TGIFOOD

SHELF LIFE #5

On the pulse with happy earth people

Taleszia Pillay’s plant-based version of Butter Chicken. (Photo: Savannah Handley)

When you call your business Happy Earth People you’ve got a lot to live up to.

My son stole my supper the other night and I was not amused.

I am a lazy cook and if I can get it together I’ll simmer up a big chunky soup or slow-roast root veg in the oven every couple of days. This lasts until I can drag myself to the kitchen to press repeat: you do not touch the roast veg.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the kitchen to find my newly-roasted trays of sweet potato and butternut about to be tipped into the food processor.

My marketing whizz son, Sam, explained. “Ma, it’s lockdown and I need to make a movie for social media showing how to make a vegan mac ’n cheese.”

I weighed it up. Plain, roast veg that I’ll still have to work with or something new? I opted for the vegan mac ’n cheese and that’s how I came to taste Happy Earth People pasta. My spuds were transformed into a delicious, creamy dish that looked like mac ’n cheese and tasted like mac ’n cheese.

Obviously, I was exaggerating when I said my son stole my supper. One of the advantages of lockdown (I try to look for them) is that Sam regularly whips up dishes for his clients and we have impromptu shoots in the kitchen that involves a lot of mess and even more laughs.

You’ve got to admire these millennials. Lockdown? No studios or filming outdoors allowed? No problem. This was on Day One of the SA lockdown so our kitchen had to do, with me filming on my son’s phone. 

You’ve probably heard of Happy Earth People. In March 2019 they were embroiled in a brouhaha with Woolies about their pulse-based pasta. Local food businesses take Woolies on and win

Founder Taleszia Pillay, who handles sales, marketing, content, PR and communications, says the small business is in a much happier place now and supplies Pick n Pay nationally.

“Before Pick n Pay it was just Candice Heath (responsible for finance and operations) and myself. We’ve since expanded to a team of four in-office and five in our manufacturing team.

Happy Earth People Candice Heath and Taleszia Pillay at Pick n Pay. (Photo: Supplied)

How has the national lockdown affected Happy Earth People?

“Lockdown has affected production because we are split with the manufacturing team going into work as necessary and the office staff working from their homes,” says Pillay.

“Covid-19 and lockdown has had a huge impact on our business and sales, we’ve had to really focus our efforts online as we are advised to stay home. Initially, panic buying was really tough on us because we were unable to compete with bigger brands. Fortunately, we have remained positive, with the help of our loyal customers. It’s been amazing to see just how much of a difference we are able to make when supporting local businesses,” says Pillay.

Happy earth vision 

Pillay was meditating when the idea for Happy Earth People “pasta made from pulses” came to her.

“I started Happy Earth People after watching a film on climate change called The 11th Hour, says Pillay. “I got home and found myself in a heap. I had just lost my grandmother and I felt overwhelmed with the pain of losing her, combined with the glaring truth of an ecological meltdown. I sat down to calm myself in meditation and that’s when I thought of ‘Happy Earth People’.

“I immediately Googled the URL and www.happyearthpeople.com was available, so I registered the domain.”

Pillay didn’t always have a passion for pulses.

“I grew up eating pulses, but I wasn’t always enthusiastic about my Indian heritage,” says Pillay. “It was something I struggled with at school. Growing up in suburban Johannesburg, starting grade one in 1994, I was the only Indian person in my grade.

“My grandmother taught me about the magic of cooking. I will never forget how she would lovingly grow her own chillies in her garden, to roast and grind into a masala. This would transform into the most delicious curry you’ve ever tasted.

“My love of food comes from my grandmother and my Indian heritage. She was one of those people that fed the nation, always travelling with pots of biryani or lentil dhal. She was generous and kind, I never left her house having not eaten a meal.”

Pillay, who lives in Tamboerskloof with her husband, was working in Thailand when she received word that her grandmother had cancer. “I returned to South Africa to nurse my grandmother and during that time I learnt about the devastating effects of toxicity.

“After her death, I packed up my life in Joburg and drove to Cape Town in the tiny Kia Picanto my gran left to me. I was determined to heal the world through food,” says Pillay.

The next step was contacting school friend Heath, who had also moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town.  “Candice, an organisational and finance whizz,” says Pillay, “had made the move for health reasons.” 

Heath, who ran a construction company in Johannesburg for four years, adds “my unhealthy lifestyle in Joburg caught up with me”.

“I left the company I had built up and moved to Cape Town to manage a health company.”

Heath soon realised that moving to Cape Town and doing a different job “was not enough to fix me”.

“After a couple of hospital visits and an appointment for my first operation at the age of 25, I realised I needed to adjust my lifestyle. Completely. I turned to a plant-based diet, did yoga five days a week and quit my job.”

The results were almost immediate.

“I lost 10 kg within three months and all the pain and health issues literally vanished. I did not eat many legumes growing up, but once my plant-based journey began, I quickly realised how magnificent these beans were, giving me the protein I needed as well as nearly all the essential vitamins and minerals,” says Heath.

“Feeling first hand how amazing I felt eating them was enough evidence for me, people need to be eating more of them!

“It was at this point that Taleszia approached me to join her on the Happy Earth People mission.”

Happy coincidence

A salad made with Happy Earth People chickpea pasta, broccoli, green beans, avocado and apple. (Photo: Michelle Parkin Photography)

“I told Candice I wanted to turn lentils into pasta but, more importantly, I wanted to contribute to the world in a meaningful way,” says Pillay.

“Candice said ‘Sounds great’ and the two of us rolled out our very first lentil pasta with an empty wine bottle. We signed up for a pasta-making workshop and that was it. We took all our savings and bought a tiny Kenwood machine.

“We pushed and pulled pasta day and night in the back room of Candice’s brother’s IT office. Making enough lentil pasta to sell our wares at the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) market at Granger Bay at the Waterfront in Cape Town every Saturday.

“I believe that it is possible to create products that improve people’s lives and nourish the planet. It hasn’t been easy making every decision based on our social responsibility as a manufacturer. It takes a lot longer than it ordinarily would to release products, because there is a huge amount of development that goes into them, especially when it comes to sustainable packaging and natural, wholefood ingredients without preservatives. But at the end of the day, we want to pave the way for other manufacturers to do the same. We have to start somewhere, even if it’s the road less travelled for now.

“Our biggest market is parents, who want to feed their children healthy, protein-rich pasta. It’s an easy alternative that children and families love. It cooks in 6-8 minutes, just add a pesto, a sauce or even keep it to a simple olive oil for seriously fussy eaters. It still counts as a serving of veggies.”

I can relate to the challenges of getting small children to eat healthier food. When my oldest son was a toddler his evening meal – every night – was a bowl of pasta with grated cheese (on the side). Oh how we pleaded for him to vary his menu. Twenty years later this formerly picky eater is now whipping up tasty vegan dishes in our lockdown kitchen and – the irony – gently encouraging me to eat more veg and Stay Away From the Carbs. Or at least go for the “good carbs”. 

Happy in lockdown 

I’m curious about how Pillay and Heath are getting on with working from home, primarily because I’ve been working from home for years and my so-called routine is laughable.

My “ideal” routine goes something like this: Meditation (preceded by a glass of hot water with lemon juice), exercise, nutritionally dense vegan breakfast including fresh fruit, work, take yoga break and prepare nutritionally balanced vegan lunch, and so on and so forth. I have sporadically done some of these things (especially the ones involving food and rest) but never managed to get it together to do all in one day. 

Pillay’s typical day working from her home is impressive. 

“I start my day with a prayer or meditation,” says Pillay. “I also enjoy a morning run through the Company’s Garden and back up to Tamboerskloof. I am so grateful for being able to get outside and have been going for runs or bike rides in the area.

“I like to eat fruit in the morning, and usually have a smoothie bowl, packed with berries, hemp seeds, chia seeds, some kind of nut butter and granola.

“I have been making lunch my biggest meal of the day and keeping dinner really simple and light, our pasta is often a go-to with loads of veggies. Work days are jam-packed and there isn’t a dull moment. It’s been a huge adjustment (working from home) and, to be honest, I often find myself working a lot later into the evenings than I usually would.

“I look forward to my cacao lattes. I blend a tablespoon of raw cacao, almond milk and honey in a blender, with a pinch of cinnamon. It’s a great afternoon pick-me-up.”

Pillay is supporting small businesses in her area. “I love doing my shopping at NUDE Foods in Cape Town, you can catch a lovely spot of sunshine on their outdoor benches and all the products you find there are delightfully zero-waste.”

Heath’s daily lockdown routine is equally impressive although more family-focused. She lives in Somerset West on a private estate with her husband and daughter.

“My husband and I start our mornings off early before our daughter wakes up, we either do an hour home workout/yoga or alternate going for a run. When Emily wakes up we have tea together and then take her for a walk around the lake to see the ducks.

“My husband has not been able to work during lockdown, so he does daddy daycare while I work from our home office. This will soon become a 50/50 split as he returns to work.

“Having a daily routine and dedicated workspace with plants has definitely helped me cope.

“I keep a big jug of water on my desk to make sure I get all my fluids in for the day. I make a point to not eat lunch in front of my computer and take a break, taking a breather outside if the weather permits.

“I appreciate being able to see my daughter and husband so much more and not having the daily rush of getting to meetings, swimming classes and school drops-offs. Being forced to slow down definitely has its perks. Also the early morning exercise allows me to see the most incredible sunrises every morning.”

“We have some great local shops and often visit Vredenhof Organic Estate in Somerset West, it has a lovely shop with organic fresh fruit and veggies for sale.

Lourensford Estate, also in Somerset West, has beautiful gardens for kids to play and a yoga studio that offers family yoga on a Sunday (sadly, not during lockdown).

“When we’re allowed, we enjoy going to Strand Beach Promenade, a beautiful long stretch of beach with warm sea water (promenade is only accessible if it’s 5km from you).

Mary Ann’s Emporium & Eatery in Gordon’s Bay has a great vegan buffet (not during lockdown) but you can order online.

“I come from a family of amazing cooks; I would spend every evening in the kitchen with my mom or dad preparing meals. My love for cooking has transformed from cooking tasty meals to healthy delicious meals that my family will love while getting in all the good stuff.

“I recently came up with this easy recipe, and it hides the greens really well. My daughter loves it,” says Heath.

Happy Earth People Roasted Tomato, Red Onion and Spinach sauce

6 ripe tomatoes

1 red onion

4 cloves of garlic

2 Tbsp oregano

Drizzle of olive oil

A few grinds of salt

2 cups spinach

1 box Happy Earth People red lentil pasta

Method

Chop tomatoes, onion, garlic and toss together in a roasting pan with oregano, salt and olive oil. Roast for 40 minutes and leave it to cool a bit. Steam spinach (for less pungent taste for little ones)

Boil water, and using a timer, cook Happy Earth People pasta for 8 minutes.

Blend roasted veg and spinach, pour over strained pasta and serve.

Happy Earth People Butter(nut) Chickpea Pasta

“I think of my grandmother when I make this recipe,” says Pillay. “It’s a plant-based version of Butter Chicken.”

1 medium onion chopped

6 ripened tomatoes

1 box Happy Earth People Red Lentil pasta

2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp paprika

1 tbsp curry powder or curry paste

1 can coconut milk

¼ cup tomato paste

¼ cup smooth peanut butter

1 tbsp tamari

Coriander

2 cups of roast butternut

Handful of pecan nuts (optional)

Method

Add chopped butternut to a roasting tray with a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, until cooked and slightly caramelised.

Add the onion to a non-stick frying pan and cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the cumin seeds, paprika, turmeric, curry powder, a good dash of salt and pepper.

Stir for a further 2 minutes, until the spices and onions form a paste. Add a little water if the mixture becomes too sticky or dry.

Add the tomatoes, tops removed, to a high-speed blender. Blend to make a fresh tomato puree. Add puree to onion and spice paste. Stir for 2 minutes. Let the tomatoes cook.

Add Happy Earth People Red Lentil pasta to boiling water, cook for 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Whilst the pasta cooks finish the sauce – pour in the coconut milk together with the tomato paste and peanut butter. Simmer on a medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add more water if it starts to get too thick or dry.

Stir in the tamari and serve immediately.

Top with roasted butternut, coriander and pecan nuts.

I have to ask: What makes Happy Earth People happy?

“Deep breaths and moments of gratitude for all life’s little joys make me happy. At the moment it’s sunshine, stretches and my family who I would give anything to hug,” says Pillay.

“My family. Seeing my daughter laugh. My business. Loving what I do every day and knowing it is making a positive impact on the world,”says Heath. DM/TGIFood

Disclosure: My son, Sam Chambers, handles marketing for Happy Earth People and has whipped up recipes in our kitchen using the pulsing pasta. I benefit when I get to eat the food from shoots.

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