Amongst all the new plant-based cookbooks, meal kit services and Instagram posts, the boom of plant-based and vegan diets isn’t going anywhere — the global vegan food market is expected rise 10 percent each year, reaching $24 billion by 2026. But there’s an oft-ignored sector that has long been a driver in the vegan movement: Black vegans.
Search plant-based or vegan, and you’ll find images of yoga pants-clad, blonde women shopping at farmers’ markets; avocado toast in trendy California cafés; veggie spring rolls photographed on eclectic handmade ceramics. The new vegan cookbooks “Vegetable Kingdom” by Bryant Terry and “Living Lively” by Haile Thomas are two of the latest to celebrate a way of cooking that goes beyond this stereotypical (and mostly white) “plant-based” aesthetic or market trend.
Full disclosure: As a white woman who eats primarily vegetarian, I admit I naively assumed the term “Black vegan,” was simply a descriptor of Black people cooking and eating vegan food. Instead, Black veganism has intersectional roots and motivations that are more expansive than animal welfare, environmentalism and personal health, including anti-racist advocacy and food sovereignty and community health and healing. Black and African vegan recipes can celebrate the mostly plant-based diets of pre-colonial West and Central Africa, as well as the religious customs of groups like Orthodox Christian Ethiopians and the Nation of Islam. “As their identities and communities are threatened across other facets of society, diet choice has become an important avenue for vegans of color to express, reclaim and protect their identities,” writes Thrillist’s Khushbu Shah in her article exploring mainstream blindness to vegans of color.
The roots of the Black vegan movement in America can be traced back to at least 1915 and Black humanitarian activists of the Civil Rights Movement, like Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Angela Davis, promoted plant-based diets. But many of today’s Black vegan leaders come by way of the music and entertainment industry, with stars like the Wu Tang Clan members, Cardi Bi, Oprah and Jay-Z and Beyoncé all promoting vegan lifestyle choices. Senator Cory Booker brought the diet into the political conversation, while Black athletes like Australian sprinter Morgan Mitchell and US weightlifter Kendrick Farris promote its health advantages. Thanks to the many pathways to Black veganism and this star-studded support, the Black vegan demographic is growing faster than any other; three times faster than American veganism overall.
Neither Bryant Terry or Haile Thomas market their new cookbooks specifically using the label Black vegan, however each touch on these deep roots and multilayered motivations. Terry, a food activist and current chef-in-residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, has widely explored veganism in his prior four cookbooks, including “Vegan Soul Kitchen” and “Afro Vegan.” He wrote “Vegetable Kingdom,” published February 2020, for his daughters, wanting to showcase plant diversity through the lens of their multicultural Afro-Asian identity, merging the cooking techniques and flavors of the African Diaspora with his wife’s Asian heritage. “Educating my girls about and introducing them to food and flavors of the African Diaspora… helps them learn about and take pride in the contributions of their ancestors,” Terry writes in the cookbook’s introduction, “and it celebrates foods of the African Diaspora in a world where European cuisine is at the center and Black food is often at the margins.”
Vegan soul food recipes like his sweet potato and asparagus po’boy (recipe below), millet roux mushroom gumbo, and dirty cauliflower “rice” pay homage to his Memphis upbringing and time spent in New Orleans, while dishes like jollof-inspired rice and coconut curry crusted cauliflower honor traditional Central and West African recipes. Skipping meat substitutes, Terry focuses on fresh ingredients, bright spices and sound techniques to create his flavorful vegan recipes. He uses heritage grains like teff and fonio (both native to Africa) for hearty flavor; slathers vegetables with jerk marinades, Creole sauce or Blackened seasoning for a zesty boost; and uses cooking methods like ash-roasting and pickling to add bold depth to his food.
Terry includes a playlist in the cookbook — an idea he started with “Vegan Soul Kitchen” — tying his cooking to some of his favorite musicians including Run DMC, Sarah Vaughn and Dezarie. “The music that moves me and the recipes I create are intrinsically linked,” he writes introducing the playlist. “My earliest memories include my maternal grandmother singing in her kitchen… mom crooning while making dinner, and my aunts and uncles harmonizing at family gatherings.”
With “Vegetable Kingdom” Terry passes that love of food, music and pride in Black veganism along — his daughters taste-tested all of the book’s 150-plus recipes, learning new flavors and tastes along with way. Not only does the book have his own kid’s-approved stamp, Terry says these recipes are also a great way for adults to explore Black vegan flavors and cooking concepts. “You may not have tried (or heard of) kohlrabi,” he writes, “but I promise you’ll be hooked once you simply coal-roast it and serve it with West African-inspired peanut sauce.”
Unlike Terry’s daughters, 19-year-old Haile Thomas’ vegan cooking isn’t influenced by her early childhood food memories, but instead ones that she and her parents learned together later on. The Thomases adopted a plant-based diet after Haile’s father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2009, deciding to focus on food rather than medicine to treat his disease. After her father recovered, Thomas began speaking about food and nutrition, eventually starting her nonprofit HAPPY, which educates kids about their food choices and personal health through after school programs and camps.
But her interest in veganism now goes deeper than her individual family’s health. “It breaks my heart knowing traditional soul food — the dishes that brought joy and created community in times of deep despair and trauma — also created and continue to create internal trauma,” Thomas recently wrote in an Instagram post discussing access and inequality in the food system.“Regular consumption of fried, sugary, fatty ingredients found in soul food often contribute to disproportionately high occurrences of [health problems]. Beyond access, I want us to broaden our horizons on what we think of as “soul food.” By tapping into the love and care intrinsic in food prepared by [people of color], as well as the… healing of plants and nourishing foods, we can experience true soul food.”
Recipe: Roasted Sweet Potato and Asparagus Po’boy
Bryant Terry, “Vegetable Kingdom”
Makes 4 sandwiches
When I lived in New Orleans, ordering a vegetarian po’boy meant you would get bread, mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce, and bland tomatoes. This recipe is the type of sandwich that I wish my crew and I could have eaten back in the day. I started conceiving of this recipe in 2012 when I sandwiched some leftover candied sweet potatoes from my book The Inspired Vegan between bread for lunch. While sweet, the Garnet yams also had a savory essence from the miso, molasses, sesame oil, and tamari in the marinade (in case there is any confusion, while labeled “yams,” Jewel and Garnet yams are actually sweet potatoes). Since most folks can’t imagine a po’boy without some deep-fried element, I was reluctant to share a recipe for one that was stuffed with sweet potatoes. That changed when I ran across a po’boy on the Food
& Wine website created by chef Kevin Nashan that included roasted sweet potatoes dusted with Cajun seasoning. I coat mine in blackened seasoning instead, and before roasting, I parboil them.
In culinary school, I learned that this method yields a sweeter, creamier roasted sweet potato. I imagine this sandwich sitting at the crossroads of winter and spring, so I add roasted asparagus to the mix. The dense, sweet-savory Garnet yams and the delicate, earthy asparagus are a perfect match. The piquant Creole rémoulade brings everything together. While this sandwich may not visually read as a po’boy in the way that most people envision them, you best believe it has the spirit of a classic New Orleans “dressed” po’boy.
2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
8 ounces asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 3/4-inch pieces
1 pound Garnet yams, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons molasses
2 teaspoons Bragg Liquid Aminos
1 tablespoon Blackened Seasoning
2 (15-inch) loaves soft-crusted French or Italian bread
Creole Rémoulade, for dressing (see recipe below)
2 large heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Freshly ground white pepper
1 cup Dill-Pickled Fennel (see recipe below)
2 cups shredded little gem lettuce
In a large pot, bring 3 quarts water to a boil over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt and the asparagus. Remove from the heat and let the asparagus sit for 30 seconds. With a spider or tongs, transfer the asparagus to a colander and set aside. Gently slide the yams into the hot water, cover, and set aside for 1 hour. Drain the yams in a colander and set aside to dry for 30 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the molasses, liquid aminos, blackened seasoning, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and mix well. Pour the mixture over the yams and gently toss to coat. Gently transfer the yams to one of the prepared baking sheets, spread them in an even layer, and roast until tender, about 50 minutes, flipping the rounds once after 25 minutes to ensure even cooking.
In a medium bowl, combine the asparagus with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Toss well and transfer to the other prepared baking sheet. After you flip the yams at the halfway mark, place the baking sheet with the asparagus in the oven. Roast for 25 minutes, until tender and crisp.
Remove both sheets of vegetables from the oven and set aside.
Halve the bread crosswise then lengthwise and place the slices in the oven for 4 to 5 minutes, or until just lightly toasted.
This is my suggestion for serving, but feel free to play around with a method that works for you. Spread the cut sides of the bread generously with rémoulade (I’m talking about a messy slather). Divide the yam rounds evenly between the bottom halves of the bread. Top the yams with a few spears of asparagus. Top the asparagus with the tomato slices, then sprinkle with salt and a few turns of white pepper. Top the tomatoes with the pickled fennel, then top the fennel with a handful of lettuce. Cover with the top halves of the bread, and enjoy.
Recipe: Creole Rémoulade
Bryant Terry, “Vegetable Kingdom”
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
3/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
1/4 cup Creole-style mustard or other whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
11/2 tablespoons drained capers, finely chopped
11/2 tablespoons finely chopped gherkins
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, capers, gherkins, and cayenne. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. The rémoulade will keep for 4 days in the refrigerator.
Recipe: Dill-pickled Fennel
Bryant Terry, “Vegetable Kingdom”
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and cored
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons raw cane sugar
1 teaspoon dill seeds
6 whole black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 (2-inch) strip orange peel
2 large garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
Thinly slice the fennel halves lengthwise on a mandoline. Transfer the fennel to a medium bowl, toss with 1 tablespoon of the salt, and set aside for 10 minutes, tossing every 2 minutes. Transfer the fennel to a colander, place the colander over the bowl, and let rest for 45 minutes to draw out excess liquid.
While the fennel is resting, sterilize a 1-quart canning jar and its lid and ring (see page 35) and set aside.
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, 1 cup water, the sugar, dill seeds, peppercorns, mustard seeds, cinnamon, orange zest, and remaining 11/2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat and simmer until the liquid is hot to the touch and all the salt has dissolved.
Pack the fennel into the sterilized jar. Add the garlic and bay leaf, then pour the pickling liquid into the jar. Set aside to cool. Seal the jar and refrigerate for at least 1 day before using.
Like most pickles, these taste more delicious as the days go by. They should keep in the refrigerator for up to a year.
Recipe: Blackened Seasoning
Bryant Terry, “Vegetable Kingdom”
Makes about 1/2 cup
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, toasted
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
11/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
11/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon whole white peppercorns
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a mortar or spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Transfer to a jar and seal tightly. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
“Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes by Bryant Terry, copyright© 2020. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”