Vegan chef Bryant Terry
Bryant Terry. Photo: Celeste Noche

Vegan chef Bryant Terry has never had a problem satisfying most eaters with his deeply flavorful vegetable dishes. But he wasn’t sure how his combinations would go over with his two young children, Mila (8) and Zenzi (5). In his latest cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (Ten Speed Press), Terry reveals his kids’ reaction: “Turned out, free-styling an African Diaspora-inspired vegetable dish (that kids enjoyed) was easier than I thought.”

He’s referring to a dish of pan-seared fennel with garlic and herbs, made with rich sunchoke cream (a combination of white wine, cashews and vegetable stock), anise-flavored fennel fronds, a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel and plantain powder. In other words, exactly the sort of vegan alchemy that’s made Terry’s cookbooks, including Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed and Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine, bestsellers.

In the introduction to Vegetable Kingdom, Terry describes his approach to recipe development as that of 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.” In a past interview with the chef, Terry told us his process for creating his recipes involved “drawing on history and memory.”

Terry’s interest in cooking, farming and community health began during his childhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where his grandparents inspired him to grow and prepare good food.

“I’m a proud Southerner, born and raised, no matter how far away I am, those are my roots,” Terry said.

As a teenager, Terry decided he wanted to eat a more plant-based diet. He pursued food and cooking as a career in graduate school, earning an M.A. in history from NYU with an emphasis on the African diaspora.

He wants people to connect with some of the flavors he loved eating while growing up in the South. He also weaves into his cooking Asian elements learned from his wife, Jidan Koon, who is Chinese-American. It’s a style that’s made the Oakland resident, educator and food justice advocate very popular with both vegans and non-vegans alike.

Terry’s intensely seasoned, satisfying seasonal dishes inspired by fresh ingredients blend Afro-Asian, Caribbean and American South cuisines. Like a salad of blistered shishito peppers with creamy miso-ginger dressing, sprinkled with gomasio, a Japanese condiment made of sesame seeds and salt. Or red scarlet turnips glazed in a skillet with brown sugar, molasses, orange juice, mustard powder, pepper and lemon. The dishes are as vibrant and colorful as they are flavorful.

Since 2015, Terry has been the chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, where he creates public programming exploring the connections between food, farming, health, activism, art, culture and the African diaspora.

Cooks can be scared away from vegan food by what they assume are costly ingredients and time-intensive preparation. Terry is convinced a plant-based diet can be cheaper and more accessible than eating meat.

The author’s passion for food is most evident and perhaps most infectious when he discusses food justice and the fact that people in many communities throughout the country, including West Oakland, have limited access to healthful, affordable and culturally appropriate food. Terry believes part of his mission is to change the way people think about vegan and vegetarian dishes and in the process, to work to lower disease associated with unhealthy lifestyles in food-insecure communities. He speaks frequently to students at high schools and colleges around the country.

Cooks can be scared away from vegan food by what they assume are costly ingredients and time-intensive preparation. Terry is convinced a plant-based diet can be cheaper and more accessible than eating meat. He urges people to find sources for buying in bulk, to join a community garden or CSA, and to pool equipment and resources and cook in community. On Sundays, Terry makes a big batch of veggie stock with slow-cooked aromatics like onions, carrots, celery and garlic that he can use throughout the week. Noodles and veggies can be added to the stock for an easy weeknight meal.

Terry has been a life-long gardener, so it makes sense he organized Vegetable Kingdom by “Seeds,” “Stems,” “Bulbs,” “Flowers,” and other plant parts. Within each category are side dishes, mains and desserts, totaling more than 100 recipes. He keeps a garden at his home in Oakland, where he grows many of the ingredients he uses in his cooking, particularly greens.

“A big part of what I’m trying to do is to get people to think about how they can eat simply and authentically, and in the process, support local farmers or grow food at their homes if they have a little green space,” he said.

Fans love Terry’s cookbooks for the recipes, but also the soundtracks. His cookbook includes a playlist of dozens of songs – old and new rap, soul, funk, jazz, from Cameo to Anderson .Paak — with a song accompanying each recipe. Terry says his inspiration for including music in his books comes from Dr. Jessica B. Harris, who also suggests musical selections to accompany menus in her classic cookbook, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking. For Terry, food and music go together.

“My family always sang in the kitchen. I cook with music. People can build community around the kitchen table. Music helps.”

Citrus and garlic-herb braised fennel from Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry
Citrus and garlic-herb braised fennel, a recipe in Terry’s new cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom. Photo and recipe reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press.

Citrus and garlic-herb braised fennel

Makes 4 servings

Citrus and garlic-herb sauce
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon white vinegar
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large fennel bulbs with fronds
5 tablespoons olive oil
Fine sea salt
1/4 cup torn fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup plantain powder
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon orange zest
Sunchoke cream, for serving
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Fleur de sel, for finishing
Make the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together all the ingredients for the sauce. Set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.

Plantain powder
Savory plantain chips

Sunchoke cream
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces sunchokes, peeled and finely chopped
¼ cup diced yellow onion
1 tablespoon millet flour
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon white wine
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt, plus more as needed
¼ cup cashews, soaked in water overnight and drained
Freshly ground white pepper

Make the plantain powder: Pulverize enough plantain chips in a spice grinder to make 1/2 cup of powder. (Terry’s recipe for homemade plantain powder can be found in Vegetable Kingdom).

Make the sunchoke cream (makes about a cup): In a medium saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the sunchokes and saute until they just start to soften, about 1 minute. Add the onion and saute until soft, 3 to 5 minutes, being careful not to let it brown. Tip in the flour and mix well. Add the stock, wine, and salt. Decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until the sunchokes are fully tender, about 10 minutes.

Drain the sunchoke mixture in a colander set over a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid. Transfer the sunchoke mixture to a blender and add the cashews. Puree, adding the reserved cooking liquid a little bit at a time until the sunchoke puree easily pours from the blender (you will likely need between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup of the liquid). Season with salt and white pepper and serve.

Make the fennel: Cut the tops off the fennel bulbs, setting aside the fronds for garnish. Trim the bottoms. Quarter the fennel bulbs through the core, leaving some of the core intact so the pieces don’t fall apart as they cook.

In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the fennel quarters, cut-side down, and cook, turning the fennel with tongs, until all the cut sides are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, then use the tongs to carefully transfer the fennel to a plate.

Decrease the heat to medium-low. Pour in the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes just to warm through. Carefully transfer the fennel back to the skillet and simmer, basting and flipping the pieces every few minutes, until tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.

To serve, spoon a little of the sauce onto each of four small plates and top each plate with two pieces of fennel. Garnish each with 1 tablespoon of the parsley, a generous dusting of plantain powder, a few turns of black pepper, a pinch of orange zest, and a few of the reserved fennel fronds. Add a dollop of sunchoke cream. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle with fleur de sel, and serve.