On a map, North Carolina and the small, West African country of Benin appear very far apart.
The capital cities of Raleigh and Porto Novo are separated by about 8,800 miles as the crow flies.
Chef Adé Carrena is on a mission to help you realize that maybe the cultures aren’t so different, culinarily.
Carrena, the superstar behind Raleigh-based spice company iLéwa Foods and Dounou Foods, was recently crowned the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s Chef of the Year, for helping to bridge the gap between southern cuisine and West African cuisine.
She blends the recipes she grew up with in Benin with the staple ingredients we have abundantly available here in North Carolina to help the two styles meet in the middle.
Take, for example, sodabi, an appetizer drink of sorts. In Benin, it’s made with distilled palm wine and served before meals. Carrena wanted to serve something that gives you the same feeling of warmth in your stomach, but palm wine is tough to source locally. To solve this problem, Carrena makes a spiced watermelon gazpacho that stands in for sodabi.
“(My sodabi) opens up your appetite,” Carrena said. “That’s the way we like to describe it. And while I could not infuse alcohol in it, what I could do was give you the feeling that sodabi gives you when you drink it. It’s warm to the touch and when it goes into your belly, you know that feeling when you have had nothing to eat and then you take a shot of gin or tequila or something, and that burning sensation you feel in your belly that makes you instantly hungry, that’s what sodabi does to you. I wanted to give you that same feeling.”
Carrena cites the way she grew up in Benin as the “ultimate example of farm to table eating.” She describes a place where you go to the market and pick the specific chicken you want and describe how you want the butcher to prepare it. Those principles guide her cooking today.
“It’s this idea that we should be eating what the earth naturally gives us at the time it gives it to us is something that’s always been like very much instilled in me ever since I was a little kid,” Carrena said. “And so when I’m here in North Carolina, I don’t have access to all those same ingredients, but what I have access to are the amazing farmers in North Carolina who grow high quality ingredients.”
Put on the spot, Carrena can rattle off a list of North Carolina-Benin fusion foods she uses to illustrate the areas where the cuisines overlap. North Carolina has grits. Carrena uses garri (granulated cassava) to make West African grits. North Carolina has Hoppin’ John. Carrena uses black-eyed peas for a stew that hits the same notes in a different way.
“The two cuisines are so similar to each other,” Carrena said. “When people say, ‘We don’t know what West African food is,’ I say, ‘You probably are familiar with it. You just didn’t know. You’ve had it before, you just didn’t see the similarities.”
Carrena will bring her talents to the North Carolina State Fair next month, both as a vendor with her iLéwa Foods spices and as a chef in on-stage demonstrations to show visitors that West Africa really isn’t so far away. Her cooking demonstrations will be in the Got to Be NC Pavilion in Dorton Arena. More info is available here.
“Not only am I excited to be there representing my spice brand, but I’m exceptionally excited to be doing some demos and showing folks how they can use these North Carolina ingredients in their day-to-day lives to create these beautiful West African dishes that may not seem familiar, but once you start making it and you understand the flavors, you’re like, ‘Oh, this I know what this is,’” she said. “I’m really excited to shift the narrative of what West African food is like and how it’s just as versatile, versatile as any other cuisine and how it can be just as simple as well to implement into your diet.”