Photo taken by Lyudmila Zotova for “Women in Food,” a portrait series celebrating female-led food culture in Portland.
I have never had the pleasure of meeting Salimatu Amabebe, but just speaking with her on the phone felt like an adventure. It’s impossible to classify her as just a cook, or just a teacher, or just a creative. Salimatu refers to herself as a freelance chef, curating events that are more than just dining experiences. She is a wanderer with direction, continually searching for what comes next in the spheres of food and art.
Although she grew up cooking with her Nigerian father, Salimatu’s first true kitchen job was on the line at an Italian bistro…and she hated it. At 19, she had just graduated from Bard University where she studied art, film, and photography. To save for a move back to New York City, she slogged through stressful and tiring restaurant hours in her Maine hometown. Salimatu recalls, “I had no interest in working in kitchens after that. I was sort of traumatized.” When she finally made it back to Manhattan through a gallery fellowship, she convinced herself that the art world was where she would stay. But when the fellowship ended, she went back to food, managing a vegan bakery in Brooklyn.
After the bakery, Salimatu worked various other kitchen jobs, eventually moving to Guatemala and founding Bliss House, the vegan catering company and educational entity that still remains her current brand. While living in Central America, she dabbled in raw eating, partially to alleviate some health problems but also to take advantage of Guatemala’s fresh produce. After two and a half years, an artist residency took her to Berlin, Germany. She says, “It was here that I first saw the connection between food and art.” With inspiration from a variety of “culinary artists,” she began hosting conceptual pop-ups that encompassed dining and creative expression.
An expiring visa brough Salimatu back to the states, although Portland was not her first choice to place roots. She loved the city’s food culture and easy-going nature, but she was worried about missing the “struggle” of New York City. [As someone who lived on the East Coast for the majority of my life, I can attest to the fact that New Yorkers do in fact seem to relish a struggle. Just watch them walk down the sidewalk]. What Salimatu ultimately realized was that Portland would support her culinary endeavors, even though it didn’t have the Big Apple’s “hustle.” And as a vegan chef, she was excited about the variation and creativity coming out of Portland’s plant-based kitchens: “Chefs are embracing the challenge of limitations and making really delicious food.”
Salimatu herself has been vegan since she was 16, but she never envisioned it to be permanent. While doing a “temporary” cleanse and reflecting more on what she was putting in her body, she realized that a plant-based diet actually made her feel better. She also promised herself that if something was lacking, she would have no problems re-introducing meat and dairy back into her diet. Over time, she has come to not only appreciate the health benefits of veganism, but also its positive impact on the environment.
Beyond nutrition and environmental footprint, Salimatu believes that food should be accessible to everyone. Her dishes are vegan and gluten-free, and she is cognizant of other common allergens. But don’t expect just salads or cashew cheese at Salimatu’s table. She adapts her father’s Nigerian recipes, removing animal proteins: “There isn’t a lot of dairy in Nigerian cuisine…and it has so much spice and flavor, you don’t miss the meat.” With dishes like a traditional stew called egusi, beans, and fried plantains, she pays homage to her heritage while maintaining her dietary choice and making the cuisine totally approachable.
Salimatu has big plans for the future of Bliss House. Right now, she is writing a vegan Nigerian cookbook and what she calls a “visual narrative about what it means to inhabit the body…in particularly, my body. It’s about food, memory, nostalgia, growing up, and the challenges we face existing in a body, but also the healing that can take place.” Salimatu gravitates toward these projects because they encompass writing, photography, and recipes — all the things she loves.
She also hosts “Black Feast,” a dinner series based on specific bodies of work by Black artists throughout history. She says, “the idea came from my experience reading books, watching films, and viewing art as part of an audience that was assumed to be white. When I read books, I noticed that the ‘you’ as in ‘you, the audience’ was a ‘you’ I could only pretend to be a part of.” The next Black Feast is inspired by Raisin in the Sun.
Whether she’s hosting events, writing, or exploring her next creative outlet, Salimatu feels that “it’s important to look at the big picture of what’s happening in the world, and to find a lot of meaning in what [she’s] doing. [She] likes finding different ways of telling a story and hopefully talking about the issues that matter through food.” Keep an eye out for her next pop-ups, including a vegan Nigerian brunch!
Check out Salimatu’s recipe for vegan apple chimi-cheesecake pockets!