TORONTO — As immigrants from Egypt, "Aladdin" star Mena Massoud's parents worked hard to establish themselves in any job they could get when they first moved the family to Markham, Ont.
His father, a satellite engineer in Cairo, first delivered pizzas in their new home city, then worked in a VHS factory and eventually managed a refurbishment centre for Rogers. His mother worked in a coffee shop.
They put in long hours on the job but when they got home, the whole family came together to relax in the kitchen and savour the aroma of his mom's dishes: the fried onions and tomato sauce in her koshari; the cabbage of her mahashi; the eggplant in the moussaka.
"Our life at home very much revolved around food, and very much revolved around cooking," Massoud said in an interview.
"My mom also had people over often. She was known to be one of the best cooks in our Egyptian community. So I really learned a lot from her just watching her."
Massoud pays homage to his mother with his new cookbook, "Evolving Vegan" (Tiller Press), which has some of her traditional Egyptian, meat-free recipes as well as some of his own dishes from his plant-based diet he started in 2015.
Stemming from his Evolving Vegan company he founded in 2018, the book also has bits about his life and recipes inspired by plant-based restaurants in more than 10 cities he's visited, including Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland and New York.
"I wanted to show people that no matter where you travel in North America, or really the world, you can find plant-based options," said Massoud, who also plans to create and host a travel food series stemming from "Evolving Vegan," through his Press Play Productions.
The Los Angeles-based actor started eating a plant-based diet in 2015 after he and his two best friends/roommates in Toronto looked into the effects of animal products on health and the environment. The three encouraged each other, and Massoud began by cutting out red meat, then eggs, chicken and other animal-derived foods.
"I just started noticing the effects right away," he said. "I had more energy, I felt lighter. I was making more progress at the gym than I ever had before."
Massoud's family is Coptic Orthodox Christian and goes meat-free a few times a year for religious reasons, so it wasn't too difficult for him. He's also cognizant of his dietary needs and gets his blood tested every three to six months to make sure he's getting enough minerals and vitamins.
But his family initially scoffed at his plant-based pursuits and didn't take them seriously.
Massoud recalled the first Easter dinner his mom cooked after he'd cut out meat. None of her dishes suited his diet and Massoud said he would just eat rice. She thought he would cave and eat her Easter offerings once he saw them — but he didn't.
"I sat down at the table and I just had rice, and she started crying," he said. "She thought I was bluffing when I wasn't, so she started crying and she was like, 'Now there's nothing for you to eat.'"
It wasn't the first — nor the biggest — shock Massoud delivered to his parents with a major life decision. That time was when he told them he wanted to be an actor and not the doctor he'd been studying to be in the neuroscience program at the University of Toronto.
"I was sitting in a calculus class one day and I was like, 'I can't do this the rest of my life. This is not what I want to be doing,'" Massoud said, noting he'd been performing in school plays and was head of his high school improv team.
"In truth, I was doing it for my parents and my family. I wasn't doing it for me. I never wanted to be a doctor. I always wanted to act. As an immigrant, you're kind of taught that the arts are only a hobby, they're not a career choice. But when I went to U of T, I had just had enough at that point and decided I was going to live out my dream and not somebody else's."
Massoud switched to the theatre program at Ryerson University and has since become global star, landing the lead in Disney's 2019 live-action "Aladdin" and other credits including the Hulu series "Reprisal."
"A theme throughout my life is I get under underestimated quite a lot," he said with a laugh. "But that's OK. I'm used to it now."
With his Evolving Vegan company and its Facebook page, Massoud aims to provide a community for people to have judgment-free conversations about plant-based living.
He's not telling people they have to give up animal products 100 per cent, he said, noting he still wears leather on red carpets sometimes.
"I know any time a celebrity goes from vegan to reverting back to eating meat, it's like this huge moment for people like, 'See it doesn't work,' but diets are ever changing and there's no right or wrong," Massoud said.
"You have to make the decision that's right for you. But that's the point of Evolving Vegan. There's no right or wrong, there's no this or that. You can fall in the middle somewhere. And whatever you feel like is the best for your body is what you should be doing."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2020.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press