It was her love of yoga which initially drew New Zealander Bree Mcllroy to India, and Kochi just happened to be her first destination. She stayed in a homestay in Fort Kochi like any other tourist and moved on to different cities in India and other countries. But the quaint coastal town kept pulling her back, until she decided one day that she was going to stay back. “I just loved the climate and the palm trees here, and everything was warm and welcoming,” says Bree, a vegan and animal lover.

She realised her calling soon – to set up a yoga studio and a vegan café in Fort Kochi. And that’s how the first full-fledged vegan restaurant in Kerala – Loving Earth Yoga Café – came about. Originally set up as a tiny shack with eco-friendly cutlery and unfamiliar dishes, the café looked like it would stand a chance in the land of porotta and beef loving Malayalis. “I didn’t know anything about Indian food, and I wanted to offer what I knew best, which is vegan food,” says Bree. The head chef and manager, Namita Satheesh, is from Kerala, and some of the dishes have the much sought-after Indian twist.

“Local visitors were initially confused about what vegan meant. People would tell me they have never had vegan food and I would reply that they have, Kerala breakfasts like idli and puttu are vegan as long as there’s no ghee in them. But veganism is a cruelty-free lifestyle, not just about not eating animals and animal products,” says Bree.

With vegan chicken, a variety of drool-worthy cakes, pastries, ice cream and even pizza on the menu, word spread, and gradually, even meat eaters realized that they liked what they ate, even though the ‘’beef burgers’’ didn’t really have beef in them. “We give the dishes such names so people would be encouraged to try them. But then, the vegetarians would be hesitant!” laughs Bree. “Vegan can be tasty too, and that’s why our tables are always full, ultimately. We didn’t have to advertise, people got to know through word of mouth and soon we had families, youngsters and all kinds of people coming in.”

The shack was renovated to a full-fledged restaurant in early 2020, by which time Covid had started its invasion. Although the lockdown led to several restaurants shutting down, Loving Earth Yoga Café thrived once it lifted, perhaps owing to the fact that people felt vegan food is safe to eat. “I definitely think people are more conscious about what they put into their bodies, after what has happened. More people started coming in after the lockdown. People also tell us they feel happily full and not sluggish after a meal,” says the entrepreneur.

A special feature of the outlet is that pets are not just allowed but welcome, making it one of the very few pet-friendly eateries in Kerala. “It is kind of a given in a vegan café, right? We believe all beings are equal. We also have resident dogs and cats, mostly rescued from the streets.”

So will she settle down in Fort Kochi? “Well, I never planned to open a vegan restaurant in India, it just happened. I just figured out what makes me happy – yoga, vegan food and helping animals – it all came together and I am completely content in what I’m doing. I don’t want to go home, I love it here,” Bree signs off.

— By Asha Prakash.