By: Joseph Perla
When Kuukua Yomekpe came over to the United States from Ghana, her main goal was to instill what she learned about cooking into the community. She started cooking for people in Berkeley, California before going back to Ghana and then moving back to Columbus, Ohio. This is where she started her pop-up restaurant called Asempe Kitchen.
Asempe Kitchen is a catering and pop-up restaurant that provides traditional West African cuisine. Kuukua describes West African cuisine as “stews and soups and sauces cooked with lots of tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, lots of meat like goat and lamb, and lots of spices.” Not only does Kuukua provide people with a traditional West African cuisine, but she also provides great vegan and vegetarian options as well. The closest cuisine to the West African cuisine that most people in the United States would know is Indian cuisine except the West African cuisine doesn’t have a bread like the Indian culture has. Kuukua says, “We use a lot of what we grow in the country. The notion of farm to table is very alive.”
Kuukua gets her passion for cooking from the woman who taught her best, her Aunt Mercy. Aunt Mercy cooked for Kuukua’s family in Ghana and was very passionate about cooking and took it very seriously. She strove to keep the dishes she made authentic, and Kuukua followed in her footsteps. In talking about this passion, Kuukua said, “I have taken her passion and added my curiosity (Asempe) and created vegan options of all the things I grew up eating, eschewing the need for bouillons and palm oil and instead making everything taste great with about 7 ingredients or less and all from scratch. She taught me how to cook and it stuck and I think I walk around deriving joy from helping others feel confident in the kitchen.”
Her favorite dish to make is okra soup, which usually has a lot of meat in it, but Kuukua has been able to recreate this dish without having all of the meats included. The most popular dishes on her menu are Egusi, which is stewed spinach with toasted ground African melon seeds, Plantains, and Nkatsi Nkwan, which is peanut soup/curry with spicy habaneros, ginger, garlic and tomatoes. She has much more to offer on her menu, but these are just a few of the favorites.
Kuukua decided to move to Central New York to become a part of the academic world as well as bring Asempe Kitchen to the community. She currently works at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York as the Associate Director in the Office of Inclusive Excellence & Global Education. She also cooks for students and has cooking classes on campus which she says, “seeing their enthusiasm keeps me knowing I am doing something worthwhile.” Kuukua has two full time jobs, but still manages to find herself keeping her work at work and still focusing on gaining publicity for Asempe Kitchen and working on growing her business as a whole.
Asempe Kitchen is more than just a pop-up restaurant; It creates a sense of community. This is what Kuukua is passionate about. She says, “I don’t only want people to eat good, healthy food, I want them to learn about me, the Ghanaian culture, and the traditions that precedes these dishes.” COVID-19 has put a wrench in these plans because community events have not been able to take place, but once people get vaccinated and things start to get back to normal again, Kuukua has big plans for the future.
Her hope is to open up more cooking classes and communal dining in the future because when she was in Oakland, she was a part of an underground dining experience where you can meet all of these people and make lifelong friendships. She wants to create this experience in Syracuse, and she is doing this by holding Sunday dinners from 1:00-4:00pm in the month of June at the Teaching Kitchen inside the Salt City Market. She says, “seating is limited so we might only be able to serve 40 people by the end of June, but we hope we can expand this eventually. It’s called West Africa on a Plate.” You can purchase tickets here: https://tinyurl.com/asempeafricanfood.
Kuukua’s goal is to create a community through food here in Syracuse, NY. She wants to teach people more about the Ghanian culture while teaching them how to cook so others can enjoy this delicious cuisine as well. She is very passionate about helping others, meeting new people, and creating that sense of community through her West African cuisine. She has hope that people will experience it and become just as passionate as she is. Her final comments were “Asempe means curiosity. I invite everyone to try something new. And having a vegan cuisine doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on it and add meat. Think of all the immigrants who come to the United States every year and have to eat burgers for the first time. Do it because it’s one more thing to check off your bucket list!”