Jakarta. Being vegan has gone from an alternative lifestyle into something approaching the mainstream.
Vegan restaurants have mushroomed – pun intended – in big cities like Jakarta, and locals into the cruelty-free eating habit now have plenty of choices to satisfy their appetites.
"Veganism is definitely on its way to becoming mainstream. After Bali, Jakarta is now the second most vegan-friendly city in Indonesia," said the Indonesian head of World Vegan Organization, Karim Taslim.
Many local celebrities now follow the plant-based diet and happily share their experiences (and favorite recipes) on social media.
Food companies are starting to take note, too.
"You can find many varieties of vegan and vegetarian food at your local grocery stores and supermarkets nowadays," Karim said.
According to a study from global market intelligence agency Mintel released in August last year, 75 percent of customers in Indonesia say they tried to follow a healthier diet last year. In Thailand, the corresponding number is 66 percent.
The Costs of Being a Vegan
One of the most commonly asked questions about the plant-based, cruelty-free diet is: is it (prohibitively) expensive?
According to Karim, being a vegan doesn't have to break the bank, especially in Indonesia.
"I've done the math, there's no reason being a vegetarian or a vegan should be more expensive than following a meat diet," he said.
Tempe and tofu, the two staples of the typical Indonesian diet for example, are cheaper than meat.
Then there are other local vegetarian comfort meals like gado-gado, karedok, pecel sayur or lontong sayur. All of these dishes can be made vegan simply by omitting eggs, shrimp crackers and shrimp paste.
The majority of vegans choose to adopt the lifestyle because they care about animal welfare and want to lead an (animal)cruelty-free life.
Others turn to veganism to help save the environment or to improve their health.
Vegans typically want to buy not only organic but also ethically produced fruits and vegetables and other food products.
The problem is, these can be quite expensive.
23-year-old student Nada Araminta said she became a vegan five years ago after realizing that many of her health problems were a result of unhealthy eating.
"I used to binge eat junk food and one day I just felt really sick. Being a vegan practically rebooted my body," she said.
Nada said she now spends up to twice as much as she used to on groceries.
"Being a vegan has led me down the ultra-health-foodie road and I shop organic more often than I used to," she said.
Indah Dwi Pratiwi is a 35-year-old working mother of two who turned vegan only recently.
She said after transitioning into a vegan diet, she started learning more about nutrition and is becoming more selective about what ends up in her shopping cart – and on her plate.
"Health is the main concern for me. Having learned more about healthy food, I find myself opting for more premium items these days. And yes, they don’t come cheap," Indah said.
Indah has also developed a penchant for gluten-free products, which usually can only be bought at high-end supermarkets.
She also buys frozen vegan foods to add more varieties to her diet, and those don't come cheap either.
At Jakarta's high-end supermarkets like Foodhall, specialty vegan food items such as vegan sausages, vegan cheese, mock-deli meats, protein bars and grains like muesli and couscous can cost up to twice as much as fresh organic ingredients or meat.
The price of premium grain-based products, like Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pancake and Gluten Free Brownie, Netherland’s Viviera and vegan snacks by award-winning US vegan brand Sweet Earth starts from Rp 300,000 ($21) – roughly 10 times the price of a plate of nasi rames (rice with meat and vegetables) from a warteg.
At Foodhall, superfood like quinoa grains cost Rp 249,000 per 500 gram pack. Other grains like muesli and lentils cost up to Rp 250,000 per pack.
Meanwhile, one kilogram of red meat at the same supermarket costs Rp 139,000, nearly just a quarter of the price of the superfood grains.
"Packaged vegan products are still not common in Indonesia. They're still considered as luxury items," Karim said.
Karim said if local vegans adopt a Western diet, buying up imported ingredients that are only available at high-end supermarkets, then being vegan can become a very expensive lifestyle choice.
"Grains like quinoa, muesli, couscous, granola, barley and sorghum are not the typical grains we Indonesians consume," he said.
Social Media's Fault?
According to Karim, social media helps form the misperception that being vegan means consuming a lot of expensive imported vegan foodstuffs.
"Veganism is no longer just a diet, it's fast becoming a lifestyle. Unfortunately, for some people, being vegan means buying expensive ingredients," he said.
Karim blames social media buzzers and influencers who worship and promote an exclusively Western vegan diet.
"Look at Instagram, not many of these [influencers] would promote using local ingredients for a vegan diet," he said.
Karim pointed out that many green ingredients used in Western vegan recipes are vegetables or fruits that aren’t available locally, including asparagus, iceberg lettuce, arugula, Brussels sprouts and zucchini.
At high-end supermarkets like Foodhall, Kemchicks and 99 Ranch Market, organic vegetables are pricey since most of them are imported from China, New Zealand, India, Japan and Myanmar.
At Foodhall, 5 ounces of organic cilantro cost Rp 13,743, 100 grams of asparagus cost Rp 15,390 and arugula costs Rp 66,900 per pack.
By comparison, one kilogram of fresh local tomatoes at Pasar Induk Kramat Jati in East Jakarta – one of the capital's biggest traditional markets – costs only Rp 8,000.
Food nutritionist Susianto Tseng – often called the "Tempe doctor" – echoes Karim’s opinion that being vegan in Indonesia doesn't have to be expensive.
He said Indonesia is essentially a vegan-friendly country. Though meat is almost always on the menu, many restaurants also offer vegetarian versions which can be made on request. There are also many traditional vegetable dishes that are naturally vegan.
"Being a vegan only requires you to be creative," he said. "Whether you choose expensive or cheaper ingredients, all the vegetables and fruits we buy serve the same purpose: to make us healthy."