Vegan Treats Feed the Spirit at H.I.M. Ital
The creamy mac-and-cheese is made with almond milk. The fried tofu ball is loaded with Caribbean spices. The chili is made with a tomato base, six different beans, zucchini, and a dose of cumin. On Thursdays, customers queue up for the veggie lo mein. Anyone still thinking vegan food is flavorless has never eaten H.I.M. Ital.
Family run since 1997, the brightly-painted hole-in-the-wall storefront on White Planes Avenue has an unmistakable Caribbean vibe. Inside, Oba Kenjah, Najah Compton, and her mother Syble Compton, are hard at work cooking vegan meals at odds with the stereotypical fried pork and jerk chicken served by their neighbors.
“Our community is lacking health. It's more fast food, trans-fat, garbage calories,” said Oba. “The people here run from health. They think it's like rabbit food or it's just bland.”
On my recent visit, Oba served me up a small to-go box of barbequed soy chunks with pineapple, curried squash and carrots, mixed veggie noodles, and sautéed greens. The takeaway box never made it out the door. It's likely few do. A steady stream of customers come through the narrow restaurant, some picking up lunch, others purchasing the assorted teas, boxed bitters, and dried Caribbean specialties along the walls.
“We have a wonderful pineapple turnover,” Najah said. “We're supposed to do it on the weekend but it always sells out on Friday – no matter how much we make.”
A cornerstone of the Rastafarian movement, ital food is meant to nourish body and spirit. The vegetarian – often vegan – diet emphasizes naturally produced ingredients, minimizing use of processed foods. Ital is common in the English-speaking Caribbean and, with its liberal use of curries and other spices, is popular with Rastas and non-Rastas alike. Some ital chefs not only demand vegan, organically grown produce, but also avoid metal bowls and utensils. Homemade ceramics and calabash cups and bowls take the place of store-bought products.
H.I.M. Ital doesn't go to this extreme, but does pay tribute to Rastafarianism in its name. H.I.M. refers to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, the former Ethiopian leader and God incarnate to Rastafarians. The religion began in Jamaica but quickly spread through the islands. Oba and the Comptons come from the southern Caribbean but feel their beliefs are more universal than geographic. Their food, they said, is for everyone.
“We are Rastas, you know, so the whole ital thing is our way of life. That's how we live,” Oba said. “We are Caribbean, but we don't really look toward the islands as our home. It's more like Ethiopia, Africa. We all one. We don't really run wire fences. We are all free and we are one.”
He and Najah grew up in the neighborhood. Schoolmates still come around, although the area has changed a lot. “Before it was more Jamaican, but now it's more Indian and Middle Eastern. But change is good. We need to learn other people's culture. If you stay in one place, that's stagnation.”
They've found a cross-pollination with vegetarian/vegan Indian food, Najah said.
One of the neighborhood's favorite H.I.M. Ital dish is their black-eyed peas ball: a fried sphere, like a meatball, but made from well-seasoned black-eye peas.
They also serve up quinoa, veggie lasagna, a pumpkin and cho-cho (chayote) soup, and various pates, including ackee, lentil, soy chicken, soy fish, and more.
“We cook different dishes every day,” she said. “We have a wide variety, that's what people really gravitate to.” All of the food is made in-house, except some of the pastries. Everyone in the family cooks.
Their veggie burger has taken a long hiatus because a cousin moved to California with his perfect recipe. Najah and Oba are experimenting and hope to have it back soon.
“Ital, to me, is vegan with a Caribbean spin. So, to me it's more natural. It's more whole-soul. It's more our background, our culture,” Oba said. “More herbs and more spices. That's the difference between other vegan and Ital.”
The restaurant first opened on Burke Avenue but lacked space for the herbal teas, bitters, homeopathic remedies, and Caribbean specialty products the H.I.M. team wanted to include.
“We had a vegan restaurant before but we felt like it was lacking, you know, selling the products. So we got into the health food market,” he said.
4374 White Plains Rd, Bronx, NY