For a lot of people, the thought of vegan cuisine seems bland and unappealing. Chef and food justice activist Bryant Terry is putting an end to that with his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan. Don’t look for meatless versions of soul food favorites here—no macaroni and soy cheese, faux fried chicken or tofu barbecue ribs. For his fourth book, Terry goes global, tapping African food ways from the continent, Caribbean, Latin America and the American South and puts them in flavorful vegan context. “I want to bring Afro-diasporic food from the margins to the center of people’s consciousness,” says the Memphis-born, Oakland-based chef. During a recent chat at New York’s Union Square Greenmarket, Terry shared his food roots, cooking inspirations and kitchen must-haves.
EBONY: Did you gravitate to the kitchen as a boy?
BRYANT TERRY: I was always interested in cooking, and I think it’s because my grandparents really embraced my presence in the kitchen. All the grandkids had to [work in] my paternal grandfather’s garden, helping, harvesting, weeding, shelling, shucking and doing all the things we had to do to prepare meals. Also, I’d be in the kitchen with my maternal grandmother a lot. She cooked everything from scratch and canned, pickled and preserved. She practically had a mini-orchard in her backyard with plum, pear, peach and nectarine trees. So that’s always been the foundation for me.
EBONY: What’s the inspiration behind Afro-Vegan?
BT: I really wanted to explore the diversity and complexity of Afro-diasporic food, the ingredients and flavor profiles of classic dishes from the African continent, the Caribbean, Latin America and the American South. The visual artist Romare Bearden was also a big inspiration. The best way for me to really grasp the culinary influences of the African diaspora was to approach it like a collagist, cutting, pasting and reworking.
EBONY: In the book’s introduction, you say Afro-diasporic foods have the potential to save our lives. Elaborate on that claim.
BT: It’s clear that African Americans are suffering from some of the highest rates of preventable diet-related illnesses that are not only connected to the economic and geographical barriers that many people have, such as access to affordable fresh foods in their communities, but also to the plethora of the worst foods and overconsuming them. My work is about taking us back to the root and really reminding us that people of African descent—African people—are the original green people, the original farm-to-table and garden-to-table people. I want us to re-embrace those roots for better physical health, but also for better spiritual health, to reconnect with the land and to reconnect with each other.
EBONY: Describe your recipes.
BT: I’m interested in creative ways to pay homage to classic dishes, having something that’s reminiscent of the flavors, textures and ingredients but making them forward and modern. For example, irio, one of the staples of the Kikuyo people in Kenya, is composed of potatoes that have been mashed with peas and corn mixed into it. I was inspired by that and tostones, fried mashed plantains from Latin America, to do a deconstructed version of irio using roasted new potatoes that I mashed like testones but reroasted instead of frying them. I then topped it with peas, corn, herbs and spices that I sauteed in olive oil and finished it with a chili garlic oil. Same ingredients, similar profile in terms of flavor but a different form. That’s the kind of creative approach I brought to Afro-Vegan.
EBONY: Afro-Vegan is so visually attractive, and the photos and artwork are so apropos. Also, the musical selections you list as soundtracks for each recipe as well as books and films are a nice touch.
BT: I wrote in my acknowledgements that it takes a village to write a cookbook. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it truly was a process of bringing together so much of my community. I was happy to get Paige Green, a San Francisco-based photographer, who did the food and a lot of the lifestyle photos. Toni Tajema, the art director, is from my publisher, Ten Speed Press. I knew her work and was clear when I came in that I wanted her. I felt that using textile prints on the spine and throughout the book would bring a lot to it visually. Sophy Wong, a friend who’s gotten all these fabrics from Kenya and Tanzania, let me borrow some.
Friends who have some connection to music shared their loves and tastes. Some of the recipes have a suggested film or book as well. If the spirit moved me and I felt like something more could be said about what I was trying to convey with the recipe, I added them.
EBONY: What basic items would you recommend that people have in their kitchens?
BT: A mortar and pestle for sure. I have a collection of mortars and pestles from places throughout the world, from Ghana to Puerto Rico to Oaxca, Mexico. They’re this beautiful symbol, this tool that cultures throughout the globe have used to process and connect with food.
I always encourage people to use whole spices. It might be convenient to use pre-ground spices, but a lot of that stuff has been sitting on the shelf for months and just loses its punch. The taste of fresh herbs and spices is incomparable.
Check out a few of our favorite recipes from Afro Vegan below!
POMEGRANATE-PEACH BARBECUE SAUCE
Being from Memphis, I’ve been a bit nervous about crafting a recipe for barbecue sauce. People take barbecue seriously in my hometown, and from all available evidence, Memphis-style barbecue sauce is better than any other. (I know, those are fightin’ words.) In the past, I’ve created a barbecue-inspired marinade in which to bake tofu or tempeh, but this is my first attempt at making a proper sauce.
Yield: about 2-1/2 cups
Soundtrack: “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Isaac Hayes from Black Moses
Book: To Make Our World Anew: Volume I: A History of African Americans to 1880, edited by Robin D. G. Kelley and Early Lewis
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1⁄2 cup finely chopped red onion
- 1⁄4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup diced peeled peaches
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1⁄4 cup water
- 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1⁄4 cup pomegranate
- 3 tablespoons freshly
- squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons tamari
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 to 3 tablespoons chopped chipotle chile in adobo sauce
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh sage
Warm the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, salt, and cayenne and sauté until the onion is soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.
Transfer to a blender. Add the peaches, tomato sauce, water, vinegar, pomegranate molasses, lime juice, tamari, tomato paste, and chipotle chile and process until smooth.
Pour the sauce back into the saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 20 minutes. Stir in the sage and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and season with more salt if desired. Use immediately or store in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
SWEET POTATO and LIMA BEAN TAGINE (Yield: 4-6 Servings)
Tagine, a popular dish in North Africa, is named after the earthenware pot in which these stews are traditionally cooked. This is a simple version that combines ingredients from the American South with herbs and spices used in traditional North African cooking. Like most stews, this dish tastes even better after the flavors have melded overnight.
Soundtrack: “Ya Messinagh” by Tinariwen (featuring The Dirty Dozen Brass Band) from Tassili
- 2⁄3 cup dried lima beans, sorted and soaked in water overnight
- 1 (3-inch) piece of kombu
- 1 1⁄2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
- Scant 2 cups vegetable stock, homemade (page 42) or store-bought
- Large pinch of saffron threads
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup finely diced yellow onion
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon agave nectar
- 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 1⁄4 cup packed chopped cilantro
Drain the lima beans and rinse them well. Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the kombu and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer until just tender but still firm, 25 to 45 minutes. Check the beans often to ensure they don’t overcook, skimming off any foam and discarding any floating skins. Stir in 1 teaspoon of the salt and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain in a colander, remove the kombu, and rinse the beans under cold water.
Pour the stock into a medium bowl and crumble the saffron into it.
Warm the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and sauté until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in the stock. Add the sweet potatoes, agave nectar, and cinnamon stick and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
Stir in the lima beans and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick. Season with white pepper and, if desired, more salt. Serve garnished with the cilantro and offer the harissa alongside.