I was recently interviewed for Kochen ohne Knochen – Das Vegane Magazin. The original interview is in German, but I’ve translated it here for you to read in English, and added more detail to a few answers. I also included photos from the printed magazine’s design and layout for the article. I’m super pleased with how it turned out.
Justin P. Moore – World Traveler & Vegan
Interview with Kochen ohne Knochen – Das Vegane Magazin
Justin, an American living in Berlin, has traveled to more than 40 countries and compiled over 100 delicious recipes. In his cookbook, The Lotus and the Artichoke (first published in English) which was recently published in German, he documents his culinary adventures from around the world.
Justin, you’ve traveled quite a bit. And I understand the cookbook was a journey, too.
The idea to design and publish a vegan cookbook dates back about two decades. As a teenager, I was involved in the hardcore music scene. In the early 90s, I self-published a fanzine and a mini cookbook with vegan recipes and information which I traded and distributed by mail and at shows and concerts. I’ve always loved cooking, especially for others. At 15, I started collecting vegetarian and vegan cookbooks. I was inspired by lots of them, and they were certainly practical and informative, but I usually felt like something was missing: Color, Passion, and Personality. About six years ago, I got into taking photos of my experiments and creations in the kitchen. At first I did it just for fun, and to learn a new aspect of photography. Over time, the recipes and the pictures really started to take form.
I had a full-time position as an Art Director, which I really enjoyed, but eventually it had run its course and I was hungry for something new. I left my job, ended up living and working for a year in India teaching art at an international school, and cooking with the neighbors and invited for family meals all the time. I spent a lot of time thinking about all of my international culinary experience and how I could do something cool with it. When I got back to Germany, I was standing in a bookstore looking at the growing shelves of vegan cookbooks, and I thought, “So, where is my cookbook?” I decided to dedicate six months to the cookbook project and give it my all. For weeks, I scribbled lists of recipes, names, thoughts and ideas, and made countless sketches. I ordered a stack of new cookbooks and began reading vegan cooking blogs with a new intensity.
Then, I read about crowdfunding and found Kickstarter. Funding was the missing, mystery piece in the puzzle, and I was electrified. I launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to help raise the print and production costs for the cookbook, and in no time was in touch with a wonderfully diverse, extremely receptive, international audience of other food and travel bloggers, cookbook authors, enthusiastic readers and followers on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+.
For the next 3 months, I worked on the cookbook from early in the morning until late at night. For the final few weeks I was cooking and baking, testing, photographing, writing up, and formating three to five recipes a day. It was a crazy but also fantastic, delicious and fun time. In early 2013, I launched another Kickstarter campaign – for the German edition of the cookbook. I had the book professionally translated into German, re-tested and revised recipes, shot a lot of new photographs and created more artwork– for the book, but also for new t-shirts, stickers and tote bags.
From my cookbook author friends I was connected with Jens from Ventil Verlag. We met up in Berlin and hung out until two in the morning talking about publishing, politics, and family and personal histories. We worked out a great partnership with the Kochen ohne Knochen edition to publish and promote the cookbook in German and English. That same evening, I also met Patrick from Deutschland is(s)t Vegan, who’s also been incredibly supportive and encouraging.
In reading the introduction and stories at the start of each chapter, the cultural element of food is especially emphasized. Is that the most intricate aspect as a vegan – this entirely personal involvement with people, traditions, and history?
Whenever we leave home, whether we cross the street or an ocean, we’re confronted with different attitudes and cultural perspectives. I’m of the opinion that a respectful guest has remarkably better chances of comfortable interaction, and having positive – mostly indirect – influence on others, in terms of hoping to improve our relationships with other living things and the environment. In being respectful and modest (rather than broadcasting exclusivity and criticism), the probability is greatly improved that my individual views and nutritional choices will be well-received and supported by others. I mean, for over 23 years, it’s worked quite well for me on four different continents. Sure, I prefer visiting countries and cultures where my eating habits fit in reasonably well. But not always. I consider the challenges and discussions about differing opinions and styles of living to be enriching and helpful – in strengthening my own understandings, focus, and convictions.
You were involved with the hardcore / punk music scene for years – where it’s certainly not unusual to be vegan. It’s also typically more politically motivated than the current trend of health-oriented veganism. To what extent did the scene influence your decision to follow a vegan lifestyle?
I’m actually not much in touch with the hardcore music scene these days. In the early 90s, the fascination with vegetarianism and animal rights really took off. The term vegan was still relatively unknown in mainstream society. In the late 80s, I was really into New Wave; my favorite band was THE SMITHS. Morrissey lyrics and interviews strongly influenced my views, as well as a growing interest in Buddhism and Hinduism. Specifically, the idea of ahimsa – nonviolence. It was actually a bit later that I got into bands like YOUTH OF TODAY and GORILLA BISCUITS, among many others. In a short time frame, I’d established a personal network of pen pals with similar world views.
The zines and letters I got from Europe, especially Germany, were among my favorites. The fact that other young people were also interested in topics like animal rights, environmental awareness, social equality, alternatives to mass consumerism and materialism was incredibly important to me. I felt far less alone with my idealistic thoughts. Especially back then, a self-determined way of life and individual identity meant a lot to me. It’d be dishonest to call that predominantly “politically-motivated”.
I’ve pretty much always believed that if people consume fewer animal products that’s a great thing, regardless of the motivations. It could be for health reasons, personal appearance, that sense of “I’m-So-Different”. Ideally these intentions are just the start on the path to increased compassion and consciousness.
Where do you get the energy to travel and do so much on your own, so intensely, and with such love?
The motivation comes primarily from my passion, and the drive from habit and experience. I’ve taken on many wild projects and travels, at times because I was too naive or stubborn to really understand how demanding, unusual or impossible something could be. I’ve pretty much always tuned-out comments like “Cross-country solo on a motorcycle? That’s so dangerous!”, “Moving to Germany? What for?” or “Quitting your job and booking a one-way flight to India? That’s crazy!” I know that other people aren’t talking about me and my reality, rather: about themselves and their reality.
I studied Fine Arts in college, specifically painting and printmaking, but did my best to learn all about design and photography, too. For me, real-world experience is a hundred times more interesting and useful than straight-up academia and degrees. My culinary school has always been cooking regularly with neighbors, friends, and family.
I believe in following my passion, or as they say, “Follow your bliss”. Of course, there have been and continue to be countless people who inspire and support me. Whether at home, on the road, online – I meet really cool people everywhere.
You write a lot about travels with your family. Were these experiences the framework for your urge to see the world?
My childhood and growing up overseas in the Marshall Islands and all of the family trips definitely fired up my travel appetite. We covered long distances together and explored some pretty far-out places and met fascinating people – locals, natives, other travelers. My interest in world cultures, cuisines, and languages was especially affected by National Geographic magazine – we always had an annual subscription. Film and literature also had a defining role for me. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the other Indiana Jones movies were among my favorites as a kid. I also devoured books like The Mosquito Coast, Seven Years in Tibet, and The English Patient.
My grandparents were my original connection to Europe. Their stories and the culinary traditions were real motivations for me to visit Germany, Austria, England and Russia. Basically, the desire to see the world came from a lot of sources. The well-rooted understanding that world travel is possible and other cultures are accessible is something I can thank my family and our experience for.
How would you describe your style of travel? You scrape your money together, book your flight, arrive… and then?
I usually travel with only carry-on luggage, and pack a small or medium size backpack as needed, depending how long I’ll be gone. I definitely try to be modest and not so obvious. I love the feeling of roaming streets as if I lived there. I prefer staying in an apartment or home, on my own or with locals: with friends and families. I’m also into homestays and bed & breakfasts, as well as small guesthouses and family-owned, down-to-earth hotels, especially if I’m traveling alone and want to hang out with other travelers.
Earlier this year I was in Rome for a few days and set up a rental apartment. Instead of having every meal in restaurants and cafés, I went shopping in the neighborhood and cooked every day in my own kitchen. It was awesome; way more authentic than my first visit a few years ago. Last year I did the same thing in Montenegro and Croatia. That was an incredible experience, too, fully engaged with locals and getting into the language.
Do you prepare yourself for the culinary traditions of a location before you arrive? Everyone hears stories about travelers who thought they’d find vegan options but end up with a leaf of lettuce.
Since I usually pick out my travel destinations at least in some part because of their culinary traditions, I usually know what’s up with the local cuisine before I get there. You can always prepare yourself somewhat, but there are going to be surprises when you’re out and about – sometimes good, sometimes not so. That’s just part of traveling. You can always read up in your travel guide or check out countless travel blogs. I love to talk beforehand with people from a particular country that I intend to visit.
Before I went to China, I talked with my friend Ming, the owner of my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. He taught me a few phrases in Mandarin and wrote a note for me to bring along: “I’m a vegetarian. Please help me find something to eat without meat.” I was in China for three weeks and never had a problem! I was at the hotel restaurant in a small city with practically no tourist infrastructure and English was entirely unknown. I showed the waiter my handwritten note and he disappeared into the back. He returned a few minutes later with the entire staff from the kitchen, each person holding different types of vegetables and food items. I pointed to several things, and then after much laughter from everyone in the restaurant, the cooks went back into the kitchen. They came back twenty minutes later with an unbelievably delicious four-course vegan meal!
In Vietnam, after realizing that the included meal on the overnight train wasn’t veg, the conductor got off at the next stop with me and helped me find something to eat from the vendors on the rail platform. Then we got back on the train and rode on. I’ve had dozens of experiences like this.
Morocco wasn’t so easy, which I really wasn’t expecting. I like couscous and tagine, but not twice a day for two weeks. Things would’ve been much better if I’d known people there and been able to eat with locals in their homes. Four years later, I went to Egypt and was expecting a similar experience. Instead, I found a fantastic variety of vegetable sandwiches, bean dishes and fresh juices. You never really know. That’s part of the adventure.
Your stories seem to celebrate just about every cuisine on the planet. Have you ever eaten anything that was really… gross?
Hmm. I just thought of the breakfast buffet at a Beijing hotel at the start of my first trip to Asia. I was still pretty tired and out of it. I hadn’t given much thought to what there would be for breakfast. As I lifted one lid after another, I discovered weird, cold fish chunks in sauce, pickled vegetables, seaweed, funghi, and strange fermented things I couldn’t identify. Everything smelled awful. At first I thought someone forget to clear away the dinner buffet from the previous night. Or maybe a week before. I ended up with a bowl of rice and soggy vegetables. I had some awesome steamed vegetable buns from a street vendor later that morning, which totally made up for it.
After checking off an impressive list of locations on the world map, you relocated to Berlin and learned to speak fluent German. What do you like about this city?
In the late 90s, I came to Berlin for the first time to visit an artist friend living in Prenzlauer Berg and check out German paintings in the museums. I totally fell in love with the city. I was riding the bus one night and was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling of finally being “home”.
At the time I didn’t know much German, but had always wanted to learn it. It was a dream of mine to read Siddhartha and Narziss und Goldmund in the original German. The international art scene, the history, the restaurants, the markets, the energy of Berlin totally enthralled me. That you can travel to other parts of Europe and get over to Asia much easier than from the US influenced my decision, too. In 2001, I booked an intensive German class at the Goethe Institut and a one-way ticket to Berlin.
So, where are you headed next?
I’m planning a longer stay later this year in Central or South America. I want to refresh and improve my Spanish, and I’d love to really get into Latin American cooking. While there, I’m expecting to expand my culinary horizons for future vegan cookbook, e-book, and blog projects. I’d also love to visit Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Sri Lanka mostly because of the insanely delicious food, and New Zealand for the amazing scenery and landscapes. In my travels I’ve met many super friendly and cool people from both countries, which definitely fired up my interest. It’s also entirely possible that some other opportunity will arise. I’m also into traveling unexpectedly, spur of the moment. I could get an invitation from friends and be on a train or a plane off to somewhere new. Just like that.
This interview was originally published in German in Kochen ohne Knochen – Das Vegane Magazin, #12.
Special thanks to Daniela for the interview, Ashley (Chasing Heartbeats) for the brilliant cover photo and Joachim and Uschi for their generous help, friendship and support with The Lotus and the Artichoke project.