Afro-Vegan: Bridging Traditions

Cover of Afro-Vegan

Vegan cuisine lacks tradition.

There are examples of veganism or extreme vegetarianism going back to as far as ancient Greece and India, but most cases represent isolated individuals, not a lineage. There are few rare examples of near vegan cuisine being culturally sustained–Shojin Ryori and multiple Indian foodways for instance–but those are exceptions in the gastronomic world. Instead, veganism is more often associated with eschewing what came before, a deliberate turning away from a culture that shares different values.

As a result, most vegan cookbooks are instructional. The average reader is statistically probably unfamiliar with vegan cookery and in fact may have never had to prepare their own meals before, coming from a culture where meat-laden dishes can be delivered or picked up from a drive-thru. It is risky for a vegan cookbook to dive deeply rather than pan broadly, to presume even basic kitchen skills. This means we are treated less often to rich and uncompromising works like the beautiful and omnivorous Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Gran Cocina Latina.

Bryant Terry has always resisted these trends in modern veganism, seeking to ground his food in history, even an omnivorous history. Starting with Vegan Soul Kitchen, he has linked his recipes to family stories, century old traditions, and modern cinema and music. In his latest work, Afro-Vegan he goes further than ever. He maintains the habit of suggesting other cultural works like songs to tie into each recipe, and of “remixing” classic recipes with new twists, such as combining Southern skillet cornbread with North African dukkah. Unlike his past books, however, he goes further in emphasizing the linkages between what he cooks, traditional African American foodways, and the cuisines of Africa.

The book organization shows his emphasis on African and New World ingredients. “Okra, Black-eyed Peas, and Watermelon” get lumped together in one chapter, while “Grits, Grains, and Couscous” share another. Every recipe showcases some element of African cuisine but no recipe seems explicitly foreign. Terry reworks every ingredient or technique until it fits our modern expectations. Okra is grilled to make a spicy finger food, African black eyed pea fritters appear in a more traditional form and as softer patties for sliders. A whole chapter is devoted to cocktails, demonstrating that this is not intended to be a manual to recreate some kind of authentic African experience, but rather to incorporate tiny bits of tradition into modern life.

Terry does not talk down to his audience or spend much time explaining what’s needed in a pantry or how to deep fry. Because of this, he doesn’t need to water down his vision. Every dish works in concert, delivering a pitch perfect demonstration of Terry’s style. Sometimes this requires uncompromising instructions. Making Slow-braised Mustard Greens–which I would usually toss into one pot and call it a day–requires one pot and two pans, but the result is the creamiest mustard greens I’ve ever had. Za’atar Roasted Red Potatoes included more steps than I would expect from roasted potatoes–including taking the potatoes out halfway through to re-season, then laying each piece back on the baking sheet “cut side up”–but my boyfriend declared them, “the best anything. Ever.” The specifications may seem particular, but in each case Terry reassures that this is worth it. When describing how to meticulously remove the skin from every black-eyed pea used in Crunchy Bean and Okra Fritters, he suggests inviting guests to help. Even in the preparation, he manages to work in ways to make vegan food more about community building than dividing, furthering the book’s message.

Bryant Terry’s Afro-Vegan is one of the few vegan cookbooks I own that both explores a cuisine deeply while elevating it to new heights. It’s one that I’ll grab when I need inspiration for something new and exciting, as well as the one I’ll dog ear and bring to Louisiana on family visits. Hopefully other chefs will be inspired as well, and we can further the cause of integrating veganism into our communities and family histories.

Soup’s On!


Cover of 30 Minute Vegan's Soup's On

Soup’s On by the 30-Minute Vegan–a.k.a. Mark Reinfeld–is pretty much what’s described on the tin: a variety of soup recipes all designed to be completed under thirty minutes. Soups are known for being fairly simple to make and for gaining flavor through time; here the simplicity is preserved and time saved by listing the flavor developing steps as “optional”.

The first chapter, “The Art of Soup Creation”, concerns how to make a soup, the kind of basic cooking instruction that beginning home cooks need and I wish more cookbooks provided. The usually cited foundational techniques for building flavor are skimmed over, however. Instead the focus is on using recipes as a template, explaining how to take a soup recipe, break it down into its requisite parts, then rebuild it with different ingredients. The book ends with another instructional chapter on soup finishing techniques, including recipes for garnishes like Vegan Crème FraÎche and Candied Pepitas as well as a few sides including ‘Cosmic Cornbread’ and Herbed Bread Sticks. Intervening chapters are organized by type of soup, such as “Creamy Blended Soups” and “Soups and Stews with Grains, Legumes, and Pasta”.

In addition to the recipe chapters, the book contains multiple appendices of varying usefulness. There are seasonal growing charts, but which climate zone they apply to is unknown, and the relevance of gardening in a book that implies 5 minutes can’t be spared to brown an onion is unclear. Another appendix contains a call to action against GMOs (the book is full of unsubstantiated health claims that seem out of place). More useful is a chart showing recommended soaking times of nuts and another chart showing measurement equivalencies for different natural sweeteners, allowing you to easily substitute agave nectar or brown rice syrup for sugar in any recipe. This is the kind of information that allows beginners to feel more confident in a kitchen, which seem appropriate to a book like this.

Less instructional are the recipes themselves. Everything I tried tasted delicious, especially a cauliflower soup that tasted like a velvety vegan cheese sauce. Producing that deliciousness, however, required me to make many judgement calls. Each recipe lists a few optional ingredients and cooking methods. In some cases the ‘optional’ method felt vital to me so I went with it, and I can’t be sure what the result would be for a novice following the bare bones version of each recipe. The recipe for Indian Chutney Stew with Tamarind, for instance, begins with pouring vegetable stock in a pot and then tossing in a slew of raw vegetables to boil. The main ingredient, tamarind paste, was to be one to three tablespoons. For such a pungent ingredient and the main flavor component of the dish, I would have appreciated a more specific suggestion. Meanwhile, adding a sweetener to balance the sourness of the tamarind was listed as optional. I found the soup almost inedible without this ‘optional’ ingredient. By following the ‘variations’ that involved sautéing the vegetables first, as well as adding some agave nectar, I ended with a delicious soup. The result was fantastic, but the recipe as written would not be something that I would recommend.

The target of this book appears to be inexperienced home cooks, but such cooks would be better served by learning more traditional ways of building flavor rather than how to throw things in a pot and boil them according to a recipe. If you are looking for some quick but tasty soup suggestions, I would recommend this book only in exchange for a promise to always take the 5 extra minutes to follow the optional instructions.

Pok Pok

Pok Pok cover

“Kill the crab.”

So begins one of the recipes in Pok Pok, the cookbook spinoff of Andy Ricker’s eponymous Portland restaurant specializing in Northern Thai cuisine. Ricker doesn’t shy away from the fact that this cookbook is for the committed, for those ready to learn how to kill a crab before dinner. Even if you choose to start with your ingredients already incapacitated, you will still be in for an evening of work. Making your own curry paste is a given since the paste is the central flavoring component of most dishes. Ricker demands more than just making the paste by hand; he describes the two different types of mortar and pestles that you should buy to do so. You will have to track down not only the infamous live crabs, but also blood and banana leaves. Substitutions are frowned upon.

Ricker understands what he is asking, and in the introductory materials he reassures the reader several times that this is necessary. “Some dishes can’t be replicated at home with concessions to convenience,” he warns. If you do adapt the dishes to the point of being unrecognizable, he will sigh, but understand, because he “wouldn’t be upset if it simply helped you make great food at home.” In testing these recipes, I tried to follow the instructions as closely as seemed reasonable. I didn’t go out and buy a mortar and pestle; I used my coffee grinder. My grocer didn’t have fresh Chinese noodles so I settled for dried; which led to extra complication and a small disaster later when I had to separately fry some, but that was my own fault. Even after making adjustments to the recipes to make it easier for me as a home cook, my testing companion and I still found it to be quite a lot of work.

When we sat down to eat our hard earned meal, all our suffering was redeemed. Everything was unbelievably delicious. I don’t think I’ve tested another cookbook where every single dish I tried was “Oh Em Geeeeeee!” good. This became the type of meal where dinner conversation disappears after the first bite and all you can hear is slurping and burping. The Khao Soi Kai, a coconut-based curry from the Ching Mai province, was rich and fragrant. The fried egg salad caused great skepticism as we were preparing it. The proportions of greens and eggs seemed off; the dressing tasted too spicy to eat. When it all came together, it turned out that Ricker was exactly right about everything and we were wrong to doubt. The stir fried water spinach was so delicious we fought over who would have the last serving. The sauce used in that recipe is going to become my default stir fry sauce from here on out. This might have been one of the tastiest dinners I’ve ever cooked in my tiny apartment kitchen.

Going into this book expecting the immersive education experience of a culinary tour guide book like Burma: Rivers of Flavor may lead to disappointment. Ricker editorializes too often, compromises too little. If you approach this cookbook as you might a celebrity chef’s manifesto instead, with a little humility and a lot of determination, you will benefit more from the experience, and the delicious smells of Northern Thailand wafting about your kitchen will be your rewards.

More on Isa Does It

If you read my review of Isa Does It earlier this month, then you know that I am super excited about this book. Well, Isa just increased my excitement because now she is giving away a free tote bag with each book. Austin has a no-bag ordinance for grocery stores, so I have turned into a tote bag hoarder. Woohoo!

She’s also posted a recipe from the book, Everyday Pad Thai. I haven’t had a chance to try this one yet, but everything else I’ve tried from the book so far has been tasty and easy.

VeganMofo: The Joy of Vegan Baking

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

The Joy of Vegan Baking Cover

The Joy of Vegan Baking seeks to demonstrate that being vegan is not “limiting” by presenting veganized versions of many “familiar favorites”. There are chocolate chip cookies, cornbread, rolls, cobblers and just about any other standard baked good that you can think of. All of the recipes are presented in the kind and encouraging words of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, better known for her inspirational “Food for Thought” podcast. Unfortunately, most of the recipes are lackluster. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how to use egg replacer or flaxseeds in baking–easily learned from the Internet–could then employ those tricks on their own in typical recipes. In a world full of cooking blogs and websites like food.com, I’m not really convinced that even new vegans need a cookbook to teach them to make chocolate chip cookies.

VeganMofo: Viva Vegan!

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

Viva Vegan! cover

Viva Vegan! is Terry Hope Romero’s attempt to teach vegans that there’s more to Latin vegan cooking than swapping out the cheese on your enchiladas with Daiya. It does succeed at introducing a variety of yummy Latin foods that readers may not have experienced before, such as llapingachos, an Ecuadorean dish that combines potatoes and peanut sauce, and–a favorite in my house–arepas. Veganizing these dishes is a more difficult task in a cuisine that relies so heavily on meat for flavoring. Rather than just swapping out meat for seitan, Romero offers creative suggestions for fillings in empanadas and arepas, and yes, great preparation ideas for seitan.

The dessert chapter is definitely the most valuable part of the book. I made a Cafe con Leche flan and didn’t have to spend a week experimenting with the amount of agar to use. For the savory dishes, I will probably keep Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latin by my side and veganize them myself. For the sweets, however, I’ll be glad to turn to Viva Vegan! every time and let Romero do the work for me.

VeganMofo: The Asian Vegan Kitchen

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

Asian Vegan Kitchen Cover

Quick one today since my cat wants snuggles and I’m not one to deny her.

Today’s book is The Asian Vegan Kitchen by Hema Parekh. Parekh gives a sampling of recipes from around Asia. She covers better known cuisines like Indian and Chinese, but also devotes chapters to underappreciated areas like Malaysia and Burma. The recipes are all accessible to home cooks, with surprisingly few ingredients that couldn’t be found in an ordinary grocery store. In some cases, this accessibility means toning down the authenticity, but in this case I appreciate it. Books that focus on presenting a truly authentic view of a country like Burma: Rivers of Flavor or Pok Pok are often ‘special occasion’ books, for those weekends where you want to spend all day in the grocery store and all evening tinkering away in the kitchen. The Asian Vegan Kitchen is truly a weeknight, home cooking kind of book, with many of the recipes coming from her own weeknight repertoire.

This book is an especially interesting specimen of vegan cookbook because she does not harp on the fact that she is veganizing often very fishy meals. Some swaparoos are obvious, like the teriyaki tofu steak. In other cases, she just picks naturally vegan or “all but the fish sauce” dishes, like the delicious Japanese Braised Onions and Potatoes. In this sense, the book is very much like The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen.

Not every cookbook needs to be full color or elaborate. Some just need to be useful, and this book definitely falls into that category.

VeganMofo: Veganomicon

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

Earlier this month, I described how Vegan with a Vengeance is the book I always recommend to new vegans. Veganomicon tends to be the book that everyone else recommends. It seems like a good candidate. It attempts to be a comprehensive work, with guides to all of the basics–steaming vegetables, cooking beans, cooking rice. The chapters cover tempeh and tofu, desserts and breakfast, soups and sandwiches. When Moskowitz and Romero wrote it, they intentionally designed it to be the source you turn to in times of vegan need.

I never recommend it because it just never became that source for me. I never found recipes in it, like the tempeh and white bean patty in Vegan with a Vengeance, that I turned to repeatedly. I tried! I really did! I wanted this book to be the last cookbook that I ever bought. Here’s an abbreviated list of the recipes I’ve tried;

Acorn squash, pear, and adzuki soup — I liked it, even if it was a bit sweet. Two different boyfriends vetoed it, though, so I only made it twice.

Pumpkin ziti with sage breadcrumbs — too sweet and underseasoned

Lemony roasted potatoes — Good, but they are basically just potatoes with lemon juice. I put it on the menu at my co-op and they never disappeared from the buffet as fast as normal roasted potatoes

Chickpea cutlets — The banner recipe of this book. Again, I had this on the co-op menu and it was not wanted back. it just didn’t have the same level of flavor as any decently made vegetable-based dish.

Cauliflower and mushroom potpie — Underseasoned! This is a theme with this book!

Leek and bean cassoulet — I made this one a few times because of an abundance of leeks from my CSA, but it is watery and underseasoned. Extremely comforting though, if you can eliminate most of the water.

For the most part, I just found them to be, as you can see above, underseasoned and occasionally, trying too hard. They attempted to represent a wide swath of traditional American cookery, especially comfort foods. Unfortunately, many of those comfort foods were comforting because of the large amounts of fat and sodium contributed by cheese and animal fat. Swapping out animal ingredients for vegan substitutes one for one is not usually as tasty a tactic as building delicious vegan meals with vegetables in mind from the start.

Thus, my copy of Veganomicon sank into disuse. I still feel guilt about it though. Aren’t I supposed to like it? There’s 250+ recipes–maybe the problems are localized to the 20 or so that I’ve tried? I could try again, but it’s hard when there are so many other cookbooks to try–like the one I will present tomorrow.

VeganMofo: The Veganopolis Cookbook

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

The Veganopolis Cookbook cover

In downtown Portland, before the vegan strip mall was even conceived, was Veganopolis. Veganopolis was a cafeteria-style vegan restaurant. You would walk down a buffet line and fill your plate then weigh it and pay per pound at the end. Despite the casual setting, the food had twinges of haute cuisine, while still being, always, comfort food. The chefs, David Stowell and George Black, came from the finer dining scene, supposedly even catering for the Gores before Al became vice president. To pay $5 for a plate of their enchiladas or bread pudding was a treat.

I often tried to make the delicious meals that I had at Veganopolis at home, with varying success. I attempted them from memory, asking questions now and then as I ordered my food. Eventually, the restaurant closed and David and George moved back to Chicago. Their closing was bittersweet for me because they left with a promise, that a cookbook would be published soon. I waited for two years, occasionally checking Amazon to see if it existed yet. After a while, I stopped checking, then on my birthday I was surprised with a copy of the newly published cookbook for my birthday. The Veganopolis Cookbook, finally!

I was thrilled to see that many of favorite Veganopolis recipes were inside. Finally, I would have the secret of the almond pate and their mac and cheese, the vegan mac and cheese that I use as a standard for others. As I started cooking, however, my enthusiasm was tempered. Some of the recipes, like a Cream of Broccoli Soup, were bland. Others, like my dear almond pate, turned out to be complete disasters, probably because I didn’t have the “masticating juicer” that they suggest using. It seems clear that many of the recipes were the restaurant dishes I had been craving, but just poorly converted for a home cook.

Maybe I am just a poor home cook. Maybe I haven’t tried the right recipes. More likely my attempts just don’t match the meals of my memories which are made brighter by nostalgia.

VeganMofo: The Artful Vegan

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks. If you are new to Libromancy, please check out some of my non-cookbook reviews, such as my review of Pacific by Tom Drury

Indian summer grilled fig and radhiccio on a rosemary skewer

photo by veggiebytes from the Artful Vegan Flickr collection

The Artful Vegan is exactly the kind of cookbook that home cooks complain about. The recipes require multiple premade components, 20+ ingredients, unusually sourced items, and a massive time commitment. It’s definitely designed to be a looker, not a cooker.

It’s also one of the vegan cookbooks that I use the most.

At first, it was because of necessity. I was a new vegan an my omnivorous friends, lured by the lush photography, gave it to me as a gift. I wasn’t yet hooked into the vegan food blog network like I later would be, so this daunting restaurant-focused guide was all that I had.

From this cookbook, I learned to make vegan sloppy joes. Unlike the mix-with-ketchup recipe you find on the back of a TVP packet, The Artful Vegan version combines 12 ingredients in just the sauce. Another 12 are involved in cooking the tempeh and the suggested serving includes homemade focaccia. I may have used all of the ingredients the first time, but I didn’t make the bread. Overtime I pared down the recipe, stripping out one or two ingredients each iteration, until I had a recipe that was quick and easy but also made a way classier sloppy joe than you can imagine. That’s right–a classy sloppy joe. The Artful Vegan‘s got that.

I learned to do this with several of the recipes in the AV. The Miso-Broiled Japanese Eggplant over Noodle Cakes didn’t need the walnut-miso sauce or wasabi cream to be fantastic, I learned, but it did need something crunchy like the noodle cakes to balance out the texture. Thanks to the AV, I was soon cooking seemingly intensive, gourmet meals cheaply and easily.

Now, roughly 10 years later, I don’t consult the AV anymore. Although I have many of its photos memorized, like the iconic mushroom parcel perched atop creamy polenta with a grilled pear sinking in beside it, I rarely flip its pages. I have already took the lesson that I needed from it–that not all fancy cookbooks are wrong for home cooks, that the only thing keeping cheap food from being quality food is determination–or, in my case–naive experimentation.