Oakland’s Got Soul Food
Traditional Flavors Make a Fresh Comeback
The humble black-eyed pea is both a nutritious legume and an anchor order at some of Oakland’s new soul food restaurants. As crunchy fritters, a salad or a healthy side, the cowpea is featured by a group of chefs working to impart a sense of home and homestyle cooking. Here, Oakland Magazine meets up with three cooks putting down soul food roots, sharing their stories and favorite recipes.
Tanya Holland enjoys cooking traditional Southern food but wanted to do something a little different when she decided to open her own restaurant in West Oakland, near her home. Holland, who is the author of the cookbook New Soul Cooking and hosted the show Melting Pot on the Food Network, says she had been looking for a bistro-style space for several years when she decided to locate her business in her own neighborhood. “I was getting to know the community and realized what an underserved location this was, so I tried to think of something really accessible to everyone,” Holland says. She came up with Brown Sugar Kitchen, serving food she calls “new-style down-home” cooking.
Though she hesitates to use the f-word (that’s “fusion”), Holland says her cooking combines the flavors of the South with those of the Mediterranean and California. In all three regions, similar ingredients are often in season at the same time. Seasonality, sustainability and quality are also important inspirations for Holland, who says, “I feel like barbecue, soul and Creole hadn’t been elevated to that level of hormone-free food in a nice environment.” That’s where Brown Sugar Kitchen comes in. The food is based on a combination of what Holland can make in the space, her experiences cooking in New York and France and what gets
her excited. That combination yields cornmeal waffles, fried chicken and blackened catfish.
And the name? “People name a restaurant after many things,” Holland relates.
“I was trying to think of different names—I liked the word kitchen. I thought, ‘everyone’s gonna get that.’ And brown sugar is a euphemism for an African-American woman and it’s also an ingredient I love, something everybody likes. I
really wanted to bring something positive to this city that I love.”
Black-eyed Pea Salad (serves 4)
4 cups black-eyed peas, cooked and drained
1 cup white onion, diced small
1½ cups red bell pepper, diced or roasted
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeño chile
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1½ cups extra virgin olive oil
Zest of 1 lime
2 limes, juiced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and black pepper to taste
Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl and toss with dressing after whisking together those ingredients in a small bowl. Refrigerate for two hours to allow flavors to meld.
Picture the interior of a homey plantation house by the sea, walls full of books, knick-knacks and ocean treasures. It’s not North Carolina; it’s chef Joey Altman’s revamped, relaunched New World restaurant, Miss Pearl’s Jam House. Altman, well known for his James Beard Foundation award–winning television show Bay Café and his Food Network series Appetite for Adventure and Tasting Napa, has filled Miss Pearl’s menu with flavors of the Caribbean islands and of the South. With a menu brimming with roasted meats, yams and sweet potatoes, oysters and catfish, Miss Pearl could be someone’s sophisticated Southern auntie—but she’s not. An island girl at heart, she’s the fictional hostess dreamed up by Altman and revived at the Waterfront Hotel.
“They’re nobody’s grandma’s recipes,” Altman says of his food, which he admits was dreamed up by a bunch of white guys. While he says some dishes may seem over the top with their garnishes or combinations of flavors, others are very straightforward. He wants people to look at the menu and say, “’I recognize this. This looks yummy.”
In building Miss Pearl’s, Altman has had a chance to get to know Oakland and its people. He sees the city as hospitality driven and not jaded. “You definitely get the sense that they appreciate your business,” says the San Franciscan of restaurateurs in the East Bay. And hospitality is key to Altman’s business philosophy. “I really do want people to enjoy themselves,” he says.
Accra with Ajilimojili and Dandelion Greens
(Black-eyed Pea Fritters with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Dandelion Greens) (serves 4)
1 cup black eyed peas
1 quart water
3/4 cup milk
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon minced Scotch bonnet chile (habañero or other hot chile will suffice)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 quart peanut oil (for frying)
1 red bell pepper, cut in ½-inch pieces
1 cup and 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 ounces)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch of dandelion greens, washed, spun dry and chopped into 3-inch long pieces
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
Boil peas until very soft. Chill. Place in food processor or mixer and purée. Mix in the fritter ingredients thoroughly and season to taste. This batter should have the consistency of a cookie dough and can be made the day before and frozen for up to two weeks.
For the ajilimojili, sauté peppers in olive oil until soft. Chill. Place in blender or processor and add egg yolk, garlic and lime. Blend until smooth, drizzle in remaining tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. This can be made up to six hours ahead of time and should be served at room temperature.
To fry the fritters, in a large shallow pot or wok, heat the peanut oil to 350 degrees, drop the batter by the spoonfuls and fry until a dark golden brown.
While the fritters are frying, cook the garlic and dandelion greens in olive oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat. Season the greens with lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Drain the fritters on paper towels and serve immediately atop the greens with ajilimojili drizzled over them.
Tamearra Dyson has been vegan since age 16, so when she’s asked for substitutions for common animal products found in soul food, she’s a little flustered. “I never used those things,” she says. “People ask, ‘How do you substitute butter?’ I don’t know.” Dyson also doesn’t use lard, sausage or any of the other meaty ingredients commonly associated with her cuisine of choice. So what does she use? She fries her cornmeal-crusted okra and crispy tofu in olive oil, uses fresh fruit to make her tonic-like drinks and she swears by fresh garlic and onion. “They make a huge difference in the taste,” she says. “Plus, they’re really healthy.”
Health was one of Dyson’s inspirations for opening her Souley Vegan cafe in downtown, where she refers to her greens as “candy.” Before she started her business, she worked in the medical field, and her family encouraged her to take her home-cooked vegan soul recipes to the streets. Dyson actually began at the Grand Lake farmers market, selling vegan cheesecake, greens, barbecue tofu and other family favorites. Dyson says she wasn’t looking for a downtown space, but her patrons were looking for a restaurant. When she stumbled across an old deli space, she took the leap and leased. “Souley Vegan moved faster than Tamearra Dyson,” she laughs.
Dyson’s gamble is paying off, with a September remodel adding upstairs dining and accommodating music on weekend evenings.
“People who come on weekends come down here just to see us,” she says. “People take time to enjoy their food and the atmosphere. It’s not all business; it’s about serving the public.” And Dyson hopes to remain in the service business for a long time. She says, “I’d like to stay here, be a landmark and develop.”
When asked for a recipe, Dyson confides she doesn’t really use them—which makes them a little hard to share, but here is one of her favorites.
Souley Vegan Herbed Cornbread (makes 16 pieces)
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup finely blended flax seed
½ cup raw sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 cups purified water
2 teaspoons parsley and/or thyme
½ cup olive oil
Blend flax seed until it becomes a fine grain, then add 1 cup of water and blend until it’s a pasty consistency. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until thoroughly mixed. Bake at 350 degrees in an oiled 11-by-13 pan for 25 to 30 minutes until cornbread is lightly browned on top.
—By Jessica Hilberman
—Photography by Lori Eanes