Back to Benin

In Eat, March 2023 by Eric GinsburgLeave a Comment

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Adé Carrena is one of the only people in America selling food from Benin, West Africa—and she’s doing it here. 

Smart money says you’ve never tried Beninese food, or maybe even heard of Benin. Adégnimika “Adé” Carrena aims to change that, particularly once her new food truck, Dounou (which aptly translates to “let’s eat” in Fon), debuts in March. A native of Benin, a small West African nation neighboring Nigeria, Carrena is using the rollout, in part, as a way to carve out her own identity by sharing Beninese food.

Operating out of southern Wake County, Dounou will be unapologetically Beninese, with dishes like tchantchanga (grilled meat marinated in suya spice), ata (black-eyed pea fritter), azin nsonou (Beninese peanut stew) and akasa (fermented steamed corn).

Few Americans have even heard of Benin—and if Carrena tried to count the number of people in the U.S. she’s met from her birth country, she could fit them on one hand. But she’s used to feeling like an outsider. 

Raised in rural Benin, she was adopted by a Puerto Rican family in Connecticut at age 10, severing ties with her family and country. Suddenly an African American immigrant growing up in a Hispanic household, Carrena didn’t really fit anywhere. But years later, after reconciling with her mother and repairing her connection to Benin, Carrena is on a mission to educate and expose people to her roots. 

“I went back and fell in love with my heritage and ancestry,” she explains. “That’s when I decided I needed to share food and culture from my home—through my own journey of self-discovery.”

After years working as a line cook, bartender and hostess, Carrena had begun to thrive in private cheffing via pop-ups and catering. But the pandemic shut all of that down. Lying awake at 3am one night she had her Eureka moment—making spices.

“I wanted to start with a spice that was very nostalgic to me,” says Carrena. “All West African countries have their own suya. ‘Chichinga’ is what it’s called in Benin, but ‘suya’ is more recognizable.”

Carrena returned to Benin with her mom in July 2020, relearning some of her family history, culture and native language. By the trip’s end, she’d sourced a small amount of ingredients.

Formally launched as iLeWA in 2022 with just two versions available in her brightly colored packaging, Carrena’s spice operation has already outgrown what she can manage solo. Naturally, those spices will play a prominent role in her new food truck. “All the great food I’ve ever had in the world has been in the streets,” says the spice proprietor. “I want to bring that essence here. I want you to feel like I’ve fed you in my home.”

To wit, Carrena is also organizing a dinner series with chefs across the state tracing West African ingredients and how they’ve influenced Southern cuisine. She’s lining up virtual cooking classes and has several planned in person this month in Apex, with more likely slated for Raleigh. And her pop-up dinners—with a heavy storytelling component—are ongoing. Ultimately, she wants to see a West African section in grocery stores. 

“It is my dream to convince people to want to use our ingredients the same way they use curry or chutney or soy sauce,” she says. “The women of Benin have taught me to embrace my culture and share it with the world. I’d love to invite everyone to be a part of this journey of coming out for themselves and understanding what else is out there.” @dounou_cuisine

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