A new vendor is coming to Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market — already home to stalls like Pierogi Boys and Miznon — on Thursday, July 1st, called Kelewele. The name comes from the Ghanaian street food: plantains that are diced, marinated in spices, fried, and enjoyed with ground nuts.
“With Kelewele, I really wanted to make plantains the star of every dish, rather than as a side, as they are often presented in restaurants,” says founder Rachel Laryea. All of the restaurant’s dishes are “plant(ain)-based,” according to Laryea, meaning they are vegan and use plantains in some form.
Kelewele is primarily dessert focused, with four to five options on the sweet side — such as brownies, cookies, and ice cream — that all use plantains. In her ice cream, for example, Laryea uses a homemade plantain milk instead of oat or almond milks as a vegan alternative. The stall will also showcase three core entrees like plantain tacos (placos), as well as offer two appetizers — the aforementioned kelewele and vegan “fish cakes” — with rotating specials to come.
Though many of these recipes are new creations, Laryea looked at the way cultures all over the diaspora have used plantains in their own cooking for inspiration. “Besides Ghana, if you even just look at West Africa, across the diaspora we all call plantains different things in terms of preparation or the dish itself,” Laryea says. Dishes like tostones or maduros became a generative source for exploring her own recipes, too.
Laryea, who is a first-generation American with parents who immigrated from Ghana, said she had long appreciated plantains, a staple of meals of her childhood. The decision to launch a business that centered on them came from several inflection points, one of which was the fact that plantains were something she sought out as an affordable option, and likewise, as she switched over to a vegan diet, an ingredient she could count on as a dairy and meat alternative. Laryea further cemented the interest in plantains as she explored the ways in which they could be symbolic for culture and African diasporic foodways through her PhD candidacy at Yale University.
When Kelewele launched as a business in June 2018, Laryea started with pop-ups and festivals, eventually expanding to have select restaurant partners such as Ginjan and Brooklyn Tea, as well as her own ecommerce site for her sweets. She has even published her own plantain-focused cookbook.
But when the opportunity to go brick-and-mortar presented itself, Laryea knew she had to take a leap of faith. “It wasn’t something that was planned before the pandemic, but it was impossible to say no to,” she says, adding that the built-in traffic from the Dekalb Market — and Downtown Brooklyn in general — made it a seemingly smart strategy and perhaps a bigger launching pad for the future.
Likewise, the market has acted as an expansion point for other growing food businesses in NYC, including Queens favorite Arepa Lady and Jamaican spot Likkle More Jerk. Teranga, the Harlem-based restaurant from chef Pierre Thiam, announced in June that they were shutting down their own location after six months to expand to a bigger Brooklyn outpost.
As Kelewele steps onto a bigger stage at Dekalb Market, Laryea aims to use the new spot to broaden the city’s perspective of vegan food and how it is made. “There are assumptions about who has been eating vegan food and who has been preparing it since the dawn of time,” she says. “It’s an incredible responsibility but also a privilege to engage in the conversation.”
Kelewele will be open from Monday to Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m, and Friday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.