Portland chef Salimatu Amabebe always loved their father’s Nigerian cooking — in particular, his egusi, a stew made with ground melon seed and fresh greens. “When I would come home from college, he would wrap it up in a Tupperware container and send it with me in my checked baggage,” Amabebe recalls. “It was so nice to go back to my dorm and be able to eat this amazing stew.”
These days, Amabebe regularly serves egusi to dozens of guests as part of a vegan Nigerian pop-up series, which features plant-based and gluten-free takes on Amabebe’s family recipes. The chef also hosts monthly Black Feasts, lively dinners that celebrate black artists through food, writing and live performances.
Vegan Nigerian pop-ups
When planning Nigerian pop-up menus, Amabebe often draws inspiration from childhood meals in Maine and Arizona. “My earliest memories of eating Nigerian food were Sunday brunch,” Amabebe says. “My dad would make beans and dodo … a black-eyed pea stew with tomato and onion, and then the dodo is fried plantain. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.”
But childhood brunches aren’t the only influences on Amabebe’s cooking. The 26-year-old chef worked at a gluten-free and vegan meditation center in Guatemala, a plant-based bakery in Brooklyn and a raw meal delivery service in Portland before diving into pop-up dinners full time. It’s perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that every dish that Amabebe creates is made without gluten, refined sugar or animal products of any kind.
In a city that’s 76% white, Portland doesn’t offer many chances to try Nigerian cuisine. At first, Amabebe felt pressured to use traditional, “authentic” Nigerian recipes. But over time, that feeling faded.
“My dad never used recipes,” Amabebe explains. “My version of authenticity I learned from him, and he learned from someone else. I see it as art. I take all of those memories and the things that I’ve learned from my family, and I put that into each meal. I would dare someone to call it inauthentic.”
Authenticity aside, Amabebe’s Nigerian meals are most definitely delicious. In addition to egusi and fufu (warm soft dough) and beans and dodo, a typical dinner might include mango coconut cabbage salad, guava cheesecake or purple sweet potato ice cream. Amabebe even hosts occasional Nigerian brunches, featuring cassava home fries and pineapple cornmeal hotcakes, among other morsels.
Nigerian food isn’t all that Amabebe offers the Portland community. Since 2017, the chef has hosted monthly dinners dedicated to centering the black community. It’s an idea that first sprouted while Amabebe was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best-selling memoir Between the World and Me.
“He starts out the book writing a letter to his son, who’s black,” Amabebe explains. “The feeling that I was part of the audience was a really special feeling, and something that I hadn’t felt before in literature. I started to think more about audience, and how living in so many predominately white places changes the assumptions I have about my audience.”
“I thought, what if I change that?” Amabebe continues. “What if I started making things that were for people of color? I wanted to do something that was for black people, by black people, and about celebrating blackness.”
The result: Black Feast, a series of four-course pop-up dinners spotlighting famous black authors and artists like Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Nina Simone. Amabebe pairs each dish with a piece of work from that month’s featured luminary.
One Black Feast, for example, focused on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Amabebe named each course after a line from the play; “Brick by Brick” became grits with charred greens and a spiced tofu egg, while “Alaiyo, One For Whom Bread Is Not Enough” inspired an almond pound cake with plum compote.
“Each line was from one of the four main characters,” says Amabebe. “So when I was creating the menu, I thought about what dish I would make for each of these characters. It had to do with their struggle, but also their personality and the kind of gift that I would give them.”
Despite being a black-centric space, Black Feast welcomes visitors of all races and backgrounds. Just be prepared for more critical thinking and discussion than you might typically expect at a supper club. “You can just come to dinner and chill and eat food, but you can also engage with the work if you want to,” says Amabebe. “I create space, and then hope that something beautiful comes out of that. So there’s definitely space for conversations about race.”
Attending a meal
Amabebe’s Nigerian pop-ups and Black Feast events are typically held at Feastly on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Information about all upcoming pop-ups can be found at Amabebe’s Facebook page and Feastly page.
Out-of-towners can also get involved by donating to Black Feast’s informal scholarship program, which funds tickets for low-income people of color. To contribute, simply buy extra tickets to the event, or send your donation via PayPal to email@example.com.