A Guide to Vegan Soul Food: Delicious and Nutritious (without the chicken)

BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich - a vegan take on soul food

If you grew up deeply rooted in the rich, savory, and utterly comforting world of soul food, the concept of "vegan soul food" might seem like a culinary oxymoron. Soul food, after all, is as much about culture and tradition as it is about flavor and spices. From succulent baby back ribs to deep-fried hush puppies, dishes like these have been enjoyed by many and are a staple at family gatherings.

Thankfully, transitioning to a vegan lifestyle doesn’t mean you have to give up the deep flavors and hearty meals. It turns out you can keep the “soul” in soul food, even without the chicken. Let’s look at the delicious and nutritious world of vegan soul food, keeping the essence of tradition alive while adding a fresh, plant-based spin.

a wide selection of spices for cooking

The Magic of Seasoning

The heart of any good soul food and the key to ensuring flavorful vegan food is how you use spices, herbs, and seasoning techniques. Seasoning can transform any ingredient, and for vegan cuisine, it’s indispensable. Here are some insights and tips on how to ensure vegan dishes are richly flavored from the first bite:

Understanding Flavor Profiles

When cooking vegan, understanding and experimenting with different flavor profiles can significantly enhance the taste of your dishes. Every cuisine has a foundation of specific herbs and spices that create its signature flavor. For instance:

  • African: Scotch bonnet peppers, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, tamarind
  • Asian: Ginger, garlic, sesame oil, cilantro, and chili Mediterranean: Oregano, basil, thyme, garlic, and lemon zest
  • Mexican: Cumin, chili powder, garlic, cilantro, and lime
  • Soul Food: Paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic, onion, sage, thyme, bay leaves, pepper, dried mustard

By incorporating these spices and herbs, you can add depth and authenticity to vegan dishes that cater to various culinary traditions.

Toasting Spices

Toasting spices is a technique that can elevate the flavors in traditional soul food dishes such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, and various rubs for proteins. Spices like paprika, cayenne, and dried mustard benefit significantly from toasting, improving their warmth and depth.

Blooming Spices in Oil

This is particularly effective in soul food cooking, where the base of many dishes starts with a rich, flavorful oil or fat component. For example, starting a dish of greens or beans by blooming garlic and onion powder in oil lays a flavorful foundation that fills the dish with a robust taste.

Using Fresh Herbs

While soul food often relies on dried herbs due to their concentrated flavor and longer cooking times, fresh herbs can be a wonderful addition to lighten and brighten dishes. Adding fresh parsley or thyme towards the end of cooking a stew, for example, can introduce a fresh, aromatic quality that complements the richer, deeper flavors typical of soul food.


Marination isn’t just for meats; it’s also perfect for vegan substitutes like tofu or tempeh in soul food recipes. A marinade with elements like apple cider vinegar, smoked paprika, and garlic can infuse these substitutes with traditional flavors, making them stand out even without meat.


This technique is fundamental in soul food, especially when preparing foundational ingredients like onions and bell peppers for dishes such as gumbo or jambalaya. It enhances their natural sweetness and complexity.

Umami Boost

Adding umami-rich components like nutritional yeast or soy sauce can mimic the depth often provided by meat in traditional soul food, making vegan versions more satisfying.

Incorporating these techniques into soul food, whether traditional or vegan, ensures that every dish is rich in flavor. Whether you’ve switched to vegan food entirely or want to try it on for size, these seasoning methods will make you glad you’re experimenting.

Experiment and Taste

Finally, the most important part of cooking—tasting and adjusting. As you cook, taste your dishes and think about what they might need. Is the dish too flat? Maybe it needs a touch of salt or a splash of acid. Could it use more heat? Perhaps a pinch more of cayenne or a dab of hot sauce. The more you experiment and adjust, the better your dishes will become.

vegan sweet potato pie

Reinventing the Classics

Vegan or not, the blend of spices like paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and a generous helping of black pepper can turn even the blandest ingredients into a fiesta of flavors. The secret is to layer these spices in your cooking process, which helps every dish develop a full-bodied taste.

For instance, vegan fried "chicken" using battered and seasoned jackfruit or cauliflower can rival the traditional Sunday best. When seasoned and fried to perfection, these plant-based substitutes create a crunchy, savory exterior with a tender inside.

1. Collard Greens without the Pork

Collard greens are a soul food staple, often cooked with pork for flavor. In the vegan version, smoked paprika, a dash of liquid smoke, or a sprinkle of smoked sea salt can replicate that smoky taste. Adding a bit of apple cider vinegar and some sautéed onions brings the greens to life.

2. Mac 'n' Cheese

Nutritional yeast, cashews, and spices blended into a creamy sauce provide a delicious vegan alternative to the classic mac and cheese. This dish is a comforting, creamy delight that no gathering should miss.

3. Barbecue Jackfruit

A great substitute for pulled pork, jackfruit absorbs flavors wonderfully and mimics the texture of shredded meat. Simmered in a homemade barbecue sauce and served over a warm bed of cornbread, this dish will remind you of its delicious beginnings.

4. Sweet Potato Pie

This classic dessert can be made vegan using plant-based butter and a flaxseed meal as a binder. The result is as sweet and comforting as the original, with all the cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla flavors standing front and center.

Will you make the switch?

We’re not suggesting you switch up “Baby Back Rib Night” with “Water Ice Weekend.” That would be culinary heresy. But if you’ve ever wondered whether tasty vegan soul food was a thing, now is your invitation to try it out.

And if you’re not into cooking? Order from one of our vegan restaurant partners tonight!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.