by Lena Nozizwe
Food is so ingrained into the culture of Cameroon that even the West African country’s name, camarão, means shrimp in Portuguese. Throw in some 250 ethnic groups and the influences of colonization by Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Add the Portuguese explorers who named the country after a crustacean and you get an eclectic Instapot of flavors. Flavors served up in African Chop, as far as I can tell the only sub-Saharan African food truck in Los Angeles, California.
“African food was not represented…”
African Chop is part of what has become a fleet of an estimated 400 food trucks in LA. The culturally diverse meals on wheels include the trailblazing Kogi truck which started selling Korean BBQ tacos back in 2008.
It’s only been just over a year since African Chop started cooking, but Hector Tantoh, one of the owners of the food truck, says they are still culinary pathfinders. “African food was not represented in the food truck space in Los Angeles. We are happy to be one of the pioneers,” says Tantoh.
African Chop’s menu features chicken legs, mackerel, beef and even a vegan dish, The to-go meals are all served with a side of what’s known as jollof rice (more about that later) and puff puff, a savory version of a beignet. It’s a taste of home for Tantoh.
From Young Street Vendor to Food Truck Owner
He grew up in Doula, the biggest seaport in Cameroon. The city is also the country’s financial center. Tantoh compares his birthplace to New York City. “I grew up around street food and street vendors—people selling puff puff and other food on the street,” he says.
His family even got into the act.
“My mom had us selling food on the street too. The values–the hard work I learned in Cameroon have added to the food truck.” He brought those values to the United States where he earned an MBA before landing in Los Angeles. It’s here where he joined forces with fellow Cameroonian Opportune Akendeu, his African Chop partner. It was easy for the two come up with the name for the truck. Back in their homeland “chop” stands for food.
“Easy” Transition to Food Truck
“I never saw a food truck before coming to the US, but it’s easy for me to see how it would catch on. I buy food from street vendors all the time. For me it was an easy transition to sell food on the street,” says Tantoh. He and Akendeu take turns when it comes to running the truck. During my visits Tantoh was in the driver’s seat at spots two regular spots. One is near city hall and the other is in front of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as LACMA.
The customers he welcomes are as varied as the city’s food trucks.That includes Whitney Butler, a transplant from Arkansas. She walked passed food trucks in front of LACMA offering fragrant falafel, bulgogi beef and tempting tacos in order to stand in line at African Chop. She’s a regular who always orders the chicken plate. “Once I moved here I tried all kinds of food and I fell in love with African Chop’s chicken,” Butler says.
Actor Kwesi Boakye needed no introduction to African Chop’s fare. Though he’s American-born, his immigrant family is from Ghana. He is very accustomed to the items on the food truck’s menu. A particular favorite of Boakye is jollof. The tomato, onion and pepper-flavored rice is a side dish at African Chop. But throughout western and central Africa jollof is smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest cuisine conflicts in all of Africa.
The Best I Have Ever Had
With that knowledge I prod Boayke, with his Ghanian ancestry and all, to reveal his favorite version of the dish.”Is African Chop’s jollof the best jollof you have ever had?” I ask not so innocently.Tantoh listens and laughs, knowing where I am going with my line of questioning. “For sure! I’m from Ghana. This is one of the best I have ever had,” he responds. Tantoh continues laughing before I go all in. “So jollof from Cameroon is better than Ghana’s?” I ask. Them’s fighting words. Tantoh continues to laugh as Boakye stammers his response. He recants his previous tasty testimony.
“I can’t say that. No. No. No,” he says. “This is the closest thing to the jollof in Ghana. It’s up there, it’s up there.”
“My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…”
Boayke’s largess may be due to the fact that jollof beef is especially piquant between Ghana and Nigeria. To calculate the popularity of jollof all you have to do is search the internets. You’ll find jollof festivals. There’s a podcast called “Jesus and Jollof.” There are multitudes of jollof love songs. My favorite lyric from the jollof jam “Ghana Jollof” is “My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…”
Many of African Chop’s customers, like regular Whitney Butler from Arkansas, don’t have a clue about the origins of the rice that’s served along with every African Chop plate. She did not know anything about jollof until I asked her about it. And I’ll admit that I didn’t have a clue about jollof until doing this story. My family heritage traces to the south eastern nation of Malawi where we like our rice plain and uncontroversial.
Tantoh says schooling his diners is part of his charge. “In LA where people are very open to trying new cuisines there is still a challenge. They’ll say ‘What is West African food? Oh, it’s rice.’ People don’t understand the variety and how big Africa is. There is so much variety within the continent,” he says.
An Education Process
“And because people haven’t been eating this for long they don’t know about it. But you can ask an American and they will tell you about Thai food and different kinds of nuances of Thai and they have never been to Asia. But they can tell you because they’ve experienced it around them. I think part of what we’re doing is an education process.” says Tantoh.
In addition to educating patrons about African food the food truck also serves up a healthy helping of African culture. African Chop is like a walking, make that rolling, billboard festooned with posters and leaflets advertising events around Los Angeles featuring the African diaspora. It’s all part of the general mission.
An Insertion Point
“This is an insertion point. So this is how you break into the cuisine is through jollof. If you’re curious you want to try more.” The business-minded Tantoh believes an introduction to jollof and other foods from his native Cameroon will stimulate consumer interest in say a sit down African sit-down restaurant. And even perhaps to the African Chop food products Tantoh and his partner hope to distribute to supermarkets one day.
African Chop’s owners are happy to share their roadmap with other food trucks from the continent. They do not see them as competition.
“…we want more people in the market.”
The current market is sparse. As far as I can figure there are fewer than a dozen sub-Saharan African food trucks in the United States.
“Opportune and I help people. If somebody wants to start an African food truck we are going to help them because we want more people in the market,” says Tantoh. Because that’s just how he rolls in his drive to make jollof and puff puff as popular in the US as hot dogs and hamburgers. But I have a feeling he settle on making those dishes or at least as well-known as pad thai.
Los Angeles, California
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About the author
Lena Nozizwe is and visual and verbal storyteller. The Emmy-award winning journalist’s book, “Starring in Your Own Life,” was published by Simon and Schuster. Her work and passion has landed her in fabulous eating spots, from Paris to Portland, and from Dakkar to Detroit. Nozizwe loves them all. Keep up with her via her Instagram account.
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