How Bryant Terry Is Decolonizing Vegan Cooking

In his ode to vegetables and diasporic foodways, the chef showcases plant-based recipes with roots in African food traditions.

February 25, 2020
Photo by Ed Anderson

Anyone familiar with Bryant Terry’s work as a James Beard award–winning educator, chef, and author knows his M.O.: He’s been teaching the importance of eating whole foods, and working to create a healthful, just food system since his beginning as a grassroots activist almost 20 years ago. Terry was inspired by how food has been used throughout history as an expression of Black agency: From the rice that African women stealthily wove in their hair before embarking on the Middle Passage; to the proliferation of watermelon as a symbol of Black freedom; to the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren, which fed children from low-income neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s across America.

It’s with this celebration of Black culture and foodways that Terry's new book, Vegetable Kingdom, opens. He is playful in his approach to recipes, thinking "as a collagist—curating, cutting, pasting, and remixing staple ingredients, cooking techniques, and traditional Black dishes popular throughout the world to make [my] own signature recipes.” And the diverse mix of dishes proves Terry's deftness with African, Asian, Caribbean, and American Southern flavors—Haricot Vert and Mushroom Stew, Dry Yardlong Beans with Broken Rice, and Jerk Tofu Wrapped in Collard Greens, to name a few—plus, his eagerness to fuse them in fascinating ways.

A popular and well-loved theme throughout his books, Terry pairs each recipe with a celebratory and evocative hip-hop, jazz, reggae, soul, R&B, or Afrobeats song. Cooking through Vegetable Kingdom is not only a journey through diasporic flavors, but a sensory, inviting, lighthearted, and fun experience.

I have approached recipe development as a collagist—curating, cutting, pasting, and remixing staple ingredients, cooking techniques, and traditional Black dishes popular throughout the world to make my own signature recipes.
Bryant Terry

Terry's buoyant approach is in stark contrast to the veganism we know from popular culture, which tends to focus on food as a matter of thinness, restriction, and substitution. Flush with esoteric, often pricey ingredients, and food policing that dictates what is and isn’t vegan, it’s a movement that, at times, seems better suited for Instagram pictures than an attainable, sustainable way of living. These class and race exclusions often mean that communities of color don’t see veganism as being a part of their cultural fabric.

But, this purported incompatibility—veganism and Blackness—is one Terry wholeheartedly refutes. In the book's introduction, he recalls a time when he picked up four heads of fennel at the market, with no idea how he would prepare it, only that he knew he wanted to Blackify it. Terry seared the wedges, basted it in mojo, and topped simmered stalks with crushed plantain chips. “Turned out, freestyling an African Diaspora-inspired vegetable dish...was easier than I thought.”

Take his Warm Butter Bean Salad with Roasted Bell Peppers recipe, which breathes new life into old vegan staples: beans and greens. You can feel the Big Bean Energy as the pili pili oil snakes through the buttery lima beans and charred peppers. Set to the meandering beat of "Golden Lady" by Stevie Wonder, the recipe is a touch of rain and sunshine in edible and audible form.

Terry's recipe for Caramelized Leek and Seared Mushroom Toast is proof that all fancy toasts need not be avocado topped (or $14). In the headnote, Terry shares that he’s buying a house and cutting down on avocado toast to save up. Ostensibly, this is a cheeky nod to the myth that our financial woes are due to expensive, artisanal toast and $5 lattes—a myth that ignores the rampant wealth inequality and rapid gentrification engulfing most of urban America.

Oakland, where Terry lives, is experiencing one of the fastest rates of gentrification in the country, with rising rents displacing longtime residents of color. Set to Leyla McCalla’s "The Capitalist Blues," a soulful ballad about the lies of meritocracy, the recipe shows with some time and care, rich– and fancy-feeling flavors can be coaxed out of even the simplest ingredients.

It’s precisely this lack of pretension that makes Vegetable Kingdom so powerful in its approach to plant-based foods. From smart do-ahead tips (like picking a day to shop, prep, and cook as a family—you'll meal prep for the week and build community, all in one fell swoop) and calling for everyday tools (a simple, good knife and cutting board top his “tools” page), to whole utilization of vegetables (but if you really can’t, “homie, you should compost”), Terry makes plant-based living seem, well, totally doable.

For Terry, being vegan doesn’t come from the approach of recreating the taste of meat with substitutes, but of the celebration and abundance of affordable—not just Instagrammable—nutritious food. By preaching stem-to-tip usage of seasonal, less-glamorous vegetables (like corn and green beans) he’s debunking the misconception that veganism is purely aspirational for food-insecure Black and brown communities. At a time where veganism and the push towards plant-based foods are at an all-time high, Terry’s visibility acts as a call to those who are curious about the movement, but fear that the ivy tower of mainstream veganism doesn't concern them.

By “celebrating foods of the African Diaspora in a world where European cuisine is at the center and Black food is often at the margins,” Terry aims to decolonize and de-center exclusion from vegan eating, focusing on cultivating this celebration of plants in communities of color instead. As the prevalence of diet-related diseases—largely due to socioeconomic barriers and compounded by the pervasive exposure to racism and discrimination that cause chronic stress—continue to rise, more Black folks are turning to a plant-based lifestyle as a form of biological and social resistance, and as a way to reconnect with their heritage. In a country where Black lives, bodies, and culture are often discredited, then commodified, Vegetable Kingdom is a brazen celebration of the richness of black culture and its foodways, as they are.

This article contains products independently selected by Food52 editors. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 may earn an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases.
Order now

The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • jfoodie
  • midgeb
  • Caitlin Gunther
    Caitlin Gunther
Vonnie Williams

Written by: Vonnie Williams

Food writer and ice cream obsessive.


jfoodie April 10, 2020
the review inspired me to buy the book. today i harvested mustard greens to make the Pickled Mustard Greens. I wondered if they perhaps missed the salt in the recipe since the tbs in the cookingwater rinsed out leaving the greens rather bland (before pickling). We'll see how it turns out after it sits awhile. The book is gorgeous, the pictures inspiring - have to see how the other recipes turn out (I'm hoping for the best).
midgeb March 1, 2020
This review has inspired me find this book. Thank you!
Caitlin G. February 25, 2020
Will definitely check out the cookbook AND that bean salad.