This Brooklyn Restaurant Is Celebrating the Multitude of Plantains
Rachel Laryea's childhood wasn't filled with any saccharine delights—no cakes with sky-high buttercream frosting, or ice cream dripping from eager hands. Being raised as a Jehovah's Witness meant that there were no celebrations or holidays where opportunities to indulge abound. Her no-sugar household was also a way for her mom to introduce some calm while raising Rachel and her brother alone.
"My mom was always working, so she was just trying to cut out any potential for us to be super hyper and make her life as easy as possible during that time," said Laryea.
There was one thing that she could eat, though: kelewele—sweet, yellow plantains, coated and marinated with a spicy blend of ginger and cayenne pepper, then fried until caramelized, a popular street food in Ghana.
To Laryea, a child of Ghanaian immigrants, kelewele was more than just a sweet treat: it tethered her to her cultural roots. "It was a kind of preservation of my parents' culture in a new place, but also an understanding of where my family comes from," she said. "Food and food preparation was so central growing up—some of my earliest memories are of my mom making me kelewele."
It was the beginning of what Laryea calls her "plantain love story." The starchy, versatile fruit would play a pivotal role in certain times in her life, like her undergraduate years at New York University, where plantains were an affordable and accessible source of nutrition after she transitioned to veganism.
The idea for Kelewele started to form after Laryea left a prestigious career on Wall Street and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in African-American studies and anthropology at Yale. It's where she saw that plantains were just more than a source of nourishment—it was a symbol of something bigger.
"So much of my training as an anthropologist is to really think about how culture is formed, reproduced, and takes shape in different societies. And it was in that training that I had a light bulb moment of thinking about plantains as symbolic of culture, a representative of the African diaspora and all over the world," Laryea said. "I started to think about food as an entry point into thinking about society and how people understand themselves, especially in relation to other people across the diaspora."
While the idea for Kelewele had silently brewed since childhood, she knew this was the time to take a risk. "From an early age, I'd always thought it'd be so interesting to have a business structured around plantains," she said. "I always thought people were doing interesting things with potatoes, but I didn't really see that so much with plantains. I was just convinced to take plantains off the side menu where you usually see them and center them in a really creative, innovative way." In 2018, she created Kelewele, a pop-up aptly named after her favorite childhood treat, and transitioned to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Brooklyn's Dekalb Market in July.
From the bright and cheery space outfitted with plantain wallpaper languidly swaying to and fro, Laryea transforms a wide variety of plantains—from green, firm, and super starchy to mostly black, custard-like, and sweet—into a vegan menu filled with sweet and savory delights. Ice cream, thick chocolate chip cookies, and rich, chewy dark chocolate brownies get an unexpected smoothness and body from ultra-ripe plantains.
Her placos—sweet plantain tacos with black beans, chinchinga-spiced green peppers (chinchinga is a Ghanaian spice blend made with ground peanuts), pico de gallo, and a vegan shito mayo sauce—play on the sweet and spicy flavors of the diaspora. When it comes to incorporating plantains, Laryea sees no limitations; she's even experimented with fermentation techniques, creating plantain wine.
For Laryea, though, Kelewele is more than just a place for diners to appreciate the versatility of plantains; it's where she can use her anthropological lens to build the business she wants—one that honors, respects, and pays homage to diasporas all over the world.
"I want to create something that's not about just the transactional economics of business, but something that's an experience. And it can be something that resonates beyond 'I'm grabbing lunch at this place.'"
Laryea sees Kelewele as a symbol of pride, a way for diners to tangibly experience the way plantains function as a thoroughfare connecting the African, Asian, and Caribbean diasporas around the world. It's where folks can rest easy knowing that their identity isn't exploited for profit or clout—a safe space where people can see themselves reflected in a meal, and an unabashed celebration of the flavors and vibrancy of the diasporas.
"Just the other day someone came to the restaurant and ate our phishcakes. He was like, 'This reminds me of a dish my mom would make for me when I was growing up in Puerto Rico!'" she said. "Those are the moments that I love—creating food that reminds someone of home and memory and belonging is the most incredible thing. I always get teary-eyed thinking about it."