Afro-Vegan Cover

Afro-Vegan: Bridging Traditions

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.

Cover of Soup's On

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.

Cover of Pok Pok

Pok Pok

“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.

a tomato in a toque reads How to Cook Cheap Fast and Vegan

VeganMofo: The Vegan Stoner 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.

It seems right that I start VeganMofo with the first vegan cookbook that I’ve reviewed on this blog.VeganMofoers will recognize the name instantly as that of the hugely popular cooking blog of the same name.

The cookbook is not only as cute as the blog, but cuter. Many of the recipes are repeats, but the book is still worth having in your kitchen because you need a cooking reference, so it may as well be one that makes you laugh.

See my full review here: Sprouts Illustrated

Reviews and samples from around the web:
5 Minute Churros at Mr. and Mrs. Vegan
Lentil Loaf at Karmatarian

Vegetarianism for One

Eat Your Vegetables is Joe Yonan’s follow-up to Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One. Eat Your Vegetables also focuses on solo-cooking, this time from a vegetarian perspective. Well, not exactly vegetarian; hello, anchovies!

Like many of my favorite cookbooks, EYV is more than just a collection of recipes. This work is more textual than many cookbooks, with small essays mixed in between chapters. I enjoyed the chatter, especially the historical bits and kitchen tips such as how to keep half an avocado fresh in the fridge. Most of these hints are targeted at a solo chef who needs to keep partial ingredients fresh. I still found them enormously helpful even if that doesn’t apply to me; who doesn’t need to know how to creatively reuse leftover ingredients?

I’ve seen reviews for Serve Yourself complaining that this isn’t quick, weeknight cooking like the reviewers expected. Yonan’s book aims to appease the foodie who happens to live by herself and doesn’t have an outlet for her cooking desires. To appreciate this book, you have to not feel silly sitting at home by yourself and enjoying a beautiful sweet potato and mushroom galette that looks like it came from a French bistro. That being said, very few of the recipes are not quick and easy. Some recipes are very basic recipes from the U.S. lexicon, like sloppy vegan joe, made with a meat substitute. Other are closer to foodie fare, such as Socca with Eggplant and Broccoli. Even when he branches into international cuisine, the recipes are very accessible. The most difficult to procure ingredients in the book are chickpea flour and Peppadews.

Peppadew
This is a Peppadew.

I tested two recipes, the Thai Basil Fried Rice and Kale and Caramelized Onions Quesadillas. The fried rice was a very straightforward recipe, not at all different from any other similar fried rice recipe you may have encountered. I found myself changing it drastically to meet my tastes and can’t really comment on the quality of the original recipe except to state that it was obviously very flexible! The quesadillas, on the other hand, I made exactly as described and they were fantastic. They only take about 5 minutes if you have the tortillas and onions on hand (which you will if you follow the encouragement of this book to make time consuming treats like that in advance to store). They were by no means traditional quesadillas, even though I swapped out the mozzarella for Mexican queso fresco, but they were much healthier and still very filling.

I highly recommend this book to cooks who live by themselves or with roommates who are not worth cooking for. You can’t eat microwave lasagna every night.