The Healthy Dish Alek Wek Makes to Stay Energized
The model and Goodwill Ambassador has been cooking this plant-based stew since her childhood in South Sudan.
Alek Wek likes her routines. The model, author, designer and Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees begins each day with a meditation, followed by a set of stretches and an hourlong run in the park near her Brooklyn brownstone. In the evening, she practices yoga or dance cardio at home, trying different videos on YouTube. “I need to be active,” Wek explained on a recent morning. “It keeps me motivated.” Sticking to her plan is harder, though, when she travels; she’s spent much of the past year abroad, walking in fashion shows including Off-White and Dries Van Noten, and shooting ad campaigns — as well as attending the first World Youth Forum in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.
To stay energized and keep her digestive system healthy when she’s on the road, Wek relies on a diet that’s mostly plant-based and rich in gut-balancing ingredients. One of the staples in her kitchen is okra: The fibrous plant is plentiful in Wek’s native city of Wau, South Sudan, and found in many of the region’s traditional dishes, including an okra and tomato stew that her mother would often serve when Wek was a child. Growing up with eight siblings, Wek first made the vitamin- and mineral-packed dish herself when she was 10 years old, cooking it over a charcoal stove, as she had seen her mother do. “We didn’t have running water or electricity,” Wek explains. “So she cooked all these dishes fresh, daily.” She vividly remembers her mom’s face upon tasting the finished stew. “She was so proud,” Wek says. “After that, the recipe stuck with me.”
Wek and her family fled Wau to escape the civil war when she was 12; she soon relocated to London and later moved to New York where she started her modeling career in the mid ’90s. With each move, she’s been able to find fresh okra at the market. Wek now makes her own version of the stew, adding ginger and cinnamon to boost immunity, and spoons it over spiced couscous. When gearing up for a busy stretch, like fashion month, she adds a glass of detoxifying lemon juice — fresh lemons squeezed into ice water with a bit of honey — to the menu. “The next day after you eat this dish, you feel so much lighter,” she says. Here, she shares the restorative recipe.
Alek’s Balancing Okra Stew
∙ 2 medium red onions, finely chopped
∙ ½ teaspoon garlic
∙ 8 teaspoons olive oil
∙ 1 quart vegetable stock
∙ 5 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
∙ 2 cinnamon sticks
∙ 1 teaspoon freshly sliced ginger
∙ 4 cups chopped okra
∙ Fresh chopped cilantro for garnishing
∙ 4-6 whole orange or yellow chili peppers (optional)
- In a large pot, simmer the onions, garlic and olive oil on medium heat for 10 minutes,or until onions are translucent.
- Add the vegetable stock and tomatoes. Stir to combine and let simmer for a few minutes.
- Add the cinnamon sticks, ginger and okra.
- Cook for 10 minutes, remove from heat and garnish with cilantro.
- Serve with warm couscous and chopped chili peppers on the side, if you prefer a little heat. Serves four.
Alek’s Sticky Cinnamon Couscous
1 cup of whole-wheat couscous
∙ 4 teaspoons olive oil or 1⁄4 cup ghee (“for a richer version with healthy fats,” says Wek)
∙ 2 cinnamon sticks
∙ 2 cups vegetable stock
∙ Salt and black pepper
- In a pot, add the vegetable stock, olive oil or ghee, and couscous. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Bring to a boil, add cinnamon sticks and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from the heat when most of the water is gone and the couscous is sticky and moist. Serves four.
*The finished stew, served with warm whole-wheat couscous for an extra hit of fiber, along with freshly squeezed lemon juice sweetened with honey.
Story originally appeared in NYT T Magazine by Kari Molvar
Photos by Nicholas Calcott