A woman in a black t-shirt posing inside a brightly-colored restaurant

Indigenous Ingredients Invite Interest

Amit Cohen

Ethnic cuisines have established footholds in the mainstream restaurant industry across the U.S. It is easy to find Mexican, Chinese, or Italian restaurants in nearly any American city. However, one likely has to work harder to find a restaurant serving Indigenous food.

This past November, the first woman-owned restaurant featuring Indigenous cuisine in Northern California opened. Wahpepah’s Kitchen is part of a rapidly growing movement to publicly reclaim Indigenous culture and space through a universal medium: food. The resurgence of Indigenous cuisine also sheds light on issues like food sovereignty and healing. Food sovereignty refers to communities’ control over how food is produced, consumed, and distributed. Post colonialism, Indigenous foods and agriculture were ignored in favor of industrial practices, paving over a key part of Indigenous identity. Wahpepah’s Kitchen, along with restaurants like Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone, allows Indigenous customers to collectively reaffirm the importance of their cuisine and traditions and heal from past trauma.

A salad with brightly colored fruits and vegetables
Crystal Wahpepah is helping bring a wave of Indigenous food to Oakland’s Fruitvale District. Credit: Wahpepah’s Kitchen

Wahpepah’s Kitchen is owned by Oakland-native Crystal Wahpepah, an enrolled citizen of the Kickapoo Nation. Like many other small businesses, Wahpepah’s former catering service struggled during the pandemic. However, in 2020 Reem Assil, the owner of the Arab bakery Reem, reached out to Wahpepah about taking over Reem’s space. Thus, Wahpepah’s Kitchen was born.

Wahpepah’s Kitchen does not serve strictly Kickapoo or Northern California Indigenous cuisine. Rather, it takes inspiration from Wahpepah’s experiences growing up in Oakland’s “multi-tribal, tight-knit, urban Native community,” drawing on Indigenous cuisine from across the country. The restaurant features dishes such as blue corn blueberry bison meatballs, corn and squash stews, and a rotating selection of salads served in a space that reflects the food. Indigenous colors and themes can be seen in murals on the walls and ceiling while a brief history of the Kickapoo Nation can be found on one of the shelves. Food is often referred to as a universal language, and this restaurant allows patrons to open a conversation on Indigenous food and culture, all while enjoying a delicious meal.

Cover image credit: Nanette Deetz

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