Every Wednesday, diners can buckle up for a lunchtime road trip to Ghana. But instead of traveling thousands of miles, all one must do is make their way to the Hills Market Downtown, 95 N. Grant Ave.
From a pop-up in the front corner of the grocery store, Chef Kuukua Yomekpe brings the flavors of her home country to Columbus through Asempe Kitchen. It has been a journey many miles in the making, taking Yomekpe to a new continent then across the country and back before setting up shop in Columbus just over a year ago.
Two weeks after her high school graduation in 1996, Yomekpe and her sister were on a plane with a one-way tickets to the U.S. She felt as anyone might after a cross-ocean move: she hated it. But Yomekpe pursued her studies, earning her first Master’s in English literature at the University of Dayton, before it was on to a position at Notre Dame, then to Berkeley where she picked up a second Master’s is theology.
During her time at Berkeley, Yomekpe realized she could take her love of cooking and feeding people and use it as a way to make money.
“I wanted to share my culture,” she says. “The best way to do that is food.” Dabbling in catering, “At first I used to just tell them to bring the ingredients and then I would cook,” but then she realized so could actually turn it into a business.
Yomekpe got serious about the operation, joining a women’s business accelerator and completing the program, but then taking some time away to teach in Ghana. When she came back, instead of heading to California, Yomekpe settled in Columbus to be closer to her mother who wanted to help her with the business.
“Columbus has changed a lot since I was gone,” Yomekpe says of her 12-year absence. The biggest change: a growing immigrant population; new international markets like Saraga meaning she didn’t have to travel to find her food.
“That has been really exciting, just coming back and realizing that stuff is more accessible and easier to find now,” Yomekpe says.
And diners will actually recognize many of the ingredients in her Ghanaian cooking. The name itself – Asempe – means curiosity, but Yomekpe generally uses seven ingredients or less in her recipes.
“We try to keep everything fresh and nothing that’s a composite of anything, so it’s ginger, it’s garlic, it’s spinach, it’s onions, you can pronounce anything in there,” she says.
Dishes also start out vegetarian or vegan; meat is added later. Asempe doesn’t use pork or fresh beef, usually opting for lamb or goat and is Halal-friendly.
Yomekpe believes most people are adventurous eaters, “They just don’t know yet.” Asempe plays to that curiosity in two ways.
“I like people to be curious about other cultures, and to be curious about other cultures is to try their food,” Yomekpe says.
She also uses curiosity to keep diners on their toes, with a rotating menu of familiar favorites, peppered with new dishes.
One pop-up staple: Egusi – a traditional West African dish of spinach and melon seeds. Red-Red is another palate pleaser: a black-eyed pea stew. Fried plantains, saffron rice and curries also populate the menu. Lucky diners might catch the elusive peanut butter soup or hand-made Ghanaian breads courtesy of Yomekpe’s mother, who also whips up the occasional Ethiopian dish.
Since partnering with the Hills in January, Asempe sees a steady stream of regulars and the curious diner who forgoes market fare for the speciality eats. For now, that only happens on Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
“What’s been hindering us though is that we don’t have another location,” Yomekpe says.
People have the food on a Wednesday and want it on a Saturday, so the pop-up is looking to add more regular locations to its lineup, they just haven’t found the right spot – yet.
Their regulars largely make up the other part of Asempe’s business – catering.
“What I think we’ve struggled with is we’re such a niche market that we’re not your first go-to option for catering,” Yomekpe says. But folks that have had the food, “Then we’ll get a catering order from those people.”
You can find Asempe Kitchen tomorrow, Wednesday October 3 at the Hills Market Downtown from 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. They will also host a special dinner event later this month: Welcoming the Harvest at Bleu & Fig on October 22 from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Details on the event here.
For more information, visit asempekitchen.com.