Vegetable Kingdom

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Vegetable Kingdom, Bryant Terry's hardcover cookbook, set on a wooden table.

There’s a real sense of community and intention behind Vegetable Kingdom, the depth of which I don’t often get from cookbooks. Bryant Terry’s use of food as a medium to teach history and share memories, to discuss identity and to explore new experiences is both humbling and beautiful.

Vegetable Kingdom is Bryant’s fifth book, and was released in February 2020. He’s a James Beard Award-Winning Chef, and is currently the Chef-in-Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco. He is best known for his afro-vegan cuisine, as well as his work as an activist and educator. I highly suggest you check out some of his other work, like his Ted Med talk from 2015!

This book, though, was inspired by his two daughters, Zenzi and Mila:

“I wrote this book to make a diversity of foods of the plant kingdom irresistible to them, to inspire their curiosity, and to show them the pleasure of a lifelong adventure with good, nourishing food.”

Bryant Terry, Vegetable Kingdom

I picked up Vegetable Kingdom because I was looking for a book that would shake up my regular flavor routines, and push my veggie skills to new heights. While I am not exclusively vegan, I like to incorporate as much vegan cuisine into my cooking repertoire as possible.

Visuals 4.5/5

Okay, so I know this section is titled “Visuals,” but what I really loved about Vegetable Kingdom was THE MUSIC! I didn’t realize that Bryant makes a regular practice of including a “soundtrack” with his recipes. Not only did I play the accompanying track while cooking, but I’d play it again for my partner while we were eating.

I really appreciated the added dimension that music brought to the table (ha, quite literally). Cooking is naturally a sensory experience, but having a soundtrack transported me in a whole new way. It allowed me to picture the personality, emotion and memories behind each dish.

Seriously – go check out the Spotify playlist that Bryant made just for Vegetable Kingdom!

And as for the actual visuals, it’s a lovely book. The food photography is great, no doubt about it. There aren’t really any process shots, and most photos don’t include any hands at all. For a collection of recipes so strongly rooted in family and heritage, I guess I expected more of a human presence in the photography, as well. It certainly doesn’t detract from the quality of Vegetable Kingdom, but after spending so much time cooking from it, it does feel like a bit of a disconnect. The music totally makes up for it, though.

The many components needed for his jerk tofu wrapped in collard leaves.

Cookability 3/5

I’m going to be straight with you. Vegetable Kingdom is a challenging cookbook. And that’s exactly why I picked it – I wanted a book that would push my comfort level.

It’s not that it involves complicated techniques or special equipment. What made it challenging, for me at least, was that Bryant’s dishes are complex and layered. Many of them require multiple components. If you’re looking for quick, one pot meals for weeknight cooking, this is not the cookbook for you.

He does note that the first recipe in each section is the simplest. I suppose the strategic thing would have been to start with those recipes first, and to move on from there. But I’m not that kind of cook. I flipped through and bookmarked whatever looked particularly delicious or intriguing, and started there instead.

His dishes are so, so flavorful! I found the time investment to be very rewarding. The more complex recipes really do require careful reading and planning. I pulled off a few of his recipes mid-week, but only because I had prepped most of the components over the weekend.

Here’s what I cooked:

  • Corn, red pepper, and blackened tempeh chowder
  • Citrus and garlic-herb braised fennel
  • Simple celery salad
  • Oven-roasted zucchini
  • Yellow squash soup
  • Pikliz
  • Sauteed cabbage and roasted potatoes
  • Jerk tofu wrapped in collard leaves
  • Caraway-roasted beets and carrots
  • Green rice

Which included these component recipes:

  • Corn stock
  • Lemon oil
  • Cilantro sauce
  • Jerk marinade
  • Blackened spice blend
  • Collard-peanut pesto

It wasn’t until after seriously cooking from Vegetable Kingdom that I came to appreciate tempeh. Bryant’s Corn, red pepper and and blackened tempeh chowder was my absolute favorite. And infusing oil with flavor before using it in a dressing is an absolutely genius technique I’d never really used before. Once I made Bryant’s lemon oil, that’s all I wanted to use for salads and grain bowls!

Corn, red pepper and blackened tempeh chowder.

Value: 4.5/5

Vegetable Kingdom is worth every penny. I almost feel like it’s two cookbooks in one. The selection of full recipes is large and robust. But then there’s this whole world of recipes for stocks, sauces, spice blends and components in the back of the book. Once I had been cooking from Vegetable Kingdom for a couple of weeks, I started to experiment with certain components. The cilantro sauce, especially, is delicious on just about everything!

Cooking aside, I think the real value comes from getting a genuine glimpse into Bryant’s community, and his intentional approach to food, history and family. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Food is never just food. Food comes from people, and I love learning about the stories, the histories, the influences and the places that come with people being people.

Various bits from different recipes, all tossed together.

Fomentation Factor: 5/5

I don’t really know why, but I like dabbling in vegan cuisine. I find it so engaging. It can be the simplest food, and also the most complicated. Vegetable Kingdom was a great way to push and evolve my cooking skills. I love vegetables, and I’m always looking for new ways to prepare them.

At first, I did my best to strictly adhere to Bryant’s recipes. There’s no better way to understand technique than to try to replicate his dishes as closely as possible. But after a couple of weeks of that, I started to loosen up and see potential everywhere. I made delicious salad and grain bowls, combining leftovers from a few different dishes. I started putting cilantro sauce on everything – salmon, tacos, eggs, you name it! I even experimented with a parsley sauce version for my cilantro-averse partner. And the collard-peanut pesto? It makes a delicious summer salad tossed with some chopped cucumber.

Once I could wrap my head around the flavors and textures, I felt like I had a whole new tool kit to use in the kitchen. And so many great new ways to really make the best of summer produce!

Vegetable Kingdom Total Score

All together, I give Vegetable Kingdom a score of 17/20!

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