Tucked away in West Philly and King of Prussia are a few specialty shops that are invaluable to Adesola Ogunleye-Sowemimo. Whenever she misses the flavors of Nigeria, where she was born and lived until she was 7, she takes the long journey to get ingredients for her cooking.
But Ogunleye-Sowemimo is tired of making long journeys for dried crayfish and Ogbono seeds and spices. And they’re sick of not having a place to meet up with their community. So they decided to make one.
On September 27, Ogunleye-Sowemimo, who has worked in the food industry for 15 years in various positions, will open a series of pop-ups in her Fishtown neighborhood that explore culinary flavors and music genres while providing space for community building.
Called Wahala, a cheeky and funny Nigerian pidgin for trouble, Ogunleye-Sowemimo’s first pop-up will feature dishes from her own childhood and background.
“It’s a bit unfair that a lot of cultural food is being pushed to the outskirts of town, especially when food is supposed to be something that should be easily accessible to everyone,” she said, noting that certain restaurants and chefs need more financial support received than others. “And this event is a way for me to reconnect with my culture.”
The six-course menu includes dishes like fufu, moi moi, jollof rice (Ogunleye-Sowemimo argues the Nigerian version is best), and puff puff, a cinnamon and nutmeg fried biscuit. It’s the dishes Ogunleye-Sowemimo loved growing up, sneaking a few puffs when visiting family members’ homes and devouring labor-intensive stews that her mother would spend hours preparing for her.
» READ MORE: In search of Jollof rice with Chef Shola Olunloyo as West African flavors emerge in Philly and beyond
Shaq Armstrong, a Friday Saturday Sunday bartender in Center City, will prepare cocktails and soft drinks to accompany the dishes, which are infused with West African-inspired ingredients like pickled okra, mango, and nuts and berries common in Nigeria.
“This event is about reconnecting with family and community, no matter what that community is.”
“(Ogunleye-Sowemimos) Cooking allows me to be a little bit weirder,” he said. “I think people usually try to sacrifice tradition and culture under the guise of professionalism. People who are not willing to sacrifice authenticity and still have this really good standard become very exciting.”
Ogunleye-Sowemimo seeks to authentically and uncompromisingly emphasize the spices and thick texture of Ogbono soup; the comfort of savory and flavorful akara, a deep-fried bean pastry; the thrill of picking up some sweet puffs – no matter how unfamiliar or spicy it may be.
Every time the people involved in the pop-up share it with a community member from the African Diaspora, whether they are Nigerian or not, they are thrilled to have access to a meeting place where they can build a community and engage with culture can connect them.
This need is particularly important in order to gentrify Fishtown quickly. A 2019 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that incomes in Fishtown skyrocketed from $59,280 in 2006 to $81,889 in 2017.
» READ MORE: Study: Philly is at the forefront of gentrification that has displaced people of color
“For a part of the city that likes to spice up some new restaurants, the fusion idea and different types of food; For a city with a lot of black history…not having really good options for the kind of black diaspora that absolutely lives here is missing a lot of the community,” said Carolyn Haynes, who is filming promotional videos for the pop-up.
Ogunleye-Sowemimo had a front row seat to the gentrification of Fishtown. A resident for over 10 years, she has gone from stooping every day with her neighbors, surrounded by blacks and browns, to one of the few black people in Fishtown, sometimes feared by white newcomers and often stooping alone.
Wahala is a way to reclaim this space for Black and Indigenous people of color who no longer feel comfortable in the neighborhood they were challenged from, and to introduce newer residents to this culture and community. While this pop-up focuses on Nigerian cuisine, Ogunleye-Sowemimo plans to venture into other cultures for future events in the series.
“This event is about reconnecting with family and community, no matter what that community is,” said Ogunleye-Sowemimo.