You'd be forgiven for thinking that raw food is just another fad. Often presented in the media alongside other diet industry and celebrity trends, raw food has been framed as just another Hollywood food-fashion construct. But while it may conjure thoughts of carrot sticks and sushi to the uninitiated, raw food encompasses far more than you might think.
In modern times, it has been used by particular cultures as a method for healing and detoxifying our bodies from ailments and the impacts of fast-paced lifestyles. In the 1930s, studies began to emerge suggesting that heat-based cooking processes damage the nutrients contained in natural foods and indicating the health benefits of uncooked and unprocessed foods.
Raw food proponents suggest that the chemical reactions caused by cooking food destroy enzymes, effectively 'killing' many of its essential nutrients. Conversely, by eating food in its most natural, uncooked form, these nutrients can be preserved.
By definition, a raw foodist eats between 75 and 100 per cent live, organic, uncooked food, which is prepared without heat, using methods such as fermenting, soaking, blending and dehydrating. They may or may not eat meat and other animal products: some identify as raw vegans, while at the other extreme, raw paleo dieters primarily consume vegetables and uncooked meat. In reality, however, many raw foodists don't stick to such strict parameters and instead simply incorporate more raw foods into their daily diets. Those who have made the effort argue that they not only feel better, but that it's an easy and accessible way of eating.
It's easy to be confused about where raw food fits within Melbourne's obsession with all things edible. It's even more difficult to understand how a diet that excludes the latest food trends (food trucks, tacos, burgers and sliders come to mind) could garner such a following. Yet over the past few years, Melbourne has become home to an increasing number of cafes and restaurants specialising in catering to raw food diets, including Yong Green Food, Vegie Bar, Shoku Iku and Botanical Cuisine. Considering there are currently over 900 members of the Melbourne Raw Food Meetup Group, it's evident that the movement is gaining increasing popularity amid our epicurean-focused culture.
According to chef and raw food advocate Kemi Nekvapil, Melbourne's raw food enthusiasts are finding it easier than ever to access quality, innovative raw options when eating out. Nekvapil, who runs raw food and wellbeing classes and recently released her own cookbook Add More Raw, was first introduced to the raw food concept about a decade ago while working as a head chef in the UK.
"At first I was unimpressed,” she recalls. “I couldn't understand why anyone would want to eat carrot sticks all the time."
But Nekvapil’s perspective rapidly changed after reading a book on the raw food concept and trying it out for herself. "By day two, my energy levels went through the roof.” Nekvapil now encourages others to adopt the ‘eat more raw’ approach to harness the health benefits of living food while not adhering to a solely raw diet.
"I love cooking and going to restaurants, or to friends' places for dinner. So I'm definitely not going to be 100 per cent raw!"
For Scott Fry of natural food company Loving Earth, there's more to the concept of raw and living food than just healthy eating. It's an opportunity to raise consumer awareness and at the same time support the Indigenous communities from which they source their ingredients.
Fry was originally inspired while working on community development projects overseas, where he learnt firsthand about the supply chain between local providers, the loss of traditional heirloom varieties of ingredients and final product distribution. This sparked an interest in the ethical commercialisation of such products, catering to the market of conscious consumers. Fry's interests culminated in the establishment of Loving Earth, which uses minimal processing to provide health-conscious consumers with products such as raw chocolate bars, olives and spreads as well as a host of natural ingredients like cacao, agave and luvju. Since the company's establishment in 1997, Fry has observed a definite increase in consumer awareness and demand for living foods.
"We want to empower people to be aware of what they eat and how they feel," says Fry.
Judging by the popularity of Balaclava cafe Monk Bodhi Dharma’s Friday night raw dinners, the movement has also found a niche within Melbourne's dining scene. Marwin Shaw, head chef and owner of the petite venue, has been cooking up the special Friday dinners using fresh, unprocessed ingredients for the past 18 months. In this time, he's noticed the culture of the raw food industry become more mainstream.
"When we started, I think a lot of people associated [raw food] with hippies or Hare Krishna restaurants. But I think they're slowly coming around and realising what it’s about. We try to avoid calling ourselves 'raw'…we just want to make food that's unprocessed and ultimately very good for you," says Shaw.
"I think only around five per cent of our customers are vegetarian or vegan anyway. Most of our customers just come because they enjoy the taste."
A typical evening menu might consist of Bhutan salad, raw cannelloni and a 'heaven and hell creme brûlée', all presented simply yet exquisitely, allowing the intensity and purity of the flavours to speak for themselves. Shaw's from-scratch approach not only serves to highlight natural produce, it showcases his creativity and ability to substitute ingredients for more organic options.
The raw dining scene might be a slow movement, but it’s one gaining a steady momentum amid Melbourne’s eclectic food landscape. Some might call it a fad, but its proponents suggest otherwise.
"A lot more people are becoming aware of what they're putting in their bodies," says Shaw. "They're not happy with just accepting what the market gives them."