Food is political. Bryant Terry, cookbook author ( The Inspired Vegan , Vegan Soul Kitchen, Grub) and food activist, understands on a profound level that the choices you make with the food that you eat are a reflection of economics, community, and options, not just something as mundane as taste. His new book, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed is radical and important in the way that he makes creative, inventive, and delicious vegan dishes inspired by Africa and the African diaspora.
We talked with Terry, currently on a lengthy American tour (check out the dates here), about how he got started, and he gave us some exclusive recipes from the new book that you can make tonight. Read on for savory grits with slow-cooked collard greens, ginger, jalapeño, and red bell pepper, plus tofu curry with mustard greens.
Flavorwire: How did you start vegan cooking?
Bryant Terry: My work actually started off as a grassroots activist. I went to cooking school, but I went to school for the express purpose of starting a program in which I was cooking with young people to get them started in eating healthy.
I was moved by this reality of low-income people of color, and I really wanted to work to get young people in these communities cooking so we could follow their leads, teaching people basic skills like cooking their food from scratch. I was very clear that one of the most powerful ways to get young people excited about this was to have them work with the food themselves, taking them to the farmers markets. They made all these different things and tried all these new foods, and, because they made them, they were more invested in eating healthy. The reason I started writing cookbooks was because it would allow me to have a national platform. We’re living with this problem exponentially; this is a country that’s getting sicker and fatter. I really wanted to make an intervention, and one of the most powerful ways to do that was to make flavorful, plant-strong, vegetable-forward food. Most people are driven by flavor, and I wanted to show them that we can have food that’s healthful and beautifully presented. That’s really in line with my ethics and the ethics around people eating.
How did “cooking from the African dispora” change your approach in this book? What kind of spices were you into?
I was able to explore such a diversity of flavor profiles, spices, vegetables, herbs, greens, and fruits — just starting with the African continent itself which is vast, and moving from there and traveling to the Caribbean and the [American] South and places where Africans have traveled historically. It was great to take the approach of a collagist with this book. Recut, repaste, and remake these dishes from all over the world.
It’s something as simple as taking the berber spice blend, which is used in a lot of Ethiopian cooking, and using it as the foundation for my Black-Eyed Pea Sliders — one of the emblematic dishes of the American South. For me, it’s kind of like clashing: here’s East Africa meeting the American South. I was able to do that throughout the book, which is various culinary mashups.
Using the Maque Choux, which is this traditional corn and tomato vegetable mixture, as a filling for Jamaican veggie patties — that was one of my staple foods when I was broke in grad school at NYU. It was cheap, it was filling, and that was the approach for the book: melding and marinating all these different cultures of foods throughout the globe and highlighting the complexity of foods from people of African descent and bringing them into the consciousness of eaters. For me, its about celebrating those foods for everyone. I want to create a book for everyone, and a book that people of African descent could see in the bookstore and be excited about.
Click through for two exclusive recipes from Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan.
SAVORY GRITS with SLOW-COOKED COLLARD GREENS COLLARD GREENS, GINGER, JALAPENO, RED BELL PEPPER
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings SOUNDTRACK: “The Funk” by Oh No from Dr. No’s Ethiopium
INGREDIENTS GREENS 1 tablespoon plus ¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt 1 pound collard greens, cut into bite-size pieces 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 red onion, finely chopped ½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger ¼ teaspoon chili powder 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 cup vegetable stock, homemade (page 42) or store-bought 1 large red bell pepper, diced 1 jalapeno chile, seeded and minced
GRITS 4 cups vegetable stock, homemade (page 42) or store-bought 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt ¾ cup yellow corn grits ½ cup Creamed Cashews (page 143) ¼ cup packed minced flat-leaf parsley Hot pepper vinegar, homemade (page 20) or store-bought, for serving Freshly ground black pepper
To make the greens, put about 12 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt, then add the greens and cook uncovered until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain well, pressing the greens to extract as much liquid as possible. When cool enough to handle, transfer to a cutting board and chop finely.
Warm the oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion, ginger, chili powder, cayenne, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sauté until the onion is soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the greens and stock and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender, about 45 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper and jalapeño. Increase the heat to medium-high, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes. Taste and season with more salt if desired.
While the greens are simmering, make the grits. Put 3 cups of the stock and the salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Slowly pour in the grits, whisking constantly until no lumps remain. Return to a boil, then immediately decrease the heat to low. Simmer uncovered, whisking occasionally to prevent sticking, until the grits have absorbed most of the liquid and are beginning to thicken, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining 1 cup stock and simmer for 10 minutes, whisking occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in the cashew cream, cover, and simmer, whisking frequently, until the grits are soft and fluffy, about 30 minutes.
Add the parsley and whisk well. The grits should be firm and creamy. Add a bit of water to thin them if necessary.
To serve, top the grits with the greens, using a slotted spoon so that the liquid drains from the greens. Add a splash of hot-pepper vinegar and season with black pepper.
TOFU CURRY WITH MUSTARD GREENS
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings SOUNDTRACK: “Green Chimneys” by Thelonious Monk from Underground
INGREDIENTS 14 to 16 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil 3⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt 1⁄4 teaspoon mustard seeds 1 cup finely diced white onion 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger 1 1⁄2 teaspoons ground turmeric 1⁄2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted (see sidebar, page 9) and ground 6 cardamom pods, toasted (see sidebar, page 9), then seeds removed and ground 1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder 1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger 1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juices 1 heaping tablespoon chunky peanut butter 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and minced 3 cups vegetable stock, homemade (page 42) or store-bought 12 ounces mustard greens, stemmed and cut into bite-size pieces 2 bay leaves 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
[Terry: I was inspired to make this dish after seeing a recipe for Tanzanian fish curry in The Taste of Africa, by Rosamund Grant and Josephine Bacon. My version is pretty straightforward: the tofu makes it hearty and satisfying, the greens are tender and give the dish a nourishing feel, and the curried broth brings everything together.]
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Put the tofu in a bowl, drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Gently toss the tofu with clean hands until evenly coated. Transfer to the lined baking sheet, spreading the tofu in a single layer. Bake, turning once after 15 minutes, for 30 minutes, until firm.
Meanwhile, warm the remaining 3 table-spoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until they pop, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onion and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and sauté until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic, fresh ginger, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, chili powder, black pepper, garlic powder, and ground ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, peanut butter, and jalapeño and stir until well combined. Stir in the stock, mustard greens, and bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
Gently stir in the tofu and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves. Taste and season with more salt and black pepper if desired. Serve garnished with the cilantro.