The No Bones Zone
MEET THE KINGSTON-BASED RESTAURANT THAT'S TURNING OUT MEAT LOVER'S ONE BOX LUNCH AT A TIME
STORY: ERIN MACLEOD
Veggie Meals on Wheels opened its doors in Kingston, Jamaica in 2008 as a vegan-inspired food concept. "We call it the no bone zone," says Ibby Lion who worked alongside his wife Keteis Oyonde to develop the concept into both a restaurant and a mobile catering service: "It started with a niche, wanting everybody to eat healthy," Lion says. That niche quickly spawned a small movement in a food scene where balanced, affordable vegetarian options aren’t always readily available.
In an area that has been dubbed Meskel Square, Veggie Meals on Wheels is situated in the Crossroads section area of Kingston where uptown meets downtown. "The ambiance is pretty nice," Lion says of the colorful, shady, self-made oasis. "We appreciate nature in the city." It’s common to see office employees sitting alongside construction workers enjoying "a healthy alternative to the regular ‘box food’", which is a staple Styrofoam boxed lunch in Jamaica that Lion describes as containing "rice and meat and very little vegetables." He says he still tries to provide the ease and affordability of the boxed food model. "We were once dubbed the ‘vegetarian joint where meat eaters love to go, so even if someone would have meat for dinner, we would encourage him to have vegetarian for lunch." In addition to boosting the veggie-friendly contents, the food comes in a biodegradable box, or, if you choose to eat in, an inviting calabash bowl.
Ibby Lion at Meskel Square.
There is also an influx of foreigners who come not only for the delicious offerings, but the reggae connections. The Meskel Square location was the spot for early acoustic concerts from reggae artists like Chronixx and Kabaka Pyramid—and it continues to play host to the weekly Vinyl Thursday DJ sessions. As Lion humbly admits, "We simply act as a cradle for uplifting music by these artists. Food and music share the same stage," he continues. "When you have music, you have to have food. It is part of the whole aesthetics." That synergy translates to Veggie Meals on Wheels being the go-to vegan supplier at many reggae stageshows, book launches, dances, and college and university events in Kingston and beyond. The restaurant also provides services for the community. "There is the Meskel Square Charity House where we have two days –Tuesdays and Sundays – per week where we have lunches donated to the homeless and persons that cannot afford a daily food."
Lion is enthusiastic rather than aggressive about spreading the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, something he discovered during his teenage years when he began experimenting with preparing his own meals. After culinary training both in Miami and Jamaica, he’s eager to share his recipes and techniques, including his custom-made "Whole Heap" spice mix. "We use different tactics to open people’s minds to vegetarian food." From barbequed or smoked tofu to experiments with soy, Lion is open to creating unique flavors that will entice meat eaters to opt for a vegetarian alternative. "I want people to think beyond callaloo, cabbage, and steamed vegetables. There is diversity in it." When asked if he’s interested in convincing people to transition away from meat, Lion smiles and laughs: "It’s all about choice. We just try to make it as appealing and enticing as possible. The more you get comes from the more you share, and it is nice for people to feel a part of the process."
Natty Ackee with rice, salad and fritters.
Below, Lion shares the recipe for one of his favorite dishes, Natty Ackee, using ingredients that are grown and market-available in Jamaica, a key factor for stimulating sustainable local farming and something of profound importance to Veggie Meals on Wheels: "Taking from nature...that is the source from the beginning," says Lion. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to spend time in Jamaica, Lion encourages buying and supporting local produce whenever possible.
Veggie Meals on Wheels’ signature spice.
1 dozen ackee (or one can of ackee)
4 small green bananas
¼ lb string beans
¼ lb carrot
¼ lb pumpkin or squash
¼ lb onion, chopped
1 medium size tomato
5-6 oz scallion
Coconut (or vegetable) oil
Whole Heap seasoning – available at Meskel Square (substitute a mix of basil and oregano if not available)
Turmeric 1. Wash and chop tomato and scallion, add to onion, set aside
2. Wash and boil fresh ackee with dash of turmeric (if canned, simply drain and wash)
3. Cut banana into ¼ inch wide, 4 inch long strips. Peel and cut carrots and pumpkin into similar sized slices. After washing and trimming, do the same with the string beans
4. Sautée seasoning with 4 oz oil and turmeric
5. Add banana, carrots, pumpkin, and beans and sautée for 5 minutes
6. Add tomato, scallion, onion and cook until soft
7. Add ackee last and cook until warm