A Taste of African Heritage Offers Culinary Path to Wellness

Vitamin A-rich sweet potatoes. Peanuts, black-eyed peas, and lima beans, all high in fiber and protein. Vitamin and fiber-packed leafy greens like collards and mustard. Ancient whole grains including sorghum and millet. These and so many of the world’s healthiest foods originated in Africa and the African diaspora.

Reconnecting with these foods offers the opportunity to make Black History Month a celebration of wellness as well as aAfrican Heritage Pyramid celebration of culture. That’s the idea behind A Taste of African Heritage –a series of cooking classes created by Oldways, the Boston-based nonprofit that promotes the health benefits of traditional diets.

“The African-American population is disproportionally affected by high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes,” says A Taste of African Heritage program manager Johnisha Levi. “Students want to do as much as within their power to prevent it.”

So do their physicians. The program offers a way to treat at-risk patients holistically, through diet and lifestyle.

Health isn’t the only challenge. So is time. “People are working so much and have so many family commitments. It’s tempting to pick up some fast food or frozen food and zap it and have something really quick,” says Levi. In addition, “some of our communities are food insecure. Access and affordability become a factor.”

The six-week program, designed by a committee of nutritionists as well as experts in African history and culture has been taught in 150 communities across the country to students ranging from teens to seniors. Each week, the classes explore a different aspect of Africa’s foodways — greens, whole grains, beans, spices and herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Culture, Cuisine & Community

What makes A Taste of African Heritage unique among cooking programs is “cultural relevancy.” The Mediterranean Diet is not the only model for healthy eating. The foods of Oldways’ African Heritage Diet Pyramid “are foods our students are familiar with.”

Students learn to apply basic cooking techniques to traditional foods. “We show people this is something you can do with easy-to-get ingredients. Once you know what to do with them, it can be very empowering.” Students who’ve completed the course report positive results — results that translate into greater overall health. Sixty-two percent have lost weight, half have lost inches around their waists, and a third have seen a reduction in blood pressure.

“A lot of our instructors have their own health struggles and bring that personal element of experience. People can relate to that.” Instructors are volunteers who receive training through Oldways.

“They bring a wide range of skills,” says Levi, who worked as an attorney, pastry chef, and professional recipe tester before taking her present position as A Taste of African Heritage program manager. “We have nutrition educators, registered dietitians, church members, community activists, fitness trainers. Some add a fitness element into the class to encourage a more holistic approach and improve health by getting more movement.”

Launched in 2012, the program has had success partnering with other wellness initiatives including the Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute, a Drexel University clinic, and a farmers market, where students were able to take home fresh produce as well as recipes.

Johnisha Levi“We’re getting dramatic results when every barrier is removed,” says Levi. A Taste of African Heritage classes show students experience measurable gains in physical health. Less measurable, but just as beneficial, is improved mood. Community is a core precept in traditional African cultures, one lost in translation in modern America, where loneliness and isolation are so pervasive they can impact public health. A Taste of African Heritage classes provide vital social connection.

“The church groups are really powerful,” says Levi. “The students are people frequenting that church, they have a pre-exiting relationship, they have common interests.” Even when students have never met before, “when you have people working together in a small class setting, cooking together, problem-solving, it’s powerful in creating a bond.” In some cases, instructors and students maintain communication and connection long after the course is over, staying in touch by email and gathering for potluck meals of African-inspired dishes.

Family History, Family Health

Levi likes to start each class by asking her students what they ate growing up. “It’s a great ice breaker,” she says. “People say, ‘Yeah, my family ate that, too.’ It’s a way of getting people to talk to each other and feel comfortable.”

A Taste of African Heritage “brings back the way older members of their family used to cook,” she says. “These thing weren’t passed down. There’s more processed food now, things are fast-paced.” Not only does the program offer a path to wellness through African culture and cuisine, “people are rediscovering family history.”

Oldways has amassed a solid online collection of research supporting African, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latin American traditional diets, as well as an excellent collection of vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes, food glossaries, and other resources to help people bring healthy traditional foods back into their lives.

Here’s a vegan recipe that brings together five culinary superstars of African origin into one hearty, healthful meal.

A Taste of Africa Bowl

Indigenous to the African continent and beloved in America, sorghum, sweet potato, black-eyed peas, collards and peanuts all come together in one bowl.

The good news — all components can be made a day or two ahead, then kept covered and refrigerated. Assemble when you’re ready. The other news —sorghum is a slow-cooking grain. It needs an hour’s worth of simmering for best results. Leave it alone to simmer while you roast the sweet potato, toss the collards, and make the black-eyed pea stew and you’ll have everything ready to eat at the same time — nutrient-dense, rainbow-bright and flavor-packed.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

For the Sorghum:

4 cups water or vegetable broth
1 cup sorghum
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin
Juice of 1 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the Sweet Potato:

1 sweet potato, chopped
1 tablespoons olive oil
Sprinkle of sea salt

For the Collards:

1 bunch collard greens
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 juicy lemon)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For Black-Eyed Peas stew:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cups black-eyed peas, cooked and cooled
1 28-ounce can chopped fire-roasted tomatoes, or about 2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes (2-3 good-sized tomatoes) chopped
2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 sprig fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon sorghum syrup or molasses
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped


1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2) Bring water or vegetable broth to boil in a large pot. Add sorghum. Keep the pot on high heat and continue boiling for another 5 minutes. Then reduce the heat to low, cover the pod and let simmer for 1 hour. It will need little attention, just peek in occasionally and give it a stir so the sorghum doesn’t get lonely and there’s still plenty of liquid in the pot.
3) After an hour, grains should be tender and plump. Pour off any non-absorbed liquid. Toss sorghum with coconut oil, cumin, and lemon juice. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
4) Meanwhile, spread chopped sweet potato onto a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt.
5) Roast sweet potato in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent charring. When sweet potato is tender and darkened at the edges, remove from oven and set aside.
6) In a good-sized soup pot, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the chopped onion. Stir and cook for a few minutes, until onion becomes translucent. Then add minced garlic, jalapeno, chopped red pepper, and celery. Stir and cook for 8 to 10 min, or until vegetables soften and become fragrant.
7) Stir in the cooked black-eyed peas, chopped tomatoes, paprika, and turmeric. Cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
8) Remove the lid and add the sorghum syrup or molasses to balance flavors. Add fresh thyme leaves, and season to taste with sea salt and pepper.
9) Wash the collards well. Blot dry. Slice out the thick central stems and discard (or reserve them to make broth later). Stack the collard leaves and roll them up widthwise, forming a tight collard cigar. Using your sharpest knife, slice across as thinly as possible, forming skinny ribbons — collard tinsel — or to use the proper culinary term, chiffonade. Alternately, if using a food processor, use the shredding disc. You’ll have roughly 2 cups of greens.
10) Scoop the collards into a large bowl. Add the minced garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Toss to combine. Season with sea salt and pepper.
11) To serve, scatter a spoon or two of collards into bowls. Spoon sorghum to cover. Top with chopped sweet potato, a few more shreds of collards and a good ladle or two of black-eyed peas. Sprinkle with chopped peanuts and enjoy!


Ellen Kanner is the author of the award-winning book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner (VegNews’ 2013 Book of the Year and PETA’s Book of the Month Club debut pick). She is also Huffington Post’s Meatless Monday blogger, the Miami Herald syndicated columnist Edgy Veggie, and contributor to print and online publications including: Bon Appetit, Eating Well, VegNews, Salon, Every Day with Rachael Ray and PETA Prime.

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