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Just One Thing: Going Vegetarian with Chef Bryant Terry

Paige Green

It’s the end of January, and as studies show, the best of healthy intentions, whether it is increasing physical activity, or making dietary changes start to fade fast in the first 30 to 60 days.

We asked Chef Bryant Terry, the author of Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed and Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine for his advice on “Just One Thing” for those who want to reduce the amount of meat they eat as a part of their healthy new year strategies.

Collier: If someone was going to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or even go straight up vegetarian, what would be just one thing they could do consistently now that would have a major impact in the future?

Bryant Terry: I would say taking a gradual approach makes most sense. Maybe start by having meatless Mondays, or vegan before 6pm, or just having one meal per day without any animal products.

Collier: Are you vegetarian or vegan and why?

Bryant Terry: I don’t eat any animal products, but I choose not to label my diet. One of the most important lessons that I try to impart is that we need to listen to our bodies. There is no one size fits all diet or panacea; when contemplating the best diet, I encourage people to consider a number of factors: age, bodily constitution, health status, ancestral foods, what is in season, and the like.

That being said, more mainstream medical institutions have been acknowledging that the over consumption of animal protein puts people at increased risk of preventable, diet-related illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. So I see plant-centered diets as another tool for addressing the public health crisis among the communities most impacted by preventable, diet-related illnesses.

Collier: How long have you been on that journey and was it hard?

Bryant Terry: After hearing the song "Beef," by Boogie Down productions in 1992, I started moving towards a plant-centered diet. Initially, my decision to stop eating meat was driven by my ethics. “Beef” described the horrendous treatment of animals in factory farms, and I did not want to support a food system that was reliant upon that.

After that I started to learn more about the health, economic, and environmental benefits of eating a plant-based diet. It has not been a linear journey. There have been times where I went back to eating fish and eggs. But now I do not eat any animal products and it feels good.

Collier: What kind of feedback have you gotten on your books and speeches from folks who are looking to make a change?

Bryant Terry: Because so much of my work is inspired by the history of many Africans and people of African descent growing their own food, making meals from scratch, and maintaining largely vegetable-based diets, people start to make connections with these traditions in their own families. I think my work has inspired them to recreate those traditions in a contemporary context.

Learn more about Chef Terry and his work through his web series, Urban Organic.

[This interview has been edited and condensed]

Bryant Terry's Afro-Vegan Ten Speed Press / Ten Speed Press

TOFU CURRY WITH MUSTARD GREENS (Yield 4 to 6 servings)

Soundtrack “Green Chimneys” by Thelonious Monk from Underground

I was inspired to make this dish after seeing a recipe for Tanzanian fish curry in The Taste of Africa, by Rosamund Grant and Josephine Bacon. My version is pretty straightforward: the tofu makes it hearty and satisfying, the greens are tender and give the dish a nourishing feel, and the curried broth brings everything together.

14 to 16 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
3⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 cup finely diced white onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
11⁄2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted (see sidebar, page 9) and ground
6 cardamom pods, toasted (see sidebar, page 9), then seeds removed and ground
1⁄2 teaspoon chili powder
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juices
1 heaping tablespoon chunky peanut butter
3 cups vegetable stock, homemade (page 42) or store-bought
12 ounces mustard greens, stemmed and cut into bite-size pieces
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the tofu in a bowl, drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the oil, and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt.Gently toss the tofu with clean hands until evenly coated. Transfer to the lined baking sheet, spreading the tofu in a single layer. Bake, turning once after 15 minutes, for 30 mintues, until firm.

Meanwhile, warm the remaining 3 table-spoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until they pop, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onion and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and sauté until soft, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the garlic, fresh ginger, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, chili powder, black pepper, garlic powder, and ground ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, peanut butter, and jalapeño and stir until well combined.

Stir in the stock, mustard greens, and bay leaves and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Gently stir in the tofu and cook for 10 min-utes. Remove the bay leaves. Taste and season with more salt and black pepper if desired. Serve garnished with the cilantro.