Like all pillars of world foods, West African cuisine has been morphed by time and travel. New World slaves mixed the obe ata red pepper sauce of Nigerian chili farmers with jollof rice from Senegal. Years later, saffron and Spanish rice, paired on plates with sugary yuca and coconut and aided by Jamaican jerked meats, eventually made their way to the 21st-century American restaurant.
These dishes also ended up in the childhood kitchen of Godwin Ihentuge, a Detroit native and professional chef who grew up immersed in this synthesis of Old and New World cooking.
“Everyone in my family had a chance to cook,” Godwin says. “When we went to college, I felt I was a ramen noodle master. I could make anything taste good.”
After years of working in the mortgage loan industry, Godwin in 2014 launched YumVillage, an Afro-Caribbean food truck based in Detroit and homage to the Nigerian diaspora. Two years later, he turned it into a brick-and-mortar spot just north of downtown Detroit near Wayne State University.
Takeout bowls with coconut rice and sweet yuca fries fly out of a counter-service kitchen defined by Afrobeats, chalk murals and vegan friendliness. In 2019, Godwin’s concept was named the area’s second-best new eatery by the Detroit Free Press.
In February, Carasai Ihentuge and his wife, Amira, brought his brother’s concept to a 2,400-square-foot space on Chester Avenue in Cleveland State University’s Langston Building.
“It’s good food, not fast food,” Carasai says. “We’re kind of like Chipotle — but the West African version.”
But with aspirations to offer a $15-an-hour wage, employee kickback programs and vows to halal meats and Ohio City produce, the Ihentuges yearn to be not only a Caribbean-styled Choolaah but also a replicable, Black-owned model of how to run a sustainable, fast-casual restaurant in a post-COVID world.
Raised in Detroit by a Nigerian father and an African American mother, the Ihentuge brothers were brought up to be foodtrepreneurs. Both parents offered routine lessons on preparing hot maafe, a Senegalese peanut stew, poured over a bed of doughy fufu. Though Godwin Sr. pushed his own culinary talent into an Orlando, Florida-based food truck, his sons worked in mortgage banking and rental cars for most of their twenties.
In 2015, that changed when Godwin was let go from Quicken Loans and converted a $50,000 grant into an incubation project for Detroit foodies.
Dubbed YumVillage Marketplace, “an Airbnb for restaurants,” the project attempted to lower the barrier of entry for small businesses with short-term leases and ghost kitchens. Godwin parlayed the popularity of the food hub into celebrity cheffing for rapper Big Sean, appearing on Beat Bobby Flay and launching a popular eatery that honors “the culture of the diaspora," he says.
That ethos is what Carasai hopes to celebrate here in Cleveland.
For the uninitiated, African cheesy bread ($6), a Cameroon-spiced crostini, is a sound introduction. Meanwhile, the lemon pepper jerk chicken ($16.50) is baked for an hour in fennel and served with sweet plantains. The traditional oxtail ($18.99) is simmered in vegetable root gravy for six hours and served with jollof rice. Those sworn to Yum’s flavors can walk out with a shirt that reads “MAAFE LIFE,” an homage to the meaty, peanut-based stew ($8.50-$12.50) that serves as the menu’s centerpiece.
That life, Carasai says, will even appeal to those not yet versed in the diaspora.
“Food is a language,” Carasai says. “You can speak to anyone. If you don’t speak their language, you can speak to them through your food.” yumvillage.com