Health & Fitness

‘Old ways’ of cooking mix health and culinary history

Sharon Chandler takes in the aroma of couscous with bell peppers in the class “A Taste of African Heritage” on Wednesday, Sept. 16, in Oak Park.
Sharon Chandler takes in the aroma of couscous with bell peppers in the class “A Taste of African Heritage” on Wednesday, Sept. 16, in Oak Park.

Dishing up paper plates of ginger-spiced quinoa and red-pepper couscous, Toni Colley-Perry is teaching a new spin on old foods.

“Switch out, switch over,” she urged a handful of cooking-class students on a recent weeknight, holding up a box of whole grain pasta, which she recommended as a healthier replacement for white rice or potatoes. “We really want this to catch on in Sacramento. It’s something everybody needs.”

Colley-Perry is teaching Sacramento’s first African Heritage cooking classes, which link nutrition and old-world foods spiced up for 21st-century appetites. The six-week classes were created by Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit group started in 1990 that aims to reconnect Americans with traditional ways of cooking foods that are healthier than today’s high-salt, high-fat, processed dishes.

Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott said too many Americans have lost touch with home-cooked foods and traditional plant-based diets, which have long been linked to lower rates of heart disease, obesity and other chronic conditions.

More than 20 years ago, piggybacking on the original U.S. food pyramid, Oldways began creating a series of ethnic food pyramids based on traditional foods and spices from African, Latin American, Asian and Mediterranean diets. Working with nutritionists and culinary experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and other universities, the four ethnic pyramids share a common emphasis: grains, nuts, fruit and vegetables prepared with bold flavors. In most cases, olive oil is preferred for cooking; meat, sweets and dairy products are minimized.

But it’s more than just urging Americans to eat more vegetables. “We talk about the history of foods, what they are and why they’re healthy. All of the pyramids are based on a healthy foundation of gardening, walking and running, cooking, eating with family,” Baer-Sinnott said.

In a fast-food culture, nutrition experts have long warned that too many of us have gotten away from home-cooked meals using fresh ingredients.

“Most people are listening for that crinkling sound” of opening plastic-wrapped, packaged foods, said Avion Weaver, an adult program director for St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, which is sponsoring an African Heritage cooking series next month (see box). “Getting back to whole foods is crucial to getting us back to a better state of mind and health,” he said.

The African Heritage pyramid, one of four designed by Oldways, is dominated by lots of leafy greens (spinach, mustard, dandelion, collard), along with whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, millet), beans (garbanzo, kidney, black-eyed peas) and tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, cassava). It incorporates flavorful spices (curry powder, ginger, cilantro, paprika, etc.) and an abundance of onions and garlic.

Recipes, hailing from Senegal to the Caribbean, include spicy chickpea stew, red beans with coconut milk, West African peanut-sweet-potato stew and Kenyan vegetable mashed potatoes.

Oldways has sponsored African Heritage cooking classes in San Francisco, Long Beach and Fresno, but Colley-Perry’s class is the first in Sacramento.

On a recent weeknight, Wendy Blocker and her 13-year-old daughter, Justine, drove in from Natomas to attend the cooking classes at Oak Park Community Center. Blocker said the African Heritage pyramid uses ingredients familiar from her family’s roots in Trinidad. “It’s cool to go back to basic, traditional foods,” said Blocker, a nurse with the Indian Health Service office in Sacramento.

Less meat, but just as tasty

While the Oldways food pyramids don’t ban meat, they encourage a lighter touch. “We are certainly not against meat or animal proteins but (recommend) having them in smaller amounts or used as a flavoring, not sitting down to a giant steak,” Baer-Sinnott said. And healthier eating can be just as tasty. For instance, she said, instead of cooking collard greens with lard or bacon fat, the Oldways recipe uses olive oil, garlic and lemon juice, plus Dijon mustard “for some really tangy favor.”

The classes tie into Americans’ interest in ethnic foods, which are a growing part of U.S. retail food sales.

As part of that culinary trend, both supermarkets and restaurants are embracing “multicultural wellness ingredients,” such as teff (a tiny Ethiopian grain), matcha (Japanese green tea), pepitas (pumpkin seeds), lentils (in commercial kitchens) and avocados (moving from guacamole into sweets and beverages), according to a May 2015 report by Packaged Facts, a consumer market research firm. These types of ingredients, “at the intersection of healthier eating trends and our increasingly international palate, are fueling some of the most compelling trends in the culinary landscape,” the research said.

Ethnic foods can encourage healthier eating as long as portions are modest and high-calorie sauces are kept in check, said Toby Amidor, a nutrition expert and author who writes for and other sites. “There is value in having ethnic food available and preparing it the way it has been done for hundreds of years,” Amidor said in an email. “Some of the truly ‘old ways’ of serving some of these dishes may have been lost due to the Americanization of (how they’re prepared).”

Amidor, a registered dietitian, warns against some of such common pitfalls of today’s ethnic cuisine: Indian (cream-based curries, samosas and other fried items); Japanese (fried spring rolls and tempura, white-rice sushi); Mediterranean (olive oil overload, fried cheeses and vegetables); Mexican (high-calorie chips, cheeses and sugary margaritas); and Thai (“artery-clogging” coconut milk sauces).

Health risks for African Americans

The African Heritage classes, first offered in 2012, try to counteract health statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that African Americans have some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Healthier ethnic cuisine is also embraced by the state Department of Public Health’s Champions for Change program, which sponsors ethnic cooking classes in Sacramento and elsewhere that encourage healthy ways to prepare favorite dishes.

“If someone can let go of one fast-food meal and replace it with a healthier meal, it’s a great start,” said state Health Education Council spokeswoman Kyla Aquino Irving.

Larry Harris, a retired Aerojet employee and the only male in Colley-Perry’s class, said he showed up to learn more about “heritage and history” in African foods, but also to find more ways to “eat healthy and live longer.” Since being diagnosed as pre-diabetic several years ago, Harris said he eats less meat, uses stevia instead of sugar, and grows a backyard garden of tomatoes, collard greens, squash and cucumbers.

In the classes, instructors take weight, waist measurement and blood pressure readings for each participant at the beginning and end of the six-week session. Based on the last three years of classes, Oldways says more than 64 percent of its attendees lost weight, more than 50 percent lost inches from their waistlines and 33 percent saw their blood pressure drop.

It’s partly a matter of changing eating habits, said heritage foods instructor Colley-Perry, who’s also a Folsom Lake College professor.

She altered her own diet after being diagnosed with diabetes several years go. Now, for dessert, “I eat grapefruit,” she said. “Put a little tiny bit of brown sugar and cinnamon on it and grill in the oven. It’s like heaven. I can pass up ice cream for that.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

A Taste of African Heritage

What it is: A six-week series of cooking classes focused on healthy eating with plant-based “heritage foods” from Africa, the Caribbean, the American South and parts of South America. The African Heritage cooking classes, which blend culinary history with hands-on recipes, have been offered at 100 sites nationwide.

Origins: Heritage diets are a staple of Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit group that encourages healthy lifestyles by linking back to traditional, plant-based “heritage” food from different cultures. Launched in 1990, Oldways has developed food pyramids for Asian, African, Latin American, Mediterranean and vegetarian diets based on “eating like your ancestors.” The pyramids are intended to help prevent chronic conditions – heart disease, diabetes and obesity – that are linked to diet. Oldways also hosts an annual conference for supermarket dieticians, a “Good for Me” kids cookbook and overseas culinary travels.

Results: According to Oldways, 64 percent of African Heritage class participants have lost weight during the six-week sessions; 33 percent dropped their blood pressure to a lower stage; and more than 50 percent lost inches from their waistlines.

Class sessions: The current African Heritage cooking classes end in early October. The next series, sponsored by St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, runs Saturdays Oct. 10 through Nov. 21. For details, contact Avion Weaver at 916-737-7064 or by email at

Resources: Champions for Change, a state Department of Public Health program on nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, posts online recipes for African American, Latino and Chinese dishes at offers its ethnic food pyramids, recipes and classes online. This fall, Oldways is launching a series of Latin American cooking classes and is looking for local organizations to host the classes. (If interested, write to