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When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020, the Hemlee family huddled around a dry erase board in their Denver home. Cecilia, who lived in Puerto Rico until 2002, and Josh, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, were trying to come up with a name for their long-dreamed-of project: a program to promote their passion for the planet, mindfulness and attention and food. With the help of their two sons, 13-year-old Ismael and 10-year-old Mateo, they scribbled and deleted several different ideas until the boys said, “Wait… we’re Trini Rican.” The name stuck and the business was born.
through Trini Rican Vegan, Cecilia and Josh create popular recipes for the West Indian community with a vegan twist and share them via a blog, YouTube channel and social media. Examples include tacos with minced jackfruit like pork, seasoned with tumeric, cilantro, and cumin, or pan-fried sobao without lard, a semi-sweet bread that is a staple Puerto Rican side dish. The couple went vegan about six years ago after a long stint as vegetarians, and their recipes are inspired by family recipes and their Caribbean heritage.
“For Trini Rican Vegan, we wanted to show people that they can still have flavor profiles that are similar to those in our countries of origin, while at the same time being mindful of our planet,” says Cecilia. “[Trini Rican Vegan] it will be a way to share with others that we can live a mindful life while enjoying all our Caribbean herbs and spices and all the comforts that the West Indian diet brings us.”
Josh and Cecilia met in Puerto Rico in 1998, where Josh came to study for a Spanish language degree. The couple began experimenting with a more plant-based diet, and they moved to the continental US in the early 2000s. The two spent time in Columbia, South Carolina, where they had their children and continued their vegetarian diet. But when the couple moved to Denver in 2013, they decided to fully commit to a vegan lifestyle.
“We were in Colombia, which is very traditional with their food and I’ve always felt that others“, says Cecilia. “I didn’t feel like I could live my authentic self, and I always made excuses whenever we went out to restaurants and cookouts so as not to upset others with my dairy-free requests. And it wasn’t until I moved here to Denver that I said, ‘You know what? Let’s do what we want to do.’ And little by little we removed all the remains of the vegetarian diet and switched to a vegan lifestyle.”
After founding Trini Rican Vegan, the Hemlees began uploading their original recipes and cooking tutorials to their website and social media accounts. Some of their favorite recipes are for roasted red lentils with basmati rice and sweet fried plantains; spicy red beans, a Caribbean Sunday lunch bursting with flavor from green peppers, garlic, paprika and sofrito; and, of course, their ever-popular jackfruit tacos. In December 2021, Trini Rican Vegan hosted their first virtual cooking workshop with the Denver Public Library to celebrate Kwanzaa, and more demonstrations at the Denver and Broomfield Public Libraries (both in person and virtually) have followed throughout the year. 2022.
The duo’s mission? It is wide. It’s partly to educate foodies about the vegan lifestyle, partly to share West Indian cuisine with the Denver community, and partly to bring together different cultures (say, Trinidadian and Puerto Rican). And while they’ve started baking coconut, a sweet Trinidadian breakfast bread with nutmeg and cinnamon, and callaloo, a Trinidadian Sunday lunch made from leafy greens, okra and other vegetables, the Hemlees don’t see Trini Rican Vegan stopping with breakfast fee.
“In the future, content will grow from being just food,” says Cecilia. “We want to talk about care, we want to talk about zero waste, we want to talk about ways we can fight this battle against climate change. All this emphasizing who we are as people. … Trini Rican Vegan isn’t just about the food; it’s about what we’ve learned by adopting this vegan lifestyle.
“You don’t need to compromise; you don’t have to give up the things you love,” continues Cecilia. “You can still have pan sobao. You can still eat all the Indian delicacies that are staples of the Trinidadian diet. You just have to substitute some ingredients and be aware of how you get your ingredients.”
While Trini Rican Vegan does not serve food to the community, Josh and Cecilia are currently working on a cookbook featuring their vegan Caribbean recipes. The release date is still to be determined, but here is one of the Trini Rican Vegan recipes that you can whip up as soon as possible.
Puerto Rican Recipe for Pan Sobao
This soft and slightly sweet island bread is a popular complement to home cooked meals.
- 1 tablespoon. yeast
- 1 tablespoon. sugar
- 1 tablespoon. olive oil
- 4 cups of flour
- 1 tablespoon. baking soda
- 1 spoon. salt
- 2 tablespoons. oil
- 1/2–1 cup water
- Combine the yeast, sugar, and ½ cup water in a bowl and let rest for 15 minutes until the yeast blooms.
- In another container, sift the flour and combine it with salt and baking powder.
- Add the yeast mixture to a mixer. Add the dry ingredients one spoonful at a time. Add water until a ball of dough begins to form. Scrape the sides as needed.
- Cover and let it rest for an hour. Place the baked dough on a clean, floured surface. Divide into two equal parts. Roll the dough into a large rectangle about ½ inch thick.
- Place the dough on a floured baking sheet. Let the dough rest for 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving with avocado, butter or cheese.