February is Black History Month, celebrating the struggles and accomplishments of the African Diaspora. It’s also a time to highlight black culture, including art, music, and food. Soul food is the term used to refer to traditional African American cuisine which originated with the West African slaves in the south who had to be creative and make do with the paltry rations available to them. These included cornmeal, pork, and whatever they could catch or grow like catfish, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. The back-breaking work from sunup to sundown had to be supported by enough calories, leading to breading and frying foods or adding pork to greens and other vegetables. This style of cooking has persisted to this day and what we know as soul food includes such delicacies as fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and candied yams.
The drawback with soul food is that it is high in saturated fat, salt, and added sugar and contributes to high rates of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers. The good news, however, is that if we take a step back from slavery to the traditional African diet eaten by our ancestors, we find that it was mostly plant-based and included a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes like black-eyed peas and peanuts. Meat was eaten in very small quantities and often used only as a seasoning.
With some changes in the method of preparation and substituting some of the ingredients, soul food can move from being harmful to actually lowering your risk of chronic disease and pre-existing conditions so often prevalent in the African American community. Try some of the following suggestions:
- Put plants first. Plan your meals around leafy greens, multi-colored vegetables, squashes, root vegetables, beans and peas, nuts, fruits, and whole grains. Consider a filling main dish like a squash and chickpea stew. Plantains and yuca are excellent substitutes for potatoes either as a side dish or added to main dishes.
- Add flavor with herbs and spices. In addition to onions and garlic, use ginger, thyme, oregano, hot or mild peppers, curry, turmeric, and allspice for seasoning as well as in sauces and marinades. Smoked paprika goes a long way to adding smoky flavor to greens or beans without having to add meat. Instead of using a high-salt hot sauce, add a habanero or scotch bonnet to the dish while you’re cooking (but go slowly since they can be very hot!) Be adventurous with different flavors like berbere from Ethiopia or harissa from Tunisia.
- When you do choose to eat meat, saute it or use a hot air fryer instead of deep frying. Combine the meat with lots of vegetables in stews, casseroles, and other dishes where it can share the limelight instead of being the star. Jollof rice is popular in many West African countries and can be made with or without meat while featuring a wonderful blend of spices and seasonings.
- Experiment with modifying recipes, like leaving the sausage out of your red beans and rice but upping the flavor with fresh thyme or cayenne. You can also try substituting mushrooms for meat in some dishes or adding soy sauce or tamari for the umami flavor. Black-eyed peas are delicious leaving out the pork and adding plenty of aromatics and even some greens like kale or spinach.
- Cut back on added salt or sugar and test your taste buds to see how little you can get away with. Instead of making candied yams with marshmallows, roast them with cinnamon and a little bit of maple syrup.
- Use whole grains instead of processed ones, like brown rice instead of white. Try making your cornbread from scratch instead of a mix and use whole wheat pastry flour instead of white flour. Experiment with new grains/seeds like millet and sorghum which are commonly used throughout Africa and happen to also be gluten-free.
- Use olive, avocado and coconut oil instead of shortening, lard, or other vegetable oils.
- When cooking greens, use as little liquid as possible and cut down the cooking time until they are just done. Flavor with garlic and spicy peppers instead of pork or other meats. For other vegetables, steam or roast them, again relying on aromatics and spices for flavor while cutting back on the salt.
You may be reluctant to let go of the traditional soul food recipes you grew up with, and your family may resist any changes you try to make. It will be easier if you start with small changes and experiment with different flavors to determine what you prefer. You’ll notice that you feel better and chronic conditions will improve as you embrace soul food that promotes health instead of diminishing it. You’ll probably also find that you prefer the taste of food prepared with wholesome, nutritious ingredients. If you miss the old fried chicken or macaroni and cheese, you don’t have to give it up altogether. Instead of eating it regularly, just save it for special occasions.