When he first visited Berlin in the late 90s, vegan cookbook author and artist Justin P. Moore felt like he was “finally home”. But what does “home” mean to someone who was born in the American South, raised between the Marshall Islands and New Jersey suburbs, and traveled to 50 countries? Justin ditched a career in Boston, chased his dreams, and built an worldwide audience for his international series of crowdfunded, travel-inspired cookbooks – in Germany and beyond. With his third cookbook recently published and a fourth in the making, we sat down with Justin in his Kiez (German for ‘hood) Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin to talk about inspiration, challenging traditions, and “adventurous Germans”.
Hi Justin. Please introduce yourself, give us the details.
Hi, I’m Justin, an artist, designer, world traveller and the author of the international vegan cookbook series The Lotus and the Artichoke which features recipes, artwork, photography and stories inspired by my travels in nearly 50 countries. Since I was a kid I’ve always been into art, travel, photography, and cooking. I became a vegetarian when I was 15 and two years later evolved to vegan. Back then being vegan was a pretty weird and unconventional thing! This was way before the media and mainstream approved of and acknowledged plant-based nutrition, but for me it was always a very natural thing that fit with my ideas of non-violence and consciously reducing the impact of our life choices on other living things, the environment, and our own health and happiness.
You just published your third cookbook. What’s it about?
In 2012 I self-published my first cookbook, The Lotus and the Artichoke – Vegan Recipes from World Adventures, with over 120 recipes inspired by my travels. I self-published and financed the first edition of the book in English with a very successful Kickstarter crowdfunding project. That edition was sold out in a few months and a German publisher contacted me for a partnership. Shortly after that the cookbook was reprinted in English and the German edition has since been reprinted twice. It was one of my adolescent dreams to write a cookbook, but I never imagined it would be so popular! I went on to make the second cookbook focusing entirely on 3 months of travels in Mexico. This year my third cookbook was published, based on 10 weeks of exploring Sri Lanka. I originally thought my third book would focus on Indian food, my favorite cuisine, but after a week in Sri Lanka I was so blown away by the food that I knew the book would be all about Sri Lankan traditions – which are heavily influenced by the South Indian cooking traditions in the north.
What’s the concept behind these cookbooks you do?
I explore countries and cultures, cook with the locals, eat in restaurants, homes and at street food carts all over the world, and collect ideas for recipes. I do as much video, photography, travel writing and artwork as possible. I take notes everywhere about the cooking methods, ingredients and dishes I’m introduced to. When I come home, I spend several months refining the recipes, cooking and photographing everything, making the artwork and design, and working with my recipe testers and professional translator to get everything set to publish the books simultaneously in German and English. The project is financed entirely from book sales and crowdfunding campaigns. When I’m not traveling or in intense cookbook production mode, I’m usually setting up promotional and culinary events including cooking shows, dinner parties, and cooking classes to share my passion and pleasures with others.
Is everything you find already vegan or are you veganizing things a lot after you get back home?
I focus on cultures and countries that have a rich and diverse tradition of vegan and vegetarian food, so there’s not always a lot of work to adapt things if necessary to be all vegan. With my first cookbook, which features a lot of European cuisine, I did change things up quite a bit. Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular required some creativity. I also have several French, Austrian, and German recipes where the traditional dish is almost entirely animal-based, so that takes some experimentation. Many recipes and cookbooks rely heavily on processed substitutes for meat and dairy – They don’t really re-evaluate the core recipe and cooking method. I prefer whole foods and vegetable-based ingredients, but I’m not afraid to have fun with tofu and seitan here and there. Again, many of the cuisines I’m into are already on my wavelength: for example, Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Sri Lankan cuisines are very vegan / vegetarian friendly. I seek to create new recipes. Some are more based on traditional recipes; others are a tribute to celebrated ingredients and methods of a particular culture.
How important is travel to you and why?
It’s hard for me imagine a life without travel, variety and new flavors! I’ve always been fascinated by languages, different ways of life, transportation, nature, art, philosophy… and adventure. I like to challenge myself and expand my horizons. I dedicate several months of every year to really diving into other cultures. This means seeing at least one new country a year and learning the basics of at least one new language. My brothers and I grew up constantly on the move, going to exotic places, living unconventionally, and I’ve always been hungry for changes and challenges. The most magical and rewarding things in life happen when I take risks, confront fears, and indulge my curiosity. I also have a son who’s now 2 1/2 and my partner and I do our best to introduce him to other cultures and countries. He’s been to over a dozen countries, speaks two languages, and has a good time pretty much wherever he is. We have the opportunity and privilege to live a full, exciting and rewarding life, and it’s something that we appreciate and enjoy taking advantage of. These are our priorities and our passions, and they are constantly evolving. I like to encourage others to follow their dreams and explore the world, but as with my dietary choices, I try not to judge others for their choices. I respect and in some ways envy those that are very rooted and established where they live. The world is made up of so many beliefs and opinions. I follow mine, but I’m very intrigued by how others seek their bliss and find meaning and purpose.
You’ve been traveling to some remote places – what’s the strangest story you have when it comes to getting something vegan to eat?
When I travel anywhere, and when I meet new people, I almost never immediately introduce myself as a vegan, nor do I just focus on me, my eating restrictions and requirements. Instead, I try to make a personal connection and express respect and interest in the culture. A few words of greeting, in the local language, and basic friendliness open doors like nothing else. If you travel the world expecting to find difficulty, you’ll definitely find it. I prefer to believe I’ll always find something to eat, and it almost always works out for me.
I have two stories I love to tell, one from rural China, the other from rural Germany. I was out in the middle of nowhere in an industrial town a day’s ride from Beijing, on my way to visit Buddhist caves in the countryside. I hadn’t seen any other foreigners, and everything, everywhere was in Mandarin (Chinese). I went to the restaurant in my hotel and started trying to decipher the menu with my phrase book. The waiter came over and it was clear he wanted to take my order, so I smiled and greeted him and started trying to order some familiar vegetable dishes. It was going absolutely nowhere. This poor guy was just nodding and smiling, but then looking around nervously. My attempts with broken Chinese phrases and simplified English weren’t working. He holds up his hands and then runs into the kitchen. I was utterly confused. Two minutes later the doors to the kitchen fly open and what appeared to be the entire kitchen crew, almost a dozen cooks, come waltzing out and form a line in front of me. They’re all holding different foods for me to inspect and select, I gather. So I’m like, okay, yes, broccoli, tofu, carrots, yes, yes, yes, egg, no thanks, noodles, yes, rice, yes, and so on. By this point everyone in the restaurant is smiling and looking at us and there’s a lot of laughter. Then the cooks return to the kitchen. Ten minutes later they start bringing out one dish after another. In total I got probably five or six dishes and it was all super delicious. Amazing things happen when you just do your best to respectfully communicate your desires and then let go and let the cooks do their creative magic!
I’ve had experiences similar to this in many parts of the world. The same principle functions in rural Germany. I arrived with my partner at some inn totally out in the countryside. First we asked if they had a room for us, then I pointed out how interesting the menu for the restaurant looked, “Oh look, so many vegetable dishes. And a whole page of vegetarian stuff. Great, this will work!” They mananger is telling me how the kitchen loves creative challenges and they can just put something together for us with all kinds of salads, vegetable, grains, etc. Without mentioning the V word, I answer her questions as to what we like: sautéed vegetables, cous cous, all kinds of fresh herbs and spices, but no butter or cream, etc. And again, we get this amazing meal, we eat every crumb off of the plates. The manager comes back over and asks how it was. We, of course, tell her how happy we are and how it was delicious and we are so grateful for their generosity and flexibility. And then she says, seriously, “Oh, we love cooking up special stuff. And that was totally easy! Thank god you’re nothing like all of those totally impossible vegans!” And we just laughed… she really had no idea their kitchen just made a vegan feast and that reasonable, modest vegans actually exist!
You settled down in Berlin – why Berlin?
I visited Germany for the first time in the late 90’s primarily to go to art museums, but also because I was intrigued by the language, and my favorite authors were German – most notably Hermann Hesse. I fell in love with the city. I was riding a bus on the second night here and a powerful wave of emotion hit me. I felt like I was really home for the first time in my life. I never really thought I belonged in the U.S. – I always felt like a visitor, or like America was just my early schooling. I got a degree in painting and printmaking and worked in interactive design and advertising for several years in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City before moving to Berlin. That makes it sounds so simple and straight-forward, but it took me a while to collect the courage to break from my career and move so far away from my family, with whom I’m quite close. I backpacked around Asia for six months before making the transatlantic leap. In 2001, I bought a one way flight and booked an intensive German class. The art scene — and the vegetarian / vegan scene — were still very much in their early years, and it’s amazing to see how both have flourished. In my travels, especially in India, I met so many wild and adventurous Germans, and I love the German approach to travel: the answer to “Have you been to…?” is never simply “No”, but rather “Not Yet” or “Yes, but *only* for 6 weeks”. This mentality, and the geographical proximity to the East were driving factors for my decision to relocate to Berlin. The cost of living here is also extremely reasonable, and I love the fantastic variety of culinary and cultural activities and places.
What’s next on your bucket list? Where to go next?
Tomorrow I’m leaving for a 5 week adventure in Malaysia! We plan to travel all around the country and also visit Singapore and Borneo. I’m still not sure how many different places I’ll visit, and how it will influence my next cookbook project — I’ll decide a lot of that along the way and let things flow and take form. I do have a list of places I’ve read and heard about. I’m really looking forward to the food and getting to know people there; cooking with locals, learning some of the language, getting a feel for life in other places is more interesting to me than just seeing all the tourist sights and staying in a posh hotel. There’s a very rich history of culinary fusion in this part of South East Asia. I’m especially excited for all of the Indian and Chinese neighborhoods, restaurants, and street food. While there, I’m meeting up with a few other travelers and backpackers, some of which I’ve been writing with for years but haven’t met yet, and others I do already know in real life. Crossing paths on the other side of the world is always great fun!
Alright, thanks a lot for the interview.
Thanks very much, too!
click here for Justin’s website