How eating plant-based connected me to extended family

I never thought I’d be vegan, let alone connected to an established plant-based food company in the Philippines, but that’s exactly what I learned this year as a result of my evolving food journey.

I never thought I’d be vegan, let alone connected to an established plant-based food company in the Philippines, but that’s exactly what I learned this year as a result of my evolving food journey.

Growing up, my parents and extended family exposed me to a lot of traditional Filipino dishes: chicken adobo, pancit (noodles), lumpia (egg rolls), and chicharon (pork rinds). I alternated Fruit Roll-Ups and chocolate bars with pastries from Goldilocks and pan de sal (bread rolls) for my after-school merienda (snack). For weekend brunch, we’d crack a fried egg over Spam and white rice. I didn’t like vegetables very much, but I ate a ton of rice like most Asians do.

That all changed at the end of 2007 when I went to a screening of Earthlings. Discovering what was involved in all those meat dishes I’d cherished changed me, and I knew I couldn’t go back. Over the course of nine years, I slowly weaned myself off meat, and then seafood in 2017. I was still eating dairy until early 2018 when a food sensitivity test determined that dairy might be one cause of the painful digestive issues I’d had over a number of years. April of that year marked my “veganniversary.”

A few times during those years of eliminating meat from my diet, my aunt told me I had a distant relative whose family created meat made of vegetables in the Philippines. I was told that they lived in Vancouver where I am. This year, I thought I’d finally reach out and learn all about this infamous family.

It only took a few emails to set a dinner date with my Tita (aunt) Rachel, whose father, Oscar Varona, was first cousins with my maternal grandmother, Milagros Varona Labarda.

Source: Sandra Nomoto

Rachel, her husband Linson, mother Ana, and youngest of two daughters Lyra, have lived a 10 minute drive away from me for almost 20 years. Over a delicious dinner of mushroom-filled siopao, pancit, plant-based Bopis (a sauteed meat dish) and rice, I learned about their immigration story and how my grand-uncle Oscar was given the top award by President Ferdinand Marcos during Philippine Inventors Week in 1971 for inventing plant-based meat, or “vegemeat.”

Source: Rachel Pedernal

Oscar started developing cardiac problems in his mid-30’s and was medically recommended to avoid eating meat. As he became interested in vegetarianism, he experimented with combinations of tofu and gluten.

At the time, he and his family lived in Pasay City in Metro Manila. Rachel, who was seven years old at the time of his invention, says that most of the townspeople were already familiar with the vegetarian diet because a lot of the businesses were owned and run by Seventh-Day Adventist organizations. Varona Foods was registered in 1983, and has remained in this location since. After Oscar passed away in 2009, Rachel’s brother, David Varona, took over the business and changed its name to OscarAnn’s Vegetarian Store, in honour of their parents, Oscar and Ana.

OscarAnns’ Vegetarian Spicy Bopis made of tofu, banana blossom, vegemeat, wheat protein.
Source: Sandra Nomoto

“We believe that his vege-meat discovery is really by providence. [My father] realized it was his calling to respond by sharing the health message to people,” Rachel says. “We also consider this area providential, saving us from huge expenses in advertisements and promotions.”

Although the primary distribution of OscarAnn’s products remains in the Philippines, customers from the USA, UAE, and other Asian countries have tasted the products. Today, the company promotes health awareness and preventive medicine through diet modifications, which many North American wellness organizations are also doing. 

A few of Rachel’s favourite products in the OscarAnn’s line: Vegetarian tocino, siopao (hot buns), bopis, and “bacon” strips.
Source: Rachel Pedernal

Rachel talked about the people that would line up outside the business with questions about how they could improve their health. Together with his wife, Dr. Blecenda Miranda Varona, Founder of the Asian Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, Tito (uncle) David has helped improve the health and wellness of over 100,000 people globally. They’ve also published a few vegetarian cookbooks.

OscarAnn’s also does community outreach ministry, which includes feeding programs for those living in poor areas. In response to COVID-19, OscarAnn’s has been giving free food to essential workers to support their efforts with wholesome meals. 

Street and homeless families are fed near the OscarAnn’s store. They pray, read Bible verses, and sing hymns.
Source: David Varona

Rachel has witnessed people from all over the world ask her family’s business about vegetarianism and change their eating habits from pop, fries, and chemically-laden desserts to healthier, plant-based food choices. I can only imagine the pride she must feel, knowing that her family’s company has helped restore thousands of sick people to full health.

She says: “Growing up in this family health business taught me that giving is more blessed than to receive. Giving back and contributing can shape one’s heart into joy and satisfying gladness, which echoes a Bible verse in Proverbs 17:22: A merry heart does good like a medicine but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

Rice, adobong gluten, and vegetables are served in food boxes to families in Pasay City. 
Source: David Varona

Even though I didn’t grow up in the Seventh Day Adventist religion like three generations of Rachel’s family have, I consider plant-based eating the most conscious way of eating. It saves animals, the earth’s resources (around half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, with livestock composing 77% of that), and is the healthiest diet, practiced by centenarians who live in the world’s Blue Zones. I’ve only been eating a fully vegan diet for two years, but it’s already become a part of my lifestyle, personality, and expression of my values.

I’ve long dreamed about visiting the Philippines and reconnecting with my roots. Eating vegan will be tricky, but from what I’ve learned online, it’s not impossible, especially if I can visit OscarAnn’s!

With Rachel, her mother, Ana Varona, and my husband Leo.
Source: Rachel Pedernal

If you’ve got aunts, uncles, grandparents, or parents who can shed some light on your ancestry or extended relatives, I bet that you’ll find someone—maybe even a business—that you can be proud to call your family.

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