Healthy African-American Cuisine

Celebrating Black History Month With Low-Fat Fare

by Victoria Breckwich V·squez

The Bay Area's cultural and ethnic diversity provides all of us the opportunity to savor a great range of ethnic foods including African-American cuisine. Jambalaya, catfish stew and sweet potato custard are just a few dishes treasured for their cultural ties, spicy flavors and fresh ingredients.

African-American cuisine includes a cornucopia of healthy and nutritious foods, says Gwenndolyn White, an African-American nutritionist at the UC Cooperative Extension. "However, the food is often prepared with high-fat cooking methods that today we recommend be altered for lowering the fat while preserving the taste."

A Rich History

African-American cuisine has a rich history of survival and evolution. According to "The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking" by Jessica Harris, it is a food that has deep roots extending back over millennia to ancient and almost unknown civilizations and incorporates ingredients from many continents.

In the 1960s and '70s, it came out of family kitchens to be celebrated as an ethnic culinary specialty, soul food. "Soul food" referred to specific foods and the various methods of food preparation. The '80s and '90s have seen African-American cuisine transformed to festive fare or a modified low-fat option, as many people improve their diets for health and convenience.

Healthy Foods

African-American cuisine includes many delicious and nutritious ingredients: yellow and dark green leafy vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants; fish and poultry, low-fat sources of protein; and peas, beans and grains, nutrient-rich energy sources.

Notable dishes include cornbread, greens, gumbo with okra, red beans and rice, southern-style black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie and fruit cobbler. However, many of the traditional cooking methods -- deep-frying, seasoning with ham hocks or adding gravy -- conflict with today's recommendations to reduce fat intake.

Preparing Low-Fat Fare

Stefon Short, executive chef at the Women's Faculty Club, practices a lighter cooking style and has enhanced his repertoire to serve many heart healthy dishes for his guests. His previous experience in cooking low-fat for individuals and restaurants has shown him that healthy meals can be just as easy to prepare as higher-fat, traditional methods. And many are more convenient.

Short recommends instead of cooking with high-fat meats such as sausage, to try the new, reduced-fat poultry sausages. Even leaner, smoked turkey breast, Canadian bacon or lean ham pieces can be used for flavoring greens or stews instead of bacon drippings or ham hocks.

Replace added salt by seasoning generously with spices like cayenne pepper, curry and paprika available at local supermarkets or specialty shops. Discover new ways to substitute low-fat milk, buttermilk or evaporated skim milk for whole milk and cream.

The American Heart Association's brochure "Eat Heart Smart With Soul," for which UC Extension's White provided nutrition consultation, recommends eating beans, peas and legumes several times a week and limiting red meat to four- to six-ounce portions.

Select leaner cuts of meat and trim the visible fat, skin poultry and practice heart-healthy cooking methods like broiling, roasting, grilling, steaming and stir-frying with small amounts of oil instead of deep frying or cooking in fatty sauces.

The brochure also suggests experimenting with recipes calling for butter, fatback or large amounts of oil by cutting the amount in half, substituting a lower fat alternative or eliminating it altogether.

These recommendations for cooking low-fat African-American cuisine can be applied to all types of cooking for a heart-wise diet. Enjoy!

For More Help...

  • "Heart Healthy Recipe Collection," which includes the American Heart Association brochure, many of the dishes mentioned in this article and recipes from Chef Stefon Short, is available by calling Health*Matters at 643-4646.

  • "Heart Healthy African-American Cooking," a workshop featuring Chef Stefon Short, will be offered Feb. 12, 4-5 p.m. at the Tang Center. Call Health*Matters at 643-4646 to enroll.

Victoria Breckwich V·squez, MPH, is Health Educator/Training Specialist for Health*Matters, the wellness program for faculty and staff. Next month's topic: Consumer Health Skills on the Web. To suggest future Health Beat topics, email


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