Alexander Smalls is no stranger to rewriting the narrative around misunderstood and underrepresented cuisines. Through his illustrious career, the Spartanburg, South Carolina native and James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author has made important contributions to New York’s dining scene through acclaimed restaurants Café Beulah, where he showcased Southern revival cooking, Sweet Ophelia’s, The Shoebox Café, Minton’s, and The Cecil, New York’s first Afro-Asian American restaurant.
The Harlem-based restaurateur’s latest project is Alkebulan, the world’s first-ever African dining hall to highlight the diversity, potential, and contributions of African cuisines and dispel stereotypes around them. Diners can find eleven chef-led concepts by him and six other chefs from across the continent.
“The idea for Alkebulan took shape over the last five years.” Smalls wrote to me in an email, “But it feels like it’s the work of a lifetime coming to fruition really. First, comes education and exposure, helping people familiarize themselves with the concept and characteristics of what African food is in its fullness, variety, and diversity. Simply put, define it for the world.”
The food hall is currently running at Expo 2020 Dubai, a world’s fair that has brought together 192 countries to showcase their most ambitious technologies and groundbreaking innovations in a six-month-long event that is ongoing until 31 March 2022. With the first held in London in 1851, previous World Expos, held once every five years, have introduced the world inventions such as the telephone, the X-ray machine, and touchscreens, foods such as Heinz tomato ketchup and waffle ice cream cones, and iconic masterpieces such as the Eiffel Tower and Ferris wheel.
The fair also offers opportunities for cultural exchange through art, music, dance, heritage, and food, giving a platform to each participating country to share the elements they’re most proud of – such as Naqqali, an ancient Iranian narrative art, Taskiwin, a Moroccan martial dance, and Islamic calligraphy art.
This being the first-ever World Expo in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, it’s hard to think of a more fitting host city than Dubai – one of the most diverse cities on the planet – in the United Arab Emirates, a country home to over 200 nationalities that together constitute nearly 89 percent of its total population. Not surprisingly then, visitors at Expo 2020 Dubai, many of whom are tourists holidaying in Dubai, are expected to be the most culturally diverse group of attendees than at any previous Expo.
Expo 2020 Dubai isn’t just a great event to experience advances in fields like sustainability, artificial intelligence, and mobility; it’s also an ideal setting to spark new conversations around representation and identity. This is exactly what Smalls is hoping to do through his work at Alkebulan, which stands at the intersection of art, creativity, and activism.
“When I traveled the world as an opera singer, the pride people throughout Europe felt about the art of food was not the same for me, as a person of the African diaspora,” Smalls, a classically trained baritone, who has won a Grammy and a Tony Award for the cast recording of Porgy and Bess with the Houston Grand Opera. “Our food was not a part of the conversation nor was there this respect given to it by the world. As a people, we were losing that reverence and regard, as a result of institutional and systemic racism. I wanted the world to know how extraordinary African food was. I realized that after five boutique restaurants I could create a bigger stage, such as a dining hall, to amplify Africa’s diversity and culinary brilliance.”
A visit to the two-story Alkebulan, which comes from the name for ancient Africa, quickly makes it clear that African cuisines are not a monolith. At Chicken Coop, which draws its inspiration from chicken to-go shops across many African countries, diners can sample buttermilk fried chicken and jerk-spiced rotisserie chicken with buttermilk cornbread. There’s also modern street fare like the Ugandan-style beef curry omelet wrap and Durban-style Bunny Chow (lamb curry served in a hollow loaf of steamed bread) at Afro Street, Senegalese Chicken Yassa Roti (marinated grilled chicken with onions) at Shoebox, and Zanzibari coriander-spiced lamb chops at Choma BBQ.
“Africa has been reduced to a country in the minds of the world and its reputation – one that is misunderstood,” Smalls continues. “Dispelling all these beliefs and meaningless notions, that it’s just cheap food that cooks for hours in a big pot and is served over rice, peasant food…poor man’s food…heart attack food…just to name a few. Alkebulan is a living, engaging culinary exhibition that invites you in and feeds you, educates you and entertains you.”
Alkebulan also showcases innovative takes on traditional flavors, such as the oxtail dumplings with green apple curry sauce at Sweet Ophelia’s. At Penja, Red Red Green is a comforting dish of black-eyed peas and palm oil stew served with plantains. At Seven Seafood, you’ll find contemporary East African seafood specialties, and Tasty Goat is a great place to try the flavorful goat shank and lentil curry served with Kenyan street chapati.
“There is the misconception that when it comes to African cuisines, there is no technical or artistic value to consider or worthy of a conversation,” says Smalls, “one visit to Alkebulan, and that notion is dismissed. African food is very aromatic, colorful, and alive with chilies and spices that engage and tickle your palate. Full-flavored cuisine that is as brilliant in texture and flavor as its people. Spices like cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, peppers, garlic, ginger, and star anise are all part of the flavors of Africa.”
Smalls is the curator, and chef behind two of the food stalls at Alkebulan, but he’s working with several other chefs at Alkebulan, including pastry chef Mame Sow, and Afro vegan chef Glory Kabe (you can find the full list of chefs featured on the food hall’s website).
“In choosing the chefs, I first had to understand what a food hall of such diversity and expansiveness would look like,” explains Smalls. “I had to define an experience that spoke to as much of Africa’s culinary identity as possible, but not over-reach trying to do everything, resulting in nothing. I set out to identify chefs and foodways that spoke to a contemporary approach and interpretation of African food today.”
Visitors to Alkebulan can expect to see art from the region on display, including the work of Ghanaian artists Rufai Zakari and Theresa Ankomah, Nigerian batik and textile designer Nike Davies-Okundaye, and Kenyan photographer Thandiwe Muriu. On the weekends, diners get to enjoy live entertainment by DJs and bands including blues, soul, reggae, gospel, and afrobeat.
An African fine-dining food hall in Dubai speaks volumes about representation and Dubai’s own diversity in terms of cultures and food subcultures. From the days when merchants arrived by sea to trade spices such as saffron and cardamom in its souks, Dubai has been a city where cuisines and cultures have mingled, a city that does not demand that you leave your culture behind to assimilate. It’s where new influences are welcomed with open arms, a fact that is only obvious from the many influences on Emirati cuisine. But Smalls admits that the process of bringing Alkebulan to Dubai has changed his own previously-held assumptions about Dubai.
“What surprised me was not only the organic relationship the Arab world has with Africa, but Expo 2020 Dubai’s willingness to want, support, and give a space for Alkebulan to be a part of Expo. That was profoundly special and heartfelt,” he says. “Dubai is the perfect place for Alkebulan’s beginning. It fits into the city’s culinary landscape as if it were always here.”