Chef Salimatu Amabebe has lived and cooked all over the world: from New York, to Guatemala, to Berlin. So when I learned that she had taken her unique perspective of vegan cuisine to Nigerian food…in Portland, Oregon??? Well, I just had to reach out and say, “Tell me everything.”
Amabebe is a powerful culinary voice among Portland’s diaspora. In addition to her Nigerian Vegan Pop-Ups, she hosts a monthly dinner series called Black Feast where the menu is inspired by (and generates a dialogue with) the works of a featured African American artist.
We sat down with her to pick her brain about where to find egusi in The Rose City, what is a Nigerian salad, and the future of Naija cuisine. Enjoy!
I get why chefs stay in Portland; how did you get to Portland?
One of my sisters moved here about ten years ago, and I’d been visiting Portland…even before she moved. I just kept coming back. It’s a city that’s always been really easy for me to navigate, and I always liked that.
And [then] I was in Europe, and coming back to the States with very little money [laughing]. And I flew back into New York, and I’d lived there before, and I was like, “I can’t. I can’t come back here…Where can I go?” And Portland…I had been traveling for so long, crashing on couches, and doing food projects. It just seemed like a really good resting place, and also a place where I could do exactly what I’m doing now. There were enough people that I could support myself doing this, but not so many people that I’d have to struggle for my projects to even be seen.
When you made the move from cooking other types of vegan food to Nigerian vegan food, were you surprised by how receptive people were?
I was definitely surprised by how receptive people were. I started doing pop-up dinners out of my house, and the first dinner I did was not a vegan Nigerian dinner. I was doing a plantain soup; there were a lot of recipes I was just coming up with. I only advertised it on a couple of Facebook groups, so it was probably a dinner of only like, twelve people – a solid amount, but by no means overwhelming. So then when I went to post the second dinner, I did vegan Nigerian food, and I said, “I’m just going to put my address on here, it’s fine.” And then my house…every square inch was packed. I had forty people.
I’m sure for a lot of Portlanders, [your pop-ups are] their first time having Nigerian food. I’d be curious to what extent you’re providing background or context, like, “Here’s what egusi is,” versus a fluency-by-immersion type of idea: just experience it, and you’ll get it?
I honor that it may be a new experience for some, but it’s also food, you know? So to me, I’m just sharing food that I love, and I like to keep it that way. I’ll talk about the ingredients sometimes so they have a little bit of an idea in terms of flavor, and in terms of “what is bitter leaf?” or “what is fufu?” and “how do you eat this stew?” That’s probably the most I’ll go into [laughing]. “In case you don’t know, this is a thing you can do. You don’t have to do it, you also have a spoon there.”
In your experience with vegan food in other cities, is there anything particular about Portland that makes something like Nigerian vegan food a great opportunity?
I think the fact that it doesn’t exist here, that it’s a very new thing…people are intrigued because of that. And in terms of vegan food, there’s a huge vegan culture here – there are a lot of vegans. And there’s a big foodie culture here. I think all of those things make it a good scene to be in. Although, I do say that Los Angeles calls to me.
Heyyy, we’d be happy to have you! Let me tell you, there’s not much Nigerian food here, either.
Well, you can be expecting a pop-up from me in Los Angeles, probably in May. April, I’ll be in San Francisco doing a Nigerian dinner there, and May I’m hoping to work my way to Los Angeles, at least for one event.
Do you get Nigerians at the events?
Do you see differences in reactions from them versus other diners?
[Laughing] A lot of the Nigerians, I know. So their reaction is really like, “Hi, how are you doing?” But a lot of times we’ll talk about our experience with a certain dish, because everyone’s parent or family makes it differently. One of my friends went to [another] Nigerian dinner, and she brought home egusi, and I was like, “That’s not egusi.” But you know, it was! It just wasn’t the way I had it growing up.
Speaking of egusi – where do you get your ingredients: they have egusi seeds in Portland?
Yes! I will fully rep, with all of my heart, Mama Pauline’s African Market. They’re used to me going in there – because I used to do everything by bike – they’re used to me going in there with my hiking backpack and just filling it with plantain and cassava (all of the heaviest things) and just hauling it out, so they know me well. Very small place, but they have everything.
We’ve looked into trends in African and Caribbean food and considered where things can go from here. One thing you see a lot – especially on the west coast where there isn’t a big natural footprint – is fusion. Do you see anything similar happening with Nigerian Vegan food?
No. I don’t actually see a lot of Nigerian food or restaurants – even that aren’t vegan. I usually know of a few per city: I looked up one when I was in Berlin; I found a couple in New York. But for pretty big cities, it’s surprising how few Nigerian restaurants there are. I just think that Nigerian food has not risen in popularity to that point where people are starting to “fuse” it with other foods.
Do you have any theories as to why that is?
I have some ideas about why that is…
Don’t hold back.
What could the scene benefit from?
Probably a lack of racism.
And that’s something that you’ve noticed even in bigger cities than Portland, I take it.
Yeah. It’s not a matter of opinion when it comes to seeing what types of food are popular and which countries they’re coming from. There’s a reason that it’s not coming from West Africa. But I don’t think it needs to be that way. And I don’t think it will be that way forever. I think that things are changing in the food scene, and I think that things are changing in the political scene as well – and yeah, we’ll see.
In a future where these issues are hopefully much better, what do you see as the future of Nigerian food – what’s the tipping point for it becoming broader, if that’s even something you’d want? Is Nigerian vegan food a natural growth point for it moving forward?
I don’t know how vegan Nigerian food fits into the grander popularity of Nigerian food. But I can say almost certainly that Nigerian food is going to become more and more popular. Absolutely.
Do you think it will need to change at all or bridge at all, or just stay true to it’s guns and people will come to it?
I think people will come to it. I don’t think it needs to change at all. I don’t think there’s anything inaccessible about Nigerian food. I think the only thing that’s given it a semblance of inaccessibility is that a lot of people don’t know what it is and haven’t had it before. But there are a lot of Nigerians in the world, and a lot of Nigerians who cook, and I think that the culture is changing a lot in that we continue to explore. You also see travel food shows and there’s this search for new or different types of food. It seems impossible that Nigerian food could remain out of the popular types of cuisine for very much longer.
What Nigerian dish have you made, where you took a step back and were just like, ‘Damn, I did that.‘?
I think making this banga soup recently – I was like, wow. I did a lot of new things [with it], but one thing that I did was I made the soup, and as I was serving it I threw chopped spinach in it. The spinach is fresh, but by the time it gets to the table it’s been cooked a little bit, so it’s that perfect mix of fresh and cooked.
I think that’s also a part where I maybe stray from the way I grew up with Nigerian food: I love to add some greens at the end, or add something fresh. I also will make salads. They’re always a part of Nigerian dinners, and I always do something like add some fried plantain or something to it. But…I’ve never had a Nigerian salad.
I was going to say! I’ve never had a Nigerian salad. What is a Nigerian salad?
There are Nigerian salads – I think there’s one where you have hard boiled eggs and lettuce, or you might have something with cabbage. But for the most part, the salads are always a challenge because it’s always nice to have something at the start of a meal that’s very fresh. Especially when you have stews and beans and puff puff. Sometimes what I’ll do is work with mango, I’ll work with coconut, and plantain. I made a cassava salad once. I’ll bring in those ingredients and find a way to lighten them, at least for one course.
My last question: in every family, there’s something that no one can [cook] but one person. Is there anything in Nigerian food where you’re like, “I just wish I could get this one right”?
There is a tomato stew – and I made it recently, and it was very good! But…it’s amazing, because it’s so simple (it’s actually one of the most simple things to make), and I have no idea how my dad made it that way. And I have a moment of feeling really sad, because my dad died about a year and a half ago, and I think about how I used to call him every time I made egusi. Sometimes I’d be in Maine, and I’d be like, “Dad! I went and found egusi in Maine!” And he’d be like “Wow! Amazing!” [laughing]…or he’d ask what I put in it, and I’d tell him, and he’d just be really happy. I remember telling him I’d made beans and dodo and he was like, “Oh, how did you cook the beans?” and I’d say, “I cooked them overnight,” and he’d say “How did you know to cook them overnight??” and I’d say “Because I know how to cook beans!” and he’d say, “Yeah, that’s what they do in the village,” [laughing]. So I had that moment where I felt like, “Aww,” that’s affirmation that maybe he’ll guide me on the next one.
Speaking of which, what you’re doing is super awesome, and I definitely hope I see you in L.A. sometime in May, and keep doing what you’re doing!
Thanks you! This has been absolutely lovely!
Feature image courtesy of Cheryl Juetten