Chef Kana Azhari of Healing Kitchen. Photo: Momo Chang

The Tuesday farmers market in South Berkeley is a neighborhood gem with abundant organic produce, freshly made green smoothies, artisanal sourdough bread, a kid zone, Thai food, and now, Afro-vegan cuisine.

Operated by The Ecology Center, the South Berkeley Farmers Market on Adeline is smaller and more quaint than the downtown farmers market.

As of July, a new food kiosk debuted at the market, focusing on Afro-vegan, plant-based cuisine. Healing Kitchen serves up fare that spans a wide range of African influences, including West African, Caribbean and U.S. Southern-inspired dishes.

Every Tuesday afternoon, chef Kana Azhari features a special plate. One Tuesday, it might be West Cape plate with stewed black-eyed peas, brown basmati rice, a heap of sautéed greens and plantains for $11. Another week, the menu might feature Southern food, like a vegan chili and mac and cheese with roasted vegetables or perhaps a vegan gumbo, or a “Vibe Caribe” dish with coconut curry lentils and roasted jerk potatoes (check Healing Kitchen’s Instagram or website for weekly menus). While the plates change, a few accompaniments are mainstays, like cheesy jalapeño cornbread, sweet potato pie and lemon ginger hibiscus herbal tea.

Azhari’s approach is very Bay Area, California cuisine: Her interpretation of African diaspora-inspired dishes, all vegan, use the freshest local and, whenever possible, organic ingredients. “People in the Bay Area have a keen sense of taste — not just that the food looks and tastes good, but they want to know their sources,” Azhari said.

Growing up in South Berkeley and Oakland, Azhari developed her palate early. In the third grade, she decided to become a vegetarian, the only non-meat-eater in her family. The diet change meant that she was suddenly largely responsible for her own food. “At that point, I had the special privilege of cooking for myself,” she said with a laugh.

Healing Kitchen came into being with the help of La Cocina’s incubator program, which she joined a year and a half ago. Azhari has been running a catering business since 2011, but the food stand at the Berkeley farmers market is her first official public debut.

An Afro-vegan plate from Healing Kitchen. Photo: Momo Chang

It’s clear that she already has her fan base: On a late Tuesday afternoon this summer, friends and acquaintances stopped by to pick up a meal and greet her, while new clients came by to try her food. Overall, the reception to Azhari’s stand has been really warm.

But, she says, the business at the market is up and down. That’s a shame, because her food is solid. The dishes are flavorful and full of greens and protein. After eating the daily plate, plus a delicious slice of vegan sweet potato pie, I felt very nourished.

Azhari first had her eyes opened to great Afro-vegan food and culture in New York, where she lived for a few years.  When she returned, she found more vegan-oriented options in the East Bay than before, but much of it is not healthy or is too expensive for many people, she said.

“I think a lot of times people go into eating vegan food to be healthy, but they may end up eating worse.”

Azhari saw a gap in both knowledge and types of vegan cuisine that went beyond meat versus plant-based. “It’s about incorporating farm fresh foods and more greens,” she said.

Azhari spent six months as an apprentice at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, and worked for two years as a farm manager at Acta Non Verba in East Oakland.

Vegetarian and vegan food in the Bay Area has come a long way. But I didn’t know what I had been missing until I tried Azhari’s Afro-vegan offerings. It took someone like Azhari — an East Bay native and self-taught vegetarian chef with a background in organic farming, who moved to New York and then returned — to create something like Healing Kitchen.

For now, she likes being based at the South Berkeley Farmers Market, with its easy access to fresh produce and location in a neighborhood she knows well. But Healing Kitchen is more than a business to her and she eventually wants to turn it into a co-operative. “I want Bay Area folks to have access to good food. A lot of people who work in the food industry can’t afford to eat it,” she added.

Beyond the farmers market stand, Azhari also offers meal planning, helping people transition to a plant-based diet and creating customized menus. “I’m the biggest fan of that. Once you can do it yourself, it becomes a life skill. The goal is to help people self determine what it is that they need and how to get it for themselves.” She’s like a “vegan coach” of sorts, helping clients come up with a plan, including three consultations. And she still caters.

Creating healthier food options for her community is a key part of Azhari’s mission in all her cooking endeavors.

“I wanted to help the community I come from, which is Black and Latino,” she said.  “I really wanted healthier options for my family and friends who may not know about it.” We are lucky to have the addition of Healing Kitchen as part of the community.

Healing Kitchen, helmed by Chef Kana Azhari, is at the South Berkeley Farmers Market from 2-6:30 p.m., Tuesdays. Check Healing Kitchen’s website for more information about catering, meal planning and meal prep.

Momo Chang is an award-winning freelance journalist, multimedia storyteller and digital expert based in Oakland, CA. She is a contributor to Nosh, has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Shondaland,...