegan’s mission speaks to me because it’s not necessarily about turning everyone vegan, but rather about evolving in a more plant-based direction. I’m reminded that there are steps I can take to better my own health and the world at the same time, one thing at a time.
Massoud told Here Magazine, “I don’t like the word ‘vegan’ on its own, and the reason I started Evolving Vegan, is because the people associated with that word can be very militant.” However, he hopes that people will begin to evolve in that direction, and he continues “Global warming is at an all-time high, and climate change is raging, and I wanted to figure out how I could do my part to help slow that down and prolong the life of the Earth.”