Jhumpa Lahiri, an author who is from India, speaks Bengali and writes in Italian has always in my mind been a true figure of that happy medium that can be found in discovering one’s true roots. No one is from only one place when you migrate and immigrate. We find ourselves subconsciously ensuring we remain ingrained in our culture. We eat the food we are most familiar with - our native foods and try to stay rooted in multiple ways. Lahiri is one who ‘writes about those who leave home, once or more, to lose themselves and find themselves again, they hope.’ When you are a second generation American and your parents are immigrants, some things might also get lost in the growing phases. Unless reinforced by your parents, you are not immediately or directly exposed to the true roots and all tenets of your cultural identity. How to cook native dishes, speaking the language and so on. Somehow some things get lost.
When I came across Keng's kitchen, this was the thing that sparked my interest. The mastermind cook, Dr. Sylvia Keng Dasi is behind this concept. She produces YouTube videos teaching how to make various Cameroonian and other native dishes. In her videos she also educates on some cultural facts. For many next generation African immigrants globally, the lack of knowledge when it comes to knowing more about their culture through food, art and science has become a major port of concern because, identity’ matters. Evidenced by this fact can be seen in 2019, which was deemed ‘the year of the return.’ For the first time, many African and African American immigrants went back to what they call HOME, to feel finally, at home indeed. If that was not a cry for the need to deepen one’s knowledge of their true roots, I don’t know what else would qualify.
TANTV engaged Keng’s Kitchen in an interview, to share more about their goals and how they hope to engage this new generation of African immigrants using culinary arts and education.
TANTV's Adedayo Fashanu: What is the vision of keng's Kitchen?
KENG’S KITCHEN SYLVIA DASI: I founded Keng’s Kitchen in 2019 with a mission to deliver a sensory experience through exquisite cuisine and build a flavorful community passionate about food and culture. Our vision is to be the leading contributor in the conversation and advancement of African culinary arts for the new generation of African immigrants. This next generation is the heart of Keng’s Kitchen and we are passionate about our goals to not only pass on our historic culture and traditions but to also inspire innovation and creativity through cuisine for the future.
Q: What is the key thing that inspired you to launch/start Keng’s Kitchen?
I’ve always looked for ways to express my innate creativity through my passion for cooking. Keng’s kitchen was the perfect way to combine that passion and my personal desire to contribute to the preservation and passing down of Cameroonian culture. I’ve seen, through my own sisters, brothers, cousins, and friends younger than me, that they often struggle with identity. Since their diverse and afropolitan upbringing results in unidentifiable labels (for example, these first and second generation immigrants express that they are not fully American or African) they struggle a lot with identity. Food has always been a way to experience one's culture no matter where you were. You don’t have to be in Cameroon to experience Cameroonian culture. Unfortunately, some individuals of this generation have not had the opportunity to go back or visit and some may never have that opportunity at all. But a person can simply taste the food and almost be teleported there. Food crosses borders. I found it to be one of the most impactful ways for these generations to discover their ancestral roots and finally have something to connect to. These passions combined together inspired me to launch Keng’s Kitchen and is at the core of what we value and who we are.
Q. How do you hope to make an impact in the food and culture space locally and globally?
As the world becomes more globalized, cooking is also evolving. Traditional recipes cross borders into countries with vastly diverse cultures and result in creative forms of fusion food. At the same time, the impact of dietary acculturation, specifically on some immigrant populations in the diaspora, pushes traditional diets into extinction. With such experiences, some immigrant populations in the diaspora and their future generations begin to lose connections to their culture and their identity. Through the mission of Keng’s Kitchen, I hope to reconnect the future generations of Cameroonian immigrants in the diaspora to their ancestral roots using the best Cameroonian food possible.
Locally, the goal is to do this by connecting with various Cameroonian communities in Maryland and in other states like Pensylviannia and Texas. Globally, I hope to make an impact by becoming a reference platform for the conservation of African/Cameroonian Gastronomy for the Diaspora with organizations such as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). We also want to contribute to the UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage list for the safeguarding of Cameroon’s intangible food cultural heritage and to promote awareness of their significance to the world.
Q. Who are the creatives behind this brand?
Nyorh Agwe is my numero uno consultant! I always say that about her. She is the marketing mastermind behind Keng’s Kitchen. Everything from the logo, to the website, to creative direction, to media strategy and storytelling- I mean everything that you see organized and displayed on Keng’s Kitchen-- she is behind it.
Her creative career started after forming her first Clothing Company, NYORH AGWE in 2015. Her creations have been featured in publications like Vogue Italia, Essence Magazine and African Womans Magazine. Since 2018, She’s been consulting black-immigrant owned businesses as a freelancer and now is preparing to launch a Marketing and Advertising Agency of her own. This news will actually be released in the next couple of weeks so keep up with her on Instagram @nyorhagwe or on facebook @Nyorh Agwe.
Atang Agwe is our Media Director and she does a phenomenal job capturing all of our creations from visual to vision. She believes that sharing people's experiences with others brings unity and creates a strong, long-lasting sense of community even in the midst of division. Her photography and videography has been published by the Liberty Champion, Pure Creative Agency and Excellence Living Magazine. You can view her work on Instagram @atanga.photography or on her website: https://aagwe1997.journoportfolio.com/
I am Dr. Sylvia Keng Dasi, the lead chef of Keng’s Kitchen. I studied food and nutrition in Cameroon and when I came to America at the age of 16, I continued my culinary journey exploring and experimenting with herbs and traditional spices and mixing it in with Western spices. I went on to complete my Bachelors in Biology at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and my Ph.D. in Human Genetics at Howard University.
During those college days, a warm plate of Jollof rice, reminded me of home and the family that I would see again soon.
Q. As the mastermind behind this vision, how did you go from an idea to execution?
In the words of the late Dr. Myles Munroe “Great leaders pass [the baton] on before they die, and they live to see the other person run…”
These words triggered the birth of the vision of Keng’s Kitchen. During childhood, I developed a deep passion for cooking. I first took interest in baking then I was nurtured by my grandmother, aunties, community and taking cooking courses to learn how to cook Cameroonian dishes. However, it was one of my aunties who is a professional chef that imparted onto me the true techniques of Culinary Arts.
I came to the United States at the age 16 years and continued exploring my passion for cooking. Around this time, I noticed that some of my Cameroonian peers didn’t have an interest towards Cameroonian food as I did and it intrigued me.
I asked myself what the problems could be- was it that our foods were too difficult? Too time consuming? Or were the ingredients not available in this new home of ours? I started posting the Cameroonian food I was creating onto Facebook and I realized something- it wasn’t solely that others were not interested in Cameroonian food, it was that they didn’t know how to make it.
I noticed that when these Millennial Cameroonian immigrants moved to America, the American lifestyle just took over- working late hours, lack of at home family time, etc.-things that were not a factor back in Cameroon became a factor in America.
I saw parents struggling to pass on these parts of their culture to their kids because of these new factors. So when I posted my recipes on Facebook before Kengs Kitchen, I could see that their desire to learn was there all along. There just wasn’t a teacher. And that's how Keng’s Kitchen went from being an idea to being a reality. I listened to the needs of my community and I delivered in the best way I could. Honestly, it is their comments and feedback that helped formulate Keng’s Kitchen.
Therefore, I wanted to build a platform that would communicate Keng’s Kitchen’s mission in a way that fit the lifestyle of these millennials afropolitans organically.
The execution of Keng’s Kitchen is thanks to my community as well as the team working with me. Executing a vision requires working with a team of individuals who are experts in bringing a vision to reality. Our team is made of individuals with expertise in research, creative design, branding, marketing, sound production, journalism, videography and photography and much more. We work to study the culinary needs and problems within our target audience and create content tailored to solving those issues. What is unique about this team is we all have a mutual passion to not only discover and re-envision Cameroonian foods, but also re-envision Cameroonian culture and its people as a whole.
Q. What is a staple Cameroonian dish that every non-Cameroonian should know about?
Definitely Ekwang. This traditional dish tells a story of my ancestral heritage.
I chose to launch our YouTube channel with this well-known Cameroonian dish because it’s a recipe very close to my heart. It’s a Cameroonian dish that originates from my mother’s tribe. The Oroko tribe in Ndian Division of the Southwest Region of Cameroon.
At home, we often cooked Ekwang; one of the traditional dishes of the Oroko tribe. Ekwang is an arduous dish consisting of several steps including the peeling, grating, and wrapping of cocoyam paste into cocoyam leaves.
For Cameroonians, it’s a dish that is nostalgic and just takes your senses back to the good old ways of cooking.
For non Cameroonians, I believe it is one of the best examples of Cameroon’s flavor-filled spices and unique culinary techniques.
Indeed, it’s a finger-licking mouthwatering dish that leaves a unique savor on the pallet. And traditionally, you don’t eat Ekwang with a fork or a spoon! So the experience of eating with your hands also adds to the sensory uniqueness of Cameroonian food. After just a taste you will crave for more!
Q. What is so unique and special about Cameroonian dish, that makes Keng’s Kitchen focus on food from that region?
Personally, I believe what is unique and special about Cameroonian dishes are diversity and acceptance. Cameroon has an estimated 240 cultural tribes. This means there are approximately 240 or more traditional dishes that represent diverse cultures. And that is not even addressing the sub tribes that maybe in each 240, or mainstream foods within Cameroon’s street food culture. It gives so much room to explore and so much more to discover!
Cameroonians are also very open to learning and appreciating the unique culture of other tribes. They expressed this through music, cooking, and traditional wears.
One dish I would like to describe is Ndole. This dish is the traditional dish of the people from the Littoral Region of Cameroon. It is made using a green leafy vegetable (Bitter leaf) cooked in a creamy peanut sauce with a protein of choice, garnished with shrimp and onion then served with a variety of sides.
Though this dish came specifically from one tribe, it somehow made its way to become Cameroon’s national dish. Many tribes have accepted this dish and have adapted and shared it in so many new ways.
Ndole made its way passed the national boundaries of Cameroon and into the international space as one of Cameroon’s culinary delicacies. Cameroon is often referred to as an “Africa in Miniature” because of its cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity. In this same way, I believe Ndole is “Africa’s dish in miniature”. It’s a dish that portrays and celebrates the country’s willingness to share and accept their diversities in a way that unites them. That is what makes Cameroonian dishes so special.
Q. What 'narrative' are you looking to change or establish through your work with Keng’s Kitchen?
The ‘narrative’ we’re looking to change is that:
There is nothing new or nothing to be excited about when it comes to Cameroon.
The belief that our traditions will die with our elders
The belief that our younger generations have no desire to learn about their Cameroonian roots
We’ve noticed that these younger generations do have a desire to learn. We just have to be innovative and creative enough to communicate at their level. We’ve also noticed that there are a lot of new things to discover about Cameroon and Cameroonians. We just have to see it from a new perspective. But new is hard. Change is hard. Leading is hard. Many have just decided to leave our cultural ways in the past and substitute them for new ones. Not many have taken up the desire to advance it rather than leave it.
Through Keng’s Kitchen, I hope to re-define these narratives, perceptions and attitudes of Cameroonian food and culture by re-engage our first and future generations of African immigrants. Our vision is to be the leading contributor in the conversation and advancement of African culinary arts and culture and we plan to do so by being innovative and relevant to our community...
Q. Finally, we love your YouTube videos, can you share a video link of your favorite recipe?
Ekwang- The Oroko Way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VeIReWS1Dc
Q. What is in the future of Keng’s Kitchen?
The future for Keng’s Kitchen is as diverse as its roots. We plan on expanding our value-based services into products and various sensory based experiences. This means everything from creating products and services that really address the culinary issues a lot of Afroplitans face (for example, cooking time and ingredient availability) to sharing fascinating stories of the future of our Country and its people. If you want to know what exactly we’ll be doing next, join the family and subscribe to our newsletter at www.kengskitchen.com. We’d love to have you!