For many communities, a vegan diet can seem at odds with their culture. But baker Lei Timo is helping make veganism more inclusive through food that’s both delicious and reflective of her Sāmoan heritage.
When she turns up at the front doors of customers, delivering their boxed orders of her vegan treats, Lei Timo can tell people are somewhat surprised when they open the door to see her.
“People expect this little European person to rock up at the door, and they’ll be shocked that I’m a big Islander girl,” she says.
Timo grew up in Auckland suburb Mt Wellington with her parents, two older sisters and plenty of cats and dogs. Her parents met in Auckland after moving from Sāmoa in the 1980s, post dawn raids. “They came at the right time,” Timo says.
Now 22, Timo flats with her sister Gerri and each of their partners in a candy-coloured villa near Papatoetoe train station in South Auckland. It’s also the casual headquarters of her made-to-order vegan baking business, Bitch Baker, which she started at the end of 2019. Last weekend, she launched her new website and rejigged menu.
Timo took up baking when she was in primary school and credits her eldest sister Diane with inspiring her love for it. “She was always the one who was baking,” she says. Making sweet treats from the Edmonds cookbook, a reliable favourite, took on new meaning for Timo in her teens as she struggled with high school. Sifting, whipping and icing became her escape.
“I wanted to leave as soon as I could, and baking was just something I could look forward to after school,” she says.
After dropping out as a 17-year-old, Timo watched the documentary Cowspiracy in horror while eating a bowl of chicken wings. It convinced her to make an almost instant shift away from animal products. The bowl of chicken wings was left unfinished. “I was like, ‘this is horrible, I don’t want to be a part of that’, so I just went vegan, cold turkey.”
When you’re brown, veganism and vegetarianism comes with a particular kind of cultural awkwardness. Food is so often interconnected with cultural practices and by association a way to belong in these particular groups. Not eating certain fare being served up at church, on the marae or at family celebrations comes with some feelings of isolation, made even harder when you’re part of a minority group.
For her Sāmoan family, Timo says “food is everything”. After becoming vegan, at home Timo was almost entirely limited to taro or green banana with coconut cream. Though initially they weren’t thrilled about Timo’s decision to become vegan out of fears for her health, her parents have grown increasingly supportive of her decision over time.
Timo has dealt with plenty of scepticism around her motives for being vegan. Many make the assumption that what she does and doesn’t eat is tied up with some kind of modern fad diet, rather than the ethical and environmental concerns that were the real catalysts, she explains. “People would just be like, ‘you can’t be brown and vegan’,” she says.
After leaving her fast-food job in 2019, Timo began setting up her business, which she registered at the end of last year, once she felt the pandemic situation had calmed down. An important step was choosing the name. “I wanted the word bakery – that was just kind of obvious,” she says. But why “bitch”? Timo laughs while recalling how when those in her circles found out she was vegan, their response was often along the lines of “oh, you bitch!”.
“I don’t want to come off as a bitch, but once people find out that I’m vegan they just automatically put that label on me,” she says.
In the same vein as musicians like Alanis Morissette, Britney Spears and Doja Cat, she’s reclaiming the term. “I’ll just call me what you’re calling me, I’ll just own the name,” she says.
Her recently rejuvenated menu offering includes ice-cream doughnuts, brownie cheesecake and a gluten-free German chocolate cake – fare that’s delicious and wouldn’t be out of place at any vegan bakery.
While her menu has always included panipopo, Timo is making an effort to go the extra mile on her new menu to show off Sāmoan baking. She’s platforming the cuisine through her Mother’s Day gift boxes, which are carrying on beyond the designated day last Sunday, the concept being that Mother’s Day should be everyday. And this is where she’s celebrating her Sāmoan roots more explicitly, with panipopo, keke fa’i (banana cake) and panikeke (coconut German buns) – one of Timo’s favourite treats on trips to Sāmoa. “It’s to emphasise the fact that I am Sāmoan, because people don’t expect it,” she says.
At the moment, she’s balancing her own business with her time as a mentee with The Kitchen Project, a 26-week programme focused on developing local food business in West and South Auckland. Influenced by San Francisco nonprofit La Cocina, which works to solve problems of equity in business for marginalised groups, The Kitchen Project is a partnership between Auckland urban regeneration agency Panuku, Auckland Unlimited, and Healthy Families South Auckland and Waitākere.
In her cohort of five, the initiative runs through the essentials for budding food makers; explaining regulations, food safety, business planning, branding and marketing, along with offering subsidised access to commercial kitchens.
“Every baker wants a shop,” Timo says, and that’s a long-term goal for her business. Pointing toward Papatoetoe town centre, Timo says, “I’d love to have a shop down there.” She and her sisters often daydream about running a shop in an area like her local village where they feel they could add vibrancy.
“Change happens slowly,” Timo says. And she’s hopeful about the slow but steady growth in openness to animal-product-free food locally. These days, according to Timo, it’s mostly non-vegans ordering her food, many of whom are returning customers.
“I just hope it gets more out there,” says Timo, “especially with people here in South Auckland.” By broadening the possibilities of vegan food through her island-influenced baking, Timo wants to prove that giving up animal products doesn’t have to mean giving up culturally significant foods for her community.
Because she’s left the word “vegan” out of her brand name, Timo says plenty of her customers order her cakes without even realising they’re free of traditional baking essentials like eggs, butter and cow milk. Learning after the fact that they’ve been replaced with aquafaba, Olivani and coconut milk and that the bite they took is still delicious, maybe even more delicious, gives customers the chance to realise they “actually do like vegan food”, says Timo.