Wambui Machua is a traditional Kenyan chef, entrepreneur, and owner of Spice of Africa, a Portland-based African restaurant. When the Oregon Folklife Network had the pleasure of talking with Machua, she told us gathering people around food is her passion because “food brings people together and makes them happy!" She gets to fulfill this passion while practicing and sharing her traditional African culture. Not only does Machua cook because food brings people together, but because she understands that people learn through food. When satiated and enlivened by quality cuisine, people tend to open up and connect with one another. She uses this tool to teach others about her Kenyan culture—through hands-on, interactive dinners and cooking classes.
Machua was Born in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and its largest city. She is a member of the Kikuyu people, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. She grew up between Nairobi, where she went to school, and rural Gachie, Kenya, the village where her family lived. The family had an abundant garden and grew many of the vegetables they cooked for family dinners. By watching the matriarchs of her family, Machua, learned to cook early, and by age ten, was putting together full meals for her family. Dishes such as sukuma wiki (collard greens) and ugali (hot water corn bread) were often family favorites. She describes that in Kenya, cooking was not a “job” but an integral part of the lifestyle—a staple for survival, enjoyment, and community.
In my cooking classes, I express what it takes for a rural family to put food on the table. Growing up without the amenities of electricity, indoor plumbing, and paved roads, all lead to how you want to efficiently put a meal together that is both healthy and not time consuming, especially during the work and school week. Growing a diverse mix of vegetables really helps with this.
Machua attended school in Nairobi and later came to Oregon as an exchange student before moving to Portland to pursue a degree in business management. In a story that is both heartbreaking and uplifting in its display of resilience, she describes the hurdles she faced that led to her staying in Portland. At the time, she was an amateur entrepreneur and an American businesswoman whom she was living with stole her African artwork that she was selling to local Portland stores, along with her purse that contained her ID and passport, and kicked her out of the home. She couldn’t return to Kenya and had no money or home. A Kenyan family took her under their wing and she was able to continue to sell some artwork she had managed to salvage before the relationship with the businesswoman went sideways. To date, Machua continues to sell some African art on her website. Eventually, she decided to stay in Portland (lucky for us!) and expand into food to reach more people—as the enjoyment of food is a common ground we all share.
This spring, Machua opened her first brick and mortar restaurant, Spice of Africa, where she serves up the traditional Kenyan food she was raised with. She explains that her style diverges a bit—riding the line between tradition and creative adaptation. She prefers to prepare more full flavor dishes, using more spice than her mother ever did. She also serves dishes from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and even foods associated with Asian Indian and Pacific Rim cultures, such as samosas (vegetable and meat-filled fried pastry triangles), muchele pilau (curry rice pilaf), and chapati (flat bread) with vegetable stew. She has learned these recipes from direct study with chefs from these countries, to ensure that her restaurant continues to serve authentic cuisine from all over the African continent.
In addition to her work as a chef, Machua has taught classes at Portland Community College, and boot camp classes for entrepreneurs at the Portland Mercado. She is devoted to her philanthropic work and as a former member of Beaverton's Rotary Club, in 2015, she oversaw the shipment of 100,000 donated books to over 30 schools in her surrounding villages. While in Kenya, she started a community center, a community kitchen, and a sewing project in the Gachie village. She is still deeply connected to her home and family of origin in Kenya and is doing her best to keep this heritage alive in her daughter as well. Almost 18, her daughter has been cooking traditionally since she was 8 years old and has gone on the philanthropic trips to Kenya to spend time and get to know her extended family.
In the spirit of bridging the gap between her Kenyan and U.S. experiences and identities, Machua has written a collection of short stories that will be available soon for purchase on her website, where you can also find her blog posts.
As you can imagine, so much heart and hard work goes into opening a restaurant—and Machua opened only one month before COVID-19 hit. These are unprecedented times and today and everyday it is important to support Black owned businesses. Fortunately, we are happy to announce that Spice Of Africa is now open for lunch and dinner Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & Friday: 1-8pm and Thursday, Saturday & Sunday; 4-8pm at 722 SE 10TH AVE inside the Morrison Market. While these hours will remain constant, the restaurant is now only doing online orders, through delivery services and from their website during the governor’s mandated freeze.
You can also register for and attend her Cooking Classes and, of course, you can visit her on Saturday: 9am – 2pm at the Portland Farmer’s Markets at Portland State University or every two weeks at the Montavilla Farmers Market at 7600 SE Stark St, from 10am – 2pm. The way I see it, there is little that uplifts a person’s spirit more than a nourishing, traditional meal. The best part? You can feed yourself and support Black Businesses—all in the same bite. By Emily Hartlerode and Sophia Kohl Enggren
Follow on Facebook at facebook@spicepdx and on Instagram @spice_of_africa_cuisines
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