Bryant Terry dishes up food with heat and heart
— and music for good measure

By Sarah Henry

Bryant Terry is literally a poster child for Oakland: You can find him alongside the likes of chef Tanya Holland and urban farmer Novella Carpenter as part of a campaign celebrating this city’s diverse residents designed by the creative folks at Oaklandish.

He’s a good fit for a hometown hero: Terry’s a self-described eco-chef, a food justice activist, and the author of four cookbooks, three of them vegan, and all of them celebrating locally sourced, sustainable food that’s healthy and flavorful. He’s married to Chinese-American community organizer Jidan Koon, and they live with their two young children in a bungalow in the Laurel neighborhood, complete with a produce plot where they grow collards, mustards, and bok choy. They cook what they call Afro-Asian cuisine. He’s vegan, but his wife and daughter eat meat.

Terry is a man who cares deeply about his personal roots and his political convictions. On Twitter his moniker is, aptly, @afrovegan. Place is also important to him. Under his Twitter handle he’s crafted what could be his six-word memoir: “TN raised. BK made. OAK Saved.”

So it was no accident that the launch for his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed (Ten Speed Press, 2014), was held at Impact Hub in Oakland, a new co-working space with a social justice side. The event combined a trio of elements close to Terry’s heart: healthy food, cool tunes, and plenty of room to explore racial, political, and social justice matters.

The Marcus Shelby Trio provided a smooth jazz soundtrack to an evening that featured vegan eats, natch, courtesy of local caterer A Taste of Africa. A long line snaked around the room waiting patiently for plates of Cameroonian food, including ndole, a savory peanut-spinach stew; nkule, moist and gingery mashed yams; and nsoke, musky black-eyed peas.

Guests also enjoyed coffee from Keba Konte, himself no stranger to combining art, good grub, and activism, which he does at his Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley. Konte’s latest project: his Oakland-based roasting company Red Bay Coffee. The Terry connection? Konte’s photo-montage-on-wood pieces are featured in Afro-Vegan.

Happily for Terry, veganism is getting more mainstream: Everyone from Beyoncé to Bill Clinton has dabbled with the diet or incorporated it into their lives. And this child of the South—he grew up urban in Memphis, but his extended clan owned small family farms in rural Mississippi—puts his own cultural spin on the cuisine. As for Southern eating, he’ll point out that it isn’t all fried chicken, mac&cheese, and red velvet cake. He grew up eating a lot of greens and beans, thanks very much.

His motivation for his latest book? “I really wanted to bring the flavor profiles, ingredients, cooking techniques, and past traditions of the African diaspora into wider circulation and people’s consciousness,” he says. “I want people to know that when we talk about farm to table or garden to table, that originated with people of African descent. That needs to be recognized.”

That’s not all. He wanted to show home cooks that, counter to stereotypes, vegan food isn’t boring and bland. And it’s not dogmatic, self-righteous, un-fun hippie food either. Got that? Terry uses spice and heat, unique flavor pairings, and techniques such as slow cooking, grilling, and roasting to bring vibrancy to the vegan playbook. His Tofu Curry with Mustard Greens, say, has depth, richness, and a bit of a kick.

And in a fresh twist, he suggests pairings alongside each recipe—not of alcohol but music, films, and books. So Berbere-Spiced Black-Eyed Pea Sliders are teamed with celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef. Dandelion Salad With Pecan Dressing is tied to “Down in Memphis” by Booker T. Jones.

While for marketing purposes calling this cookbook “vegan” makes sense, Terry’s not big on putting a box around his food. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t necessarily frame it that way,” he admits. “It’s just farm-fresh, good, clean food. I think those labels often trip people up or push people away. And my work is about widening the net as much as possible and bringing people in.”

He started experimenting with vegetarianism in high school; hearing the song “Beef” by hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, which rapped about the atrocity of factory-farmed animals, was an early influence. Then health, environmental, and economic factors led him to embrace a more plant-centered or plant-strong, as he likes to call it, diet.

Terry earned a master’s degree in history from New York University, where he spent time exploring the intersection of poverty, malnutrition, and institutional racism. He says he was blown away by the brilliance of the Black Panthers, who implemented free grocery giveaways and school breakfast programs in Oakland in 1969. A graduate of New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, Terry spent nine years in New York, including five years heading up a youth initiative with a social justice and sustainable food systems focus.

A chance encounter with local food activist Brahm Ahmadi, the driving force behind the West Oakland project People’s Community Market, brought Terry to town to teach a class in their Collards and Commerce Youth Program. Smitten, he made the move west at the end of 2005. “I saw the Bay Area as the epicenter of the food justice movement,” he says. “Once I landed here, I never left. It’s the right fit for me.”
The following recipe from Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed by Bryant Terry is reprinted with permission of Ten Speed Press. Photos by Paige Green.

GLAZED CARROT SALAD

Cinnamon, Raw Cane Sugar, Peanuts, Cilantro, Mint

This dish is a mashup of glazed carrots, which are popular in the South, and Moroccan carrot salad. The savory coating is rich, intense, and delicious. As you can see in Paige Green’s photo, this is a gorgeous dish.

Soundtrack: “Sweet Bite” by George Duke from The Inner Source

Glazed-Carrot-Salad--Credit-Paige-GreenYield: 6 to 8 servings

1 ½ pounds carrots (about 10 medium carrots)
1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted
¼ cup packed chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, crushed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Preheat the oven to 425°. Line a large roasting pan with parchment paper.

Put about 12 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating up, cut the carrots into sticks by cutting them in half crosswise, trimming away the edges of each piece to form a rough rectangle, then quartering each rectangle length-wise. (Compost the scraps or save them for another use.)

When the water is boiling, add 1 tablespoon of the salt, then add the carrots and blanch for 1 minute. Drain the carrots well, then pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Put the oil, lemon juice, maple syrup, cinnamon, garlic, cumin seeds, and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt in a large bowl and mix well. Add the carrots and toss until evenly coated. Transfer to the lined pan (no need to clean the bowl). Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil, gently stir with a wooden spoon, then bake uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the carrots start to brown.

Return the carrots to the bowl. Add the cilantro and toss gently to combine. Serve garnished with the peanuts and mint.