Rachel Laryea is passionate about plantains. So much so that in 2018, even as she was pursuing a dual Ph.D. at Yale, she started a food business where everything on the menu used the versatile, starchy fruit as its base. She called the then-popup Kelewele, after a popular Ghanaian street treat, and this summer Laryea opened her first permanent space for the business in the Dekalb Market Hall in Downtown Brooklyn.
"I have a love and affection for plantains," she told Gothamist. "It's deeply cultural for me. My family is from Ghana, my mom migrated to the U.S. in her 20s, and a big part of her migration story and raising kids here was eating Ghanaian food—both as a way to stay connected to home, and to pass down her cultural background to us in an American context."
The menu at Laryea's booth is short and to the point, but based on a thoroughly satisfying meal I had here on a recent visit, everything is good. Kelewele, the dish, is of course available, and Laryea has it right when she calls it "the perfect bite." It's fried, caramelized, and sweet like maduro, but Ghanaians add cayenne pepper and ginger to the mix for a welcome hit of spiciness. Laryea told me that the dish traditionally contains ground nuts, which are similar to peanuts, and I imagine provide a nice crunchy, salty counterpoint to the soft fruit.
Fully savory dishes at Kelewele include the snacky Phishcakes, which the menu describes as "fishy plantain balls without the fish," the Planana Boat, which is a fried plantain "canoe" filled with spicy bean stew, and Laryea's take on tacos, called Placos. I opted for the Chichinga Burger, and it was a delight. The hearty patty is made from black beans and spicy plantains, the lettuce, tomato, and onion toppings all do their job well, the housemade Shito Mayo adds a lively kick, and the "bun" is a large, crisp, flat tostone. There are a lot of vegan burgers being slung around town these days, and this is one the best.
Prior to launching Kelewele, Laryea had never opened a restaurant, or even worked in a restaurant; before her pursuit of a dual Ph.D. (in African-American Studies and Anthropology), Laryea was an analyst at Goldman Sachs. "Was it challenging to open Kelewele? Oh yeah 100%," she said. "The learning curve was steep." Especially since she personally developed every recipe, "some of which took a lot longer than others."
The ice cream at Kelewele, for example, which like everything else is made from plantains, "took the better part a year to get right," she said. It was worth the effort, if the pre-packed cup I ate of her Liquid Gold flavor--basically plantains, coconut milk, and turmeric--is any indication. There are plantain-based baked goods here too, including dense, chocolatey brownies and cookies.
The Dekalb Market Hall is back to being fully open, but if you're not ready to eat inside a subterranean space, there is seating available in the public plazas surrounding the City Point complex. And Laryea, who frequented the food hall when she lived in Downtown Brooklyn during her NYU undergrad days, is excited to be here. "I was not actively looking to open Kelewele in a food hall," she said, "But Dekalb Market has always been a favorite, and I'm also a lover of all things Brooklyn, so I love having a physical location here."
Kelewele is located at 445 Albee Square within the Dekalb Market Hall (make a hard right when you get off the escalator), and is currently open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from noon to 8:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays (929-322-3480; kelewelenyc.com)