Actor Mena Massoud on Vegan Cooking, Aladdin and On-Screen Diversity

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The L.A.-based actor from Markham, Ontario, went on a quest to discover – and taste – all that’s new, exciting and boundary-pushing in the plant-based world. Now he’s sharing his findings in Evolving Vegan: part cookbook, part restaurant guide, part inspirational travelogue.

Mena Massoud burst onto the screen in 2019, starring as Aladdin in Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic. But behind the scenes, he’s been on the move, exploring plant-based eating in cities across Canada and the U.S. for his new book, Evolving Vegan. Massoud convinced some of the top vegan chefs both here and south of the border to share their favourite recipes, ones that prove eating vegan doesn’t have to be hard – or boring. Inspired by the vegan dishes that came out of his mother’s kitchen (his family immigrated to Canada from Cairo when he was three), he included some of her recipes, too, such as bamya (okra stew) and shorbit adas (split-pea soup). We spoke with Massoud about his mission to get people to eat more plants, his favourite food cities and how he’s trying to bring greater diversity to a screen near you.

September 11, 2020

enRoute How has travel affected your views on veganism?

Mena Massoud Wherever you go, there is a thriving plant-based community. Travelling allows you to widen your world view of what can be vegan, and the answer is simple: Anything can be vegan. When I was in Japan, I ate at a vegan ramen shop at Tokyo Station.

ER Why do so many people struggle with eating more plants?

MM When I went vegan five years ago, the landscape was drastically different than it is now. People felt like becoming vegan was a religion – that they had to go all in or not at all. I want to tell people that’s not the case, that you can evolve to vegetarian and stop there, you can evolve to pescatarian and stop there, or cut out meat twice a week and stop there. Even if you eat vegan once a week, you’re still helping the trifecta: your health, animals and the world. I’m a true believer that the slower you go, the longer you’ll continue with it.

ER Which city are you most excited to go back to eat in?

MM It’s difficult to choose only one, but if I have to it would be Portland, Oregon. One of my favourite restaurants while travelling for the book was Ichiza Kitchen, a pan-Asian vegan spot. I’ve never heard of that anywhere else. L.A., for example, has a lot of vegan spots serving burgers and sandwiches, but they’re not culturally authentic like the ones in Portland.

An illustration of Mena Massoud flashing the peace sign with both hands with bananas and abstract green and orange streaks in the background

ER Okay, fine, you can choose two more!

MM San Francisco and the Bay Area. There is a Southern restaurant called Souley Vegan in Oakland that serves an amazing okra gumbo. And Brooklyn, just because I love New York. It’s home to Bunna Cafe, a vegan Ethiopian restaurant, Jajaja Plantas Mexicana – the best Mexican spot I’ve ever been to, let alone a vegan one – and Little Choc Apothecary, which has sweet and savoury vegan and gluten-free crepes.

ER While working on the book, you’ve also been busy with other projects, including founding the Ethnically Diverse Artists Foundation. What inspired you?

MM I started in the entertainment industry in 2010 and my first role was in Toronto on the TV show Nikita, and all I could book was “Al-Qaeda #2.” Going from that to playing Aladdin was tremendous – I’ll forever be grateful for it. But I booked it because it was Aladdin. It wasn’t any of the other Disney princes. It wasn’t a character that any other ethnicity could play. Is it getting better? Yes. Is it getting better as fast as I’d like it to? No. So, I wanted to create a place where aspiring ethnic artists could have support and know that they’re not alone; that they’re talented and valuable.

ER Do you have any advice for those starting out – advice you wish you’d been given?

MM I wish someone would have just come out and said, “Hey, the road is going to be harder for you because you’re Egyptian.” People shy away from reality. They don’t like to tell you the hard truth because it makes the industry look bad and it’s hurtful to hear. But if this is what you’re really passionate about, you have to put that aside and accept it as an extra obstacle to overcome.

ER What’s next for you?

MM I’m focusing on promoting the book until the entertainment industry starts back up again. And I’m trying to stay sharp – reading scripts and books, watching interesting performances, like Succession and Perry Mason, and keeping up with everything that’s going on in the world.

The cover of cookbook Evolving Vegan by Mena Massoud

Evolving Vegan by Mena Massoud.

The Questionnaire

  • Favourite souvenir My last trip was to Miami where I bought a beautiful straw panama hat.

  • Dream seatmate Daniel Day-Lewis.

  • First travel memory I went back to Egypt when I was eight or nine years old. We went to the pyramids – they’re actually spaced far apart, and I remember riding horses between them.

  • Bucket-list destination Paris. I was only there for 12 hours for the Aladdin press tour and everything was closed for a bank holiday. I didn’t get to do a lot of travelling growing up because my family didn’t have much money. When I graduated, I was just saving up money to move to L.A. So, there is a lot on my bucket list.

  • Travel has the power to… Invigorate. We all get bogged down thinking our homes and our jobs are our lives; when you travel, you realize life can be so much more.

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