Mena Massoud on how to successfully reverse-engineer your favourite vegan restaurant meals
The Aladdin actor shares secrets from his new cookbook, inspired by 34 vegan spots across North America
To Mena Massoud, cooking is an art. That's why the 29-year-old — who catapulted from working Toronto actor to the lead role in Disney's 2019 live-action blockbuster Aladdin — isn't one for rules in the kitchen. "You can go off your intuition," he said from his current home base of Los Angeles. "For the most part when I cook, I like to open up my fridge, see what I have, see what is going bad, because I don't want to waste any food."
So it might seem counterintuitive that his new project is the cookbook Evolving Vegan, a collection of plant-based recipes from and inspired by 34 vegan restaurants across North America, including Canadian hot spots such as Planta in Toronto and MeeT in Vancouver. The chefs and cuisines span the globe, and Massoud, who is Egyptian-Canadian, includes his own creations and his mother Gorgit's unbeatable home cooking.
But a closer look reveals Massoud's improvisational ethos is everywhere in the cookbook. Substitutions are welcome, optional ingredients — such as vegan feta and pistachio garnishes — are suggested, and experimentation is strongly encouraged. In fact, experimentation was how Massoud arrived at many recipes.
While working on Evolving Vegan, pre-pandemic, Massoud criss-crossed North America, hitting vegan restaurants in foodie centres such as Portland, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C. Often his favourite spots would share a recipe for the book. In other cases, he created his own take inspired by a dish he loved — an approach he thinks is common to vegan cooks. "Vegans tend to do that," he said. "If they like cooking, they try something whether it's vegan or not, and they try to recreate it."
As for how to go about successfully recreating recipes at home, Massoud knows it's not always easy. "Some ingredients you can see right away what they are with your eyes. Others, you can taste them. You play around at home until you get something that's similar to that." The hard part is trying to replicate less obvious ingredients and, of course, making substitutions. "What kind of oil to use — that's not something you can see," he said. "Spices, obviously ... it's everything else that's creating flavour."
So what about when it comes to trickier tastes and textures? Massoud turns to experimentation and the internet. "Sometimes I will look things up, don't get me wrong," he said. "If I have to make something technical like a flax egg … I will look that up."
His repertoire in the kitchen also includes replicating favourite foods that are typically animal-based, such as an omelette made from mung beans and cashew crema, which makes a delicious sour cream substitute.
If and when globetrotting comes back into fashion, Massoud plans to start rolling on a vegan travel series in the vein of the late Anthony Bourdain's — though he says networks have been hesitant to focus on what they see as a niche community.
"They look at … the number of people who identify as vegan," he says (a 2018 Dalhousie University study found that 1.1 per cent of the population, or about 418,000 Canadians, describe themselves as vegan). "But vegans aren't about that. Beyond Meat isn't a billion-dollar company because of that [percentage]. It's because the average person is starting to eat more plant-based than ever before."
For more from Mena Massoud, check out our rapid-fire Q&A below, and click here for his grandmother's recipe for a traditional Egyptian basbousa.
Life with Mena Massoud
What is your favourite restaurant in the world?
In Japan, there is a vegan ramen shop in Kyoto. It's a place where you have to duck your head to get [in]. It probably seats about 10 people, and it's called TowZen.
They have some incredible dishes.... They have a charcoal ramen that I've probably never seen anywhere else in the world before. They had a creamy ramen with a beef substitute that was insane. He does an eel sushi where he takes the rice and cuts the eggplant really thin and torches it so it actually looks like eel.... I was only in Kyoto for three days, and I went [there for] dinner the night before and lunch the next day.
What is your secret for good health right now?
Eating well, less processed foods, and working out.
What is your favourite late-night snack?
Dried mangoes, though I hate having them at night because it's sugar.
What is the strangest thing you've ever eaten?
I've eaten lots of strange food. Stomach lining [tripe]? … My mom cooked it once or twice a year. It wasn't my favourite, but it's very interesting.
What is your favourite outdoor activity?
Hiking.... Hikes are one of the few things I look forward to now in L.A. because everything else is shut down. And even that I can't do because of the air quality [caused by the California wildfires in September].
What posters did you have in your childhood or teenage bedroom?
I don't think I had any posters up, but I was obsessed with Hilary Duff. I had her Christmas CD on my desk.
What's the best thing about being your age?
I'm turning 29. The best thing about my age is I don't have to have it figured out yet. Once you turn 30, if you haven't figured things out, then you are on a little bit of a time crunch.
What is the worst thing about being your age?
People don't take you seriously…. People in their 20s don't get treated like adults, which is weird.
Who is your greatest hero?
Probably my father. He was in his 20s, early 30s, making really good money as a satellite engineer in Egypt and sacrificed all of that to give his kids a better life. We moved to Toronto, and he never got to follow his dream of being a satellite engineer. He picked up jobs delivering pizzas and working at VHS factories. I know for a fact he would have much rather been a satellite engineer, but he gave that all up.
What would your superpower be?
Ultimate manifestation. Anything that you could think of you could get, which I try to practice anyway, but sometimes it takes a couple of years. So if I could speed up that process, that would be good.
Ryan Porter is a freelance arts and culture writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @MrRyanPorter or visit his website at RyanPorterWorld.com.