A month or so ago, after watching a slew of deeply troubling documentaries, I decided to convert from pescatarian to vegan for health reasons (and just about every other reason there is to do it). Despite Beyoncé’s influence, it doesn’t escape me that veganism—like many of my interests—is often seen as “a white thing.” As a new Black vegan, it can feel isolating. So when one of my Facebook friends shared an event offering evidence to the contrary—a “Vegan Nigerian Cuisine” pop-up—I promptly purchased a ticket.
“Freelance chef” Salimatu Amabebe is owner of the catering company/recipe blog Bliss House, and has been vegan since she was 16. While there are several Ethiopian eateries offering vegan and vegetarian options, Amabebe appears to be the only fully vegan Black business owner in Portland’s food scene. After battling health issues brought on by an eating disorder, Amabebe says going vegan freed her to discover her love of food.
“Over many years, I also figured out how food can be so healing,” she says. “And it really also changed my relationship with food. As I started cooking, I was finally able to say ‘I love food,’ and that’s something I never would have said when I was younger. I love making and eating good food, and that has changed my relationship with my body, too. It’s about enjoying and appreciating—not eating out of shame or guilt.”
Born in Maine, Amabebe first learned to cook from her Nigerian father, who would adapt traditionally meat-heavy recipes for her. She remembers when her father bought a bunch of Tupperware, cooked a giant batch of stew, taped up all the containers, and sent her off to college with a bag full of food; the stews helped her through her homesickness. This is the kind of memory-based soul food she loves to share.
“At the risk of sounding new age-y, soul food is just food that’s made with a lot of love,” she says. “I have a love of fresh ingredients, and food that makes me feel really good.”
Hosted by Feastly PDX, Chef Salimatu’s $35 dinner promised four courses of vegan, gluten-free, and cane sugar-free fare: a cucumber-coconut watermelon salad with lime and black pepper dressing; yam and spinach stew with spiced jollof rice; tomato and black-eyed pea stew with sweet dodo (fried plantain); creamy coconut rooibos ice cream sweetened with maple syrup. I ended up dragging my family to the BYOWine event, and scraping every plate clean. The woman works magic with seasonings—salt, cayenne, nutmeg, and dried bitter leaf are among her favorites. While the starter salad wasn’t quite lime-y enough for my taste, and the smoky jollof rice was tasty but a little undercooked, I could have eaten a whole bucket of her traditional Nigerian yam stew. And the hearty bowl of beans had the perfect amount of heat for my admittedly wimpy palate. The delightful and Instagrammable dishes only left me wanting more.
Amabebe’s passion is at the intersection of art, cooking, and travel. She moved to Portland about a year and a half ago after completing an artist residency in Berlin, she lived in Guatemala for a couple years (where she made cakes and started Bliss House as a way “to survive”), and she was in Brooklyn before that. Amabebe’s also currently working on two photography-heavy cookbooks and searching for a publisher. She’s designed her career for flexibility: She can cook, create, teach workshops, and give food activism talks from wherever she wants to.
She’s also got several Nigerian meals in the chamber, like a couple of brunch pop-ups later this month. Next up is, Black Feast, a four-course dinner series based on works of literature and art by Black people. The first is based off Sister Outsider, a book of essays by Audre Lorde. The dinner will serve as a way to celebrate and engage with Black literature and Black artists through food.
“I was reading this book and got really emotional,” Amabebe says, “because I recognized this was one of the first times I had read something and assumed ‘you’ was a person of color. I started thinking more about who the assumed audience is—for art and the dinners I do.”
“I wanted to do something where the audience was assumed to be Black,” she continues. “I wanted to make something that’s like, ‘All right, this is for us by us.’ It’s open to everyone, people can come, but it’s about being a member of an audience that’s not assumed to be white. So you can be a white person there, but that’s not the assumption.”
The zine-style menu will include a cabbage and cauliflower salad with feta as the appetizer; a small plate of roasted burdock, celery root, and parsnip in a garlicky thyme sauce served with black rice; a black bean chocolate stew with roasted red pepper mousse and red palm chili oil; and a lemon crème dessert with berries, cherries, and almond coconut foam.
When asked if she thinks veganism is expanding to be more inclusive, Amabebe says she hopes so.
“I think there’s this existing health and wellness culture, which is very white. Like, there’s something very virtuous about a vegan diet, or that it’s cruelty-free. Those aren’t really terms I try to use. I try to just talk about what’s personal.
“To be a Black person living in the United States, it’s fucking political,” she says. “Being vegan is not my cultural identity. But it’s the way I eat for a multitude of reasons... people deserve [to share] their personal experience, what their diet is like, what their version of health is like. And it doesn’t necessarily have to look one way. Health and wellness culture doesn’t need to exist the way it does now. There is room for more variation, more types of food from different places in the world.”