Most essentialist apron ever, yo.
Here’s my take on the issue. It’s great that Johanna is pulling us along to a better place and making the vegan food world aware of what so many of us unthinkingly do so often. At the same time, historical perspective is necessary—I believe that things really are getting better, which is heartening.
Johanna points out that at times vegan cookbooks (as well as cookbooks generally) use ridiculously general and, when you start thinking about it, pretty damn offensive recipe titles like “Asian-Style Tofu.” But I see a whole hell less of that than there used to be—look at the Time Life Foods of the World Cookbooks: though they attempted to be open-minded explorations of non-American cultures (as well as non-white American cultures), this 1960s cookbook set is at times a hilarious/tragic primer in How Far We’ve Come—we’re inching along, in the food world generally, in the vegan food world, and in our culture at large.
I have my own struggles with this—I make an African Yam Stew, the example she uses to point out many Western vegans’ ignorance about other cultures (mine is called West African Groundnut Stew with Yams and Millet, but still). I also make Ethiopian Wat and Sudanese Mashed Eggplant, since we’re specifically talking about African dishes, and I’ll tell you something: many of my (NYC Upper West Sidey) clients are freaked out by both of those dudes. They can handle African Yam Stew, just barely, (and sometimes I have to reassure people that “groundnuts are just peanuts!”) but Ethiopian Wat is pushing it. I’m not saying this is right—it’s stupid, for sure—I’m just stating how things look from the perspective of someone who cooks for a living and thus has to think about how “regular people” think about food. We’re moving—slowly. I do truly believe that mainstream America is beginning to realize that Africa is indeed a giant continent, not a country.
It’s pathetic, but it’s progress.
“Ethnic food” is a personal peeve of mine (I have many). I stopped saying “ethnic” (and “exotic”) a few years ago because I’m no longer comfortable with its implications, but it’s a problem when I can’t think of another good word to replace it to describe dishes I personally didn’t grow up eating, seeing, or hearing about. Of course, there shouldn’t necessarily be a word to describe food that a white girl growing up in the Southwest in the ’80s wouldn’t have heard of. Thus, the problem with “ethnic” and “exotic.” One person’s “ethnic” is another person’s “home.” And, in that sense, maybe there is no problem, except that, of course, the playing field is not level—girls growing up in Oaxaca probably wouldn’t call hamburgers “ethnic,” but I would have seen mole negro as pretty damn exotic, and ethnic.
Sometimes Jacob and I are talking about where to go to dinner and all I can say to describe the sort of place I want to go is “I want ours to be the only white faces in the place.”*
Usually, when forced to describe my cooking philosophy I tell people that I cook the food of poor people around the world. Poor people have always come up with the best vegetarian dishes, and I’m of course super oppositional to the hierarchal mainstream celebrity chef industry.
I want to keep my ears close to the ground, keep learning, keep cooking with my mind and heart open. Isn’t that what we all want?
West African Groundnut stew with Yams and Millet
(Adapted from Bloodroot, not sure how much it makes, I scaled it waaaay down from the size I make, so hopefully nothing is weird…)
1 ts. red pepper flakes
1 ts. dried ground ginger root
1/4 ts. ground cardamom
1 ts. ground coriander
pinch ground nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/4 ts. ground cinnamon
pinch ground allspice
1/4 c lemon juice
1/4 c lime juice
2 Tb. grape seed oil
1 lb or so tempeh, cut into thin strips
grape seed oil for frying
3 medium parsnips, peeled, cut into 1” pieces
2 large onions, diced
1 c peanuts
8 or so cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
3 smallish sweet potatoes, peeled or not according to your taste, organic/local status and freshness, cut into 1” pieces
1 c creamy peanut butter (ah, but what kind??? Post coming up!), crunchy is fine too
1/3-1/2 c shoyu, to your taste
2 Tb. lemon juice
1 (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes
2 c raw millet
- Combine marinade ingredients and pour over tempeh. Marinate for 1-3 days. Or just a few hours. Or, bake the tempeh in a 375°F oven for a bit (my trick when you forgot to marinate something).
- Drain tempeh, reserving marinating liquid. Fry tempeh in grape seed oil until nicely browned.
- In a large saucepot, heat oil to cover bottom of pan and sauté onion, then parsnips. Add yams, garlic and peanuts when onions and parsnips are browned. Add reserved marinating liquid.
- In blender, combine peanut butter, shoyu, and lemon juice, adding 1/2 cup water.
- Add contents of blender plus 1-3 c more water to pot, or enough to make a nice stewy consistency. Blend tomatoes for a few seconds, then add to pot. Add pan-fried tempeh. Bring to a boil, then turn to a simmer and cook 30 minutes, or until parsnips are soft but not mushy. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
- Cook millet (like rice) and serve it alongside.
*I get so exhausted with white people’s interpretation of non-white people’s food in this town, I can’t even tell you. Everything should be in quotes. “Enchiladas.” “Tacos.” “Greek salad.” “Hummus.” “Italian Food.” Everything is followed by an invisible “…as interpreted by white people who cook without quality authentic ingredients.”
Oh, but! Mew Paltzers! Did you know that Youko’s noodle shop recently started serving sushi? It’s really nice, with some great vegan options. I went there with my two bestest boyfriends tonight, and it was so lovely. The menu is helpfully highlighted according to veganosity now, too. What a pleasure, to go to an authentic Japanese noodle shop and drink real, quality tea and pretty good sake and soak up the beautiful atmosphere. I’m so proud of my pal Youko–she’s doing it!