Veganism is both the practice of strictly abstaining from the use of all animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. The vegan movement is flourishing in Kuwait. This five part series takes a look at the creative Kuwaitis who have adopted the ethical vegan lifestyle and some who have established businesses based on its principles. This is part two.
A pioneer in the business of preparing plant-based foods that nourish the body and the soul, Shaikha Al Arfaj is the owner and founder of Kuwait’s first vegan restaurant. She started Ginger, a spiritual vegan eatery that specialises in Sattvic food, thirteen years ago, with her sister Mona as co-founder. In a recent interview with the Arab Times, Shaikha revealed the secrets behind her very unique restaurant and her spiritual approach towards life.
Located in the old Al Muthana mall, Ginger is a small, peaceful oasis in the hustle and bustle of Kuwait City. Shaikha emerges from the kitchen to check on a customer while her teenage daughter Amna is at one of the tables, having a bite to eat.
“We have a lot of regular customers that have been with us for years,” says Amna, nodding towards the older Kuwaiti lady that is dining alone. Shaikha finishes her conversation with the lady and joins us, explaining that this customer has been coming to her restaurant for more than ten years.
“She says she could order home delivery, but she feels the food tastes better when she eats it here,” Shaikha explains. “Although the surrounding area may not be so nice, the moment they come inside, our customers feel it’s homey and comfortable with very positive energy.”
While discussing this subject, Shaikha discloses the first of Ginger’s secrets. Every day before opening, she and her staff meditate in order to connect with themselves and send out good vibrations. Most of her employees have been with her for many years and they come to work feeling content and secure. Most importantly, they always cook with love. And these good feelings, she explains, go into the food.
According to Shaikha, besides cleanliness and using only the freshest and most healthy fruits and vegetables, and natural ingredients with no preservatives, artificial flavors, or additives, cooking with love is one of the main factors that influences the quality of the food. To illustrate her point she tells a tale she learned from her uncle, about a wealthy queen who became very sick, and even the best doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong with her. The queen finally turned to a wise man for help.
“What are you eating?” he asked her.
“I have the most delicious food prepared by the best chef in the world,” the queen replied.
“And are you on good terms with the chef?” the wise man asked.
When the queen confessed she had a very bad relationship with her chef, the wise man immediately told her that this was her problem, because all the negative energy was going into the food and causing her to be sick.
“We must always take good care of the person who is cooking our food, because the way they’re feeling can really affect us,” says Shaikha. “Why does our mother’s food always make us feel good? Because a mother prepares it with all her love and positive energy. Even if it’s just a piece of bread with jam, it will always taste best if your mother made it for you. So it’s not just about the nutrition in the vegetables and filling your tummy, it’s about absorbing positive energy.”
Shaikha and her sister, Mona, both acquired a passion for cooking from their beloved mother, who they considered to be a great teacher. Over the years they came to understand the value of good quality food and how it should be prepared. They added an Asian touch with fresh, exotic ingredients and came up with their own unique recipes. In order to raise awareness of healthy eating and share their tasty, energising food with the public, they launched Ginger in 2004. Mona has since branched off with her daughter Mariam to establish BE Café, also a vegan eatery.
Besides being vegan and serving only plant-based foods, Ginger also follows the even stricter sattvic dietary rules intended to produce food that promotes purity of both mind and body. The importance of cooking with love is also emphasised in the sattvic philosophy.
Yoga Basics website states that “in addition to fresh, organic, whole foods, a sattvic diet requires the energy and intention within your kitchen to be a calm and pleasant atmosphere for food preparation. Preparing your food with mindfulness, care and love will create energetic vibrations that are absorbed by the food you are preparing and will enter your body during digestion. The quality of your food is greatly enhanced by loving attention.”
A sattvic diet also excludes cooking with onions and garlic, which are believed to agitate the mind. “In order that their ability to concentrate not be impaired, astronauts aren’t allowed to eat onions and garlic for three months before a space flight,” Shaikha says.
But with so many dietary restrictions, what about the flavor of the food? The answer comes when a smiling waiter delivers several plates to the table. There is an amazing vegan shuwarma wrapped in freshly-baked whole wheat saj bread. Extraordinarily light, it’s even tastier than meat or chicken shuwarma, with none of the greasiness.
A papaya salad made with fresh shredded and pounded green papaya, tomatoes, string beans, roasted peanuts, and lime juice is bursting with flavor. The vegetable maki is also delicious and the green Thai curry made with crispy vegetables and fresh coconut milk made in-house, is beyond compare. The curry is served with brown rice and protein-providing mushrooms.
We drink green vegetable juice that is also surprisingly pleasant, and conclude the meal with fried Thai cooking bananas lightly coated in crispy tempura batter and drizzled with jaggery syrup.
“When people first taste the food they’re always surprised by how good it is, because they usually think that vegan food is bland,” remarks Amna, taking a bite of banana. “There are so many more vegan products on the market now, dairy milk substitutes like almond, hazelnut, and rice milk for example. Kuwait has changed a lot and nowadays people like to try new things.”
In order to come up with her tasty recipes, Shaikha explains that it took a lot of trial and error, and the use of some unusual ingredients. Asafoetida is an ancient spice once popular with the Romans. A resinous gum derived from a type of fennel plant, Sheikha uses it to add flavor and health benefits to shuwarma. It’s nutritious, good for digestion, and is said to have carminative, antiviral, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made from the products of palm trees and sugar cane, which Shaikha uses as a healthy sweetener. Like asafoetida, it’s also said to have many therapeutic properties and aids in digestion, making it perfect for ending a meal.
Amna has been a vegetarian for a year now and is considering becoming vegan. Her mother has been following a vegan diet for the last fourteen years. “Since becoming vegan I feel lighter, healthier, and more energetic,” Shaikha says.
The ethics of veganism in regard to protecting animals and the environment are also important to Shaikha. “I went to a Kuwait Vegan Society showing of a documentary on the cruel treatment of dairy cows, and from the moment I saw it I decided to stop having dairy products,” she says.
Around the same time that Shaikha became a vegan she also embarked on a life-changing spiritual journey. At the time she was juggling her life as the mother of three young children, the owner of a restaurant, and a successful career woman with a demanding full time job. As the first Kuwaiti to manage an engineering consulting firm, she often had to supervise development projects in various locations in Africa and the Middle East.
“I was feeling the stress,” she admits.
Then she met an Indian spiritual yoga teacher by the name of Sister Jayanti. “She invited me to take a course called ‘Mastery Over Self.’ It’s a seven-day course that helps us connect with ourselves and with God. It gives us inner power and inner purity, and helps us to believe in our inner values like peace, love, appreciation, and happiness.”
But Shaikha’s first reaction was that she didn’t have time to take the course. “I’m too busy,” she told Sister Jayanti. “Business is laziness,” was the yoga teacher’s cryptic reply. “You have to understand that for yourself.”
Shaikha was indignant, stating that she was active from early morning until late at night. “But then I thought about it and I got it. It actually hit me like an arrow. When we are so busy with our work, our children, our husbands, we completely forget ourselves. But when we meditate and are in a quiet, peaceful state we see things very clearly and priorities become apparent.
“In this state, when we’re not frustrated or angry, each and every thought becomes a quality thought,” she continues. “Although the challenges and demands in our life may increase, we can learn how to deal with them in a better way. We can learn how to be stronger from inside and not allow others to steal our inner peace.”
According to Shaikha, the course was the best gift she ever received in her life. “It was free of charge, but it helped me so much, I would be willing to pay one million dinars for it,” she remarks.
Shaikha now teaches courses herself at Harmony House, a Raja Yoga center in Rumeithiya, along with her sister Mona and four other teachers. She also still frequently travels to exotic locations for her civil engineering work as General Manager of Pan Arab Consulting Engineers. But she feels happy, energetic, and fulfilled, fueled by her spiritual lifestyle and healthy food cooked with love.