Tucked into Los Angeles’ Olympic Boulevard is a cheerful, bustling eatery by the name of Fixins Soul Kitchen. 

Founded by NBA legend Kevin Johnson, it is bright, airy, and marked by subtle signs of African-American culture in their logos and menu. Recently, the restaurant  went through a transformation to become Powamekka Café, albeit only temporarily. The pop-up, which piloted on June 16, and will be available to LA’s food enthusiasts until the end of this month, is the third incarnation of the late rapper and cultural icon Tupac Shakur’s vision for a cafe. He originally conceived it while he was still alive with the aim of turning it into a space for the community.

Helmed by The Shakur Estate, which is made up of the rapper’s family and close associates,  Powamekka has popped up before in New York and Fresno, California. The first one was  set up back in 2017 at New York’s Lower East Side at Sweet Chick, an eatery co-owned by fellow Hip-Hop legend, Nas. The LA pop-up is closer to Tupac’s birth roots, and harks back to his time at the forefront of West Coast Hip-Hop history.

At the pop-up, one can tuck into offerings plucked from Tupac’s list of favourites. Think meatloaf, gumbo stew and his cousin, Jamala’s recipe for fried chicken wings, all taken straight out of his personal notebooks that were interestingly discovered by his family in the wake of his tragic death at the age of 25. 

Fixins Soul Kitchen

These notebooks were also where the concept for Powamekka Cafe was discovered. A “passionate paradise 4 people with power 2 play & parlay,” and “escape the worldz cold reality,” Shakur had noted. 

What Really Is ‘Soul Food’?

Executive Chef Melvin “Boots” Johnson displays his knuckle tattoos.

Fixins’ standard menu offers a panoply of classics like catfish, oxtails, waffles, and cornbread. These come with sides they called ‘fixins,’ the colloquial term used for traditional servings, such as black-eyed peas, grits, candied yams, bacon-ey charred okra (ladies’ fingers) and South-style collard greens.

If the ingredients, let alone the menu itself, seem unfamiliar, let’s take a moment to get acquainted with the origins and nature of southern American cuisine. To begin with, the genesis of these delicious dishes can be traced back to the dark days of the Atlantic slave trade, when hundreds of thousands of Black men, women, and children were kidnapped and shipped into ports across the Southeast US, particularly in the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, which grew to have massive slave populations over time.

A standard slave’s weekly rations consisted of a 9-litre bag of cornmeal, and 3-4 pounds of pork — as their arduous working conditions demanded high-calorie diets, several enslaved communities of southern native Americans and Africans found themselves mixing these ingredients with traditional flavours and breading/frying techniques, creating hearty meals that ultimately, helped them develop a cultural identity of their own in America.

This cultural identity has, especially over the last several years, wafted out of kitchens and into wider contemporary culture across the United States. Through references in film, music, talk shows, and everything in between, we now live in a world where Conan O’Brian takes up line cook duties at heritage soul food restaurants in the heart of NYC’s oldest black neighbourhoods.

So, why did it take so long for the cuisine to really take off internationally? In a word, Eurocentrism.

Decentralising ‘High Cuisine’

Chef Cutting

Powamekka transcends time, having been dreamed of by Shakur nearly thirty years ago. That said, making something like this profitable and well-publicised has only been possible in the last decade.

Back in the 90s, during Shakur’s heyday, the legacies of soul food were still relegated to local and small-scale restaurants, fast food outlets, and home kitchens. ‘High cuisine’, as it’s often called, was still grounded in conventions from Europe — largely set by White chefs, restaurateurs, and culinary academies, where aspiring chefs of colour were expected to fall in line with opinions that rarely accepted and embraced their cultures.

“As a black man, you have to perform three times better,” echoed Jerome Grant, who operates out of the Sweet Home Café at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington. “I saw that in kitchens right away: we were the cooks, but we were never the chefs, never the operators.”

Grant, who has been nominated for the James Beard culinary prize twice over, passionately champions the spirit of soul food and the idea of embracing cultural diversity through cuisine at all of his three eateries, two of which are located in minority-dedicated national museums.

By embracing his Filipino and Jamaican roots, chefs like Grant offer a much more colourful vision for the future and present of the culinary arts. While this was still quite nascent during his early career, which kicked off twenty years ago, Grant worked hard at evolving the face of African-American cuisine while working on the cutting-edge of the industry, often going out of his way to use traditional techniques and ingredients. 

He also worked tirelessly to publish a wide variety of culinary works and recipes in major magazines, alongside a cookbook, Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking. Each recipe comes with a rich contextual connection to the museum’s exhibits, giving readers not just an idea of what soul food can be, but also how it came to be.

Beyond America

New Soul Food Paris

True, the idea of Black cuisine has largely been dominated by hunger-inducing visuals of waffles, golden-brown fried chicken, biscuits and gravy… the list goes on. These are still deeply American ideas of soul food, though. So what’s happening on the other side of the pond?

Curiously, as one of the most multiracial cities in the world, a uniquely ‘Afropean’ identity has emerged within Paris’ bustling non-tourist quarters, and it is tied to the sights, sounds, and aromas of American soul food, too.

New Soul Food-Le Maquis enjoys a view of Paris’ iconic Canal Saint Martin and is run by brothers Rudy and Joël Lainé. After a half-decade of running their culinary dreams on four wheels through L’Afro Truck, the pair have successfully established what they call ‘new soul food,’ as explored by writer Alexander Hurst for Eater.com. 

Drawing on a combination of family roots in Cameroon and Guadeloupe, the Lainés fuse together elements from West Africa and the latter French colony archipelago. Armed with more traditional techniques from his time as a Pastry Chef at some of Paris’ finest, Rudy’s work is just as much of a cultural revolution as it is a culinary one.

The menu is delicate, subtle, and a lot less ‘stereotypical,’ but most importantly, it’s all by design. Instead of the fare we saw above at Powamekka, New Soul Food aims at the future instead of the past. Just look at this description from Hurst:

“I order the Afropéenne: chicken, but braised instead of fried, and smothered in a “yassa” sauce that’s been “Frenchified” by adding copious amounts of grain mustard to the traditional lime and onions, and served with Lainé’s Afropean attiéké, a couscous-like grain made from manioc that’s been mixed with confit tomatoes and herbs de Provence.”

It’s definitely not soul food as we know it, but looks to draw out a unique identity that’s more than the sum of its parts. “Today in France, if we’re going to produce a cuisine that’s going to last we have all these new food codes to align with — organic, natural stuff, cooked to order,” says Lainé. 

“It can’t be about chicken and waffles,” he states definitively. 

Perhaps. For most of us in India, however, the concept of ‘soul food’ is still something of a paradox. The cuisine itself is rich with a sense of community and togetherness and yet, most of us have only had a cookie-cutter, factory-processed facsimile of Southern American cooking through inauthentic fast food options such as KFC. 

Closer to home, we could definitely do with a bit of variety when it comes to this iconic, wholesome style of cooking, and evolve past the ’Finger Lickin’ Good’ kind we’re so used to.

(Featured Image Credits: 2pac.com, Unsplash)