When the first African Food Festival comes to the Brooklyn Navy Yard this weekend, Ishmael Osekre hopes attendees will feel the strength of the connection that food creates in his homeland.
“In every African setting, whenever two or three people meet, food is somehow involved,” says Osekre, an event organizer who grew up in Ghana and moved to New York for college. “Music is actually in the background, it’s an add-on to the gathering; food is what everyone unites around.”
This weekend’s two-day event at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is a chance to taste what’s actually already in our own backyard. Several of the participating chefs have restaurants in the city, including Buka, Bunna Cafe and Madiba — and if you’re already up on NYC’s African food scene, get excited for Saturday’s special dinner by Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese chef whose Le Grand Dakar was beloved in Clinton Hill before he turned his focus to catering. Besides walk-around tastings, there will be cooking demos, a vegan brunch and beverages like Ethiopian honey wine, palm wine, African beers and specialty teas.
Just as regional varieties exist of dishes like barbecue, African countries often have their own version of classic dishes — for Osekre, Senegal’s version of his beloved peanut soup was a revelation, and he hopes people from the continent will open their minds to new takes on familiar dishes. “It is as much a discovery for us Africans as it is for our American friends and European friends and anyone who is coming,” he says.
But while the fest celebrates all of Africa’s cuisine, there can be only onejollof. Both Nigeria and Ghana lay claim to inventing the beloved one-pot dish of rice stewed in a tomato sauce. Whomever created it, the festival will settle who makes it best as two chefs prepare their own versions onstage, with judges awarding ultimate bragging rights in a blind taste test.
It’s not just Africa’s cuisine you’ll get a taste of — Osekre worked with Janelle Monae’s “experience architect” to design four distinct spaces representing regions of Africa, including opportunities for cultural experiences like an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a shisha lounge and, of course, live music.
The festival won’t just be introducing non-Africans to the continent’s cuisines — it’s a chance for African expats to get to know each other in a way that just doesn’t happen back home, according to Osekre.
“My generation, we say this a lot: We become Africans when we leave Africa. Because when we are on the continent, we are Ghanaians or we are Nigerians because we don’t get to travel much, so our sense of self is mostly defined by where we are,” he explains. “Then we come to America and when our friends hear our accents, they say, ‘Oh, you are African.’ And then of course they ask where in Africa you’re from, but first you are African, so you embrace that identity and now you develop that curiosity about the rest of the continent.
“That is the burden and excitement of being in the West, where as an African who comes from Ghana or Nigeria or Liberia, you also have to take the continent on your shoulder and push it, and introduce it and defend it.”
African Food Festival
Aug. 13-14, noon-8 p.m.
Brooklyn Navy Yard,63 Flushing Ave.