Bryant Terry’s 5 Essentials for a Modern, Soulful Kitchen

updated May 24, 2019
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Bryant Terry is an energetic and passionate man, self-described as an eco chef, author, and social justice activist. He first came to my attention in 2006 when he co-authored the book Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen with his friend Anna Lappe. He has since gone on to author two more vegan cookbooks, with a third one in the works. What does this spokesman for local, sustainable, and delicious food think are the top essentials for a modern, socially engaged, soulful kitchen?

Bryant’s two other cookbooks — Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine and The Inspired Vegan: Seasonal Ingredients, Creative Recipes, Mouthwatering Menus — both promote healthy, flavorful, plant-based cooking and eating. He works hard to bring sustainable and organic food to populations not usually well served by the organic movement.

He’s currently at work on a fourth book, Afro-Vegan: Farm Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Food Remixed (2014) in which he explores the food of the African Diaspora and how travelling and adapting to new cultures have influenced these cuisines. “It’s like a Bearden print,” says Bryant. “Food as a collage, paying homage to traditional foodways rather than trying to slavishly replicate them.”

Although he is primarily a vegan cook, Bryant does not believe in being a vegan in a box! “It’s not about embracing a title or a label,” he says. “It’s about listening to and responding to your body. It’s about what you value.” That said, veganism is something he cares about. “Animals are treated very poorly in our industrial food system and I think this is something everyone should be aware of. Our choices have an impact.”

Bryant feels his main platform is to bring awareness to people living in food deserts, places where fresh, healthy, sustainable food is difficult or impossible to obtain. “A plant-based diet can help with health issues, but I’m also interested in presenting this in context with traditional foodways,” he says.

He doesn’t care for ‘veganizing’ animal-based food. Rather, he looks to techniques, flavor profiles, and staples of a cuisine for inspiration. “I like to work with the spirit of the dish, and then remix and remake it so that while I’m looking back to the tradition, I’m also looking forward.” Flavor is the most important thing to Bryant and he finds this most in locally grown and seasonal ingredients. “I think my food is for everyone!”

Bryant’s 5 Essentials for the Home Cook

1. Cook in community. When Bryant and Anna wrote Grub they encouraged people to have Grub parties: intimate, spirited parties where people would gather to celebrate food and community. “In American culture, we’re used to doing things in isolation,” says Bryant. “The way work is structured, our lives are so busy and stressed out. People would tell me that local fresh food was too expensive and they didn’t have the time, resources or energy to prepare it. I don’t want to minimize those concerns but we can address this in one felt swoop if we think about doing things in community.”

Buy food in bulk with your friends and family to save costs is one solution. Bryant also recommends getting together on weekends for Grub parties, or gathering to create food and meals in bulk to share and use throughout the week. “You’re getting the work done and you’re building community.”

Another way to bring food out into your community is to grow it in your front yard, like Bryant and his wife do in their Oakland, CA home. “We built a 100 square foot raised bed in our front yard to grow vegetables and herbs,” he explained. “Then our next door neighbor decided to do the same thing in her front yard. And then the guy down the street took it up, too. These small symbolic acts of taking things out of the privacy of our homes and sharing it with our communities can have a big impact and are very inspiring.”

2. Grow things! Bryant joins many of our other 5 Essential chefs in recommending that you try to grow at least some of your own food, even if it’s a small tomato plant on your windowsill or fire escape. “When our daughter Mila was 17 months, we gave her a small raised bed next to the one in our front yard that was her own. We helped her plant seeds and starts, and she would help water things. Even from that early age, she understood the importance of touching the soil and taking care of the earth. She gets so excited seeing things grow and is so proud when we cook with it.”

If you don’t have a back yard of your own, Bryant recommends looking for a community garden or volunteer at an urban farm. Or just get involved in some community production of food. “You’re meeting people in your community, you’re interacting with neighbors, you’re figuring out how we can get though this crisis period were in together.”

3. Use whole spices. “This may seem obvious to some, but using whole spices is important to me. Spices are essential, especially in cooking world cuisines. Spices that are toasted and freshly ground are incomparable in flavor.” Bryant buys his whole spices in bulk from a local health food store. These days he is using a lot of cinnamon, mainly because its a sweeter spice that his daughter enjoys. He also uses a lot of cayenne and chili, an influence from when he lived in New Orleans.

4. Mortar and pestle. Bryant collects mortar and pestles and at one point he owned 18, although these days he’s down to a more manageable 12. “It’s an essential tool in our kitchen. I like how they’re physical and how I really have to use my body, use my hands, and engage with the food in way that’s missed with electric tools. I’m not a Luddite! I use food processors and vitamix but if I have the time, I’ll use the mortar and pestle. Sesame paste, chili paste, guacamole, chai.”

He also appreciates how they’re a beautiful symbol for the way many cultures connect around food. “You see them used in all sorts of cultures: African, Asian, European, Latin American to name a few.”

5. Keep a few prepared foods around. “I may not have said this three years ago, but now that I’m a parent I think having some prepared foods in the house is vital for us to function. Things like several kinds of miso paste, thai curry paste, tom yum paste, things that can easily allow us to use a lot of the fresh vegetables we grow or get from the market. An example is to mix up a broth with the tom yum paste, throw in some vegetables and then dinner is served.” In the past, Bryant would have made everything from scratch but now with a family it’s helpful to streamline things a little.

Other healthy prepared food like kimchi and sauerkraut are also essential. Bryant cooks very simply at home. One of his favorite things to do is a one bowl meal with rice and sautéed vegetables, garnished with something fermented like kimchi. Simple, streamlined, delicious.

Thank you, Bryant!

For more information about Bryant visit his website which has links and information on his many projects, including Urban Organic, a web tv series that focuses on sustainable agriculture in urban areas. Bryant was also chosen by Scion for their brand new ad series Make Every Second Count, below.

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