The Puff Puff That Traveled From Cameroon to L.A.
Opportune Akendeu | African Chop Truck
Kneaded: L.A. Bread Stories, celebrates L.A. history, heritage, and communities through the lens of bread.
Opportune Akendeu, the founder of African Chop Truck, shares with us the story of her family's move to L.A., the power of finding community, and how her puff puffs bring an important piece of culture to many Angelenos.
The one thing I always cry about and why I love Los Angeles is that the community we serve is not just one community…we serve everybody.
Tell Us about yourselF.
My name is Opportune Akendeu, and I was born and raised for half of my years in Central Africa, Cameroon. I grew up in Yaoundé, which is the capital of Cameroon, and I lived there until I was fourteen years old before moving to Los Angeles.
What made you decide to move to Los Angeles?
My grandfather was already in Los Angeles; he was a teacher. And when he migrated here, he started migrating his family. At the time, Cameroon was everything for me. It was the only thing I knew, so it was hard for me actually to come here. For whatever reason, I was afraid to start over—I would have to learn how to speak like Americans, I would have to learn how to eat what they ate. I was fourteen years old, this was what was going through my head. But four of my siblings, my mom, and I traveled together to Los Angeles.
Now I call L.A. home. L.A. is the place that raised me and made me the woman I am and am becoming. It has helped elevate me in so many ways—for example, breaking through the culture of food. Now, I love Thai food. It was so wild to eat a taco, but now I make my own tacos. So, I evolved, and I'm still evolving with the people in L.A. I don't think that anywhere else in the world could take the place of L.A. because it is the only place where I'm able to meet all these different groups of people and that's why now when people ask me where I’m from I say, I'm from L.A. So I love L.A. with all my heart.
How did African Chop Truck get its start?
I have walked the streets of L.A. since I was fourteen—I grew up here, went to high school here, and some college, but I had never seen an African food truck. I was having a conversation with friends at Starbucks and I said, you know, it would be cool if there was a food truck, an African food truck that sells authentic West African cuisine. My friends and I laughed and thought, “well maybe I should do it.” I created a menu even though I didn't have a business plan—I started with just a menu.
I asked my very good friends Sheiley and Hector to look over my ideas for African Chop Truck. At the time, I was struggling and I didn't have the funds to start the business. But after talking to Hector he provided the funds for it. I don't know why he believed in me, he just did and loved the ideas so much. Starting African Chop was a great life-changing event because we were and still are the only West African food truck in L.A. and it was really embraced by the community. That’s how we started—brainstorming ideas, having Hector help fund the whole process, and the African Chop Truck was born.
The truck is not running now because of the pandemic, but prior was there a neighborhood you preferred to visit?
One of my best locations was Downtown L.A. because for me, it's almost like one of the places that make L.A. what it is. It’s not where we got the most money, but that's where we got the most love. I saw every race in Downtown L.A., and people wanted to be educated about the food—they would ask about the ways our food can be eaten and they cared about the product. Granted we would cover Los Angeles County, but this was the one place where it felt like I'm doing what I was meant to do—share West African food.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the communities you serve?
To be honest, initially, when we did the business plan, we were not trying to focus too much on catering to Africans because they already know the product. But what ended up happening is that our community became the first generation Africans that were born here in L.A., or in America—those are the people that we serve the most. They were very intrigued by African Chop and passionate about it. To them, this is the food their mom and dad know. They were so enthused about the African Chop Truck that we found out that they would hunt us down and look for us everywhere we went! I had one customer who would drive all the way from Long Beach to come meet us in Santa Monica. Wow! Just so they can get our food.
How do you think that the puff puff you make binds people in the community together?
So the puff puff is the smallest, but the most talked-about item on the menu—not only because it is only one dollar, but also people ask questions about the name. It is a conversation starter because a lot of people automatically believe that we have something else in the puff puff, like perhaps some CBD products because of the name. But the reason why we call it puff puff is because it's just round and it's puffy. We explain what a puff puff is and share that it is like bread so to speak, but just in a smaller dough. Ultimately, it's breakfast and the first thing you have in the morning. It's a thing you share with your neighbors, easy for families to share, or something to share with friends—even now, it's an easy meal to make.
What is your favorite part of the puff puff baking process?
Surprisingly, it's not a baking process, it's actually a frying process. Once the puff dough rises, you get ready to start frying it in shallow vegetable oil. You fry it and voila! It's ready in ten minutes. So it's interesting bread—not your usual bread.
But my favorite part is making the balls! So there are different techniques with how you drop the dough in oil. You can either drop it down or upside down. Mastering how to get it round is my favorite part because as you can see, this dough and it's kind of gooey. So, if you've mistakenly shaped it wrong the puff puff comes out looking different. This is the moment where you are really defining the process because the puff puff has to be round—it is meant to be round. Not to say that if it isn't round and then it's not good enough to eat, but the puff puff is about its look, so dropping the dough in the oil is my favorite part.
Are there any memories or emotions that arise while making puff puffs?
Growing up in Cameroon, puff puff were sold on the side of the road, and it was something that brought the community together. We would go to the road in the morning to get puff puff. We would eat it with beans and pap—pap is a type of porridge made out of corn. But the puff puff was the main dish; without the puff puff you can't eat the pap because it just doesn't taste the same. It's funny because we were all Cameroonians from different tribes. So on the side of the road, you had the Muslim women from the north, other women from the west—but everybody was making puff puff. There’s probably like five or six or ten different women on the streets making puff puff—enough to take care of the whole community! You would see mothers, children, and fathers just sitting on benches and eating their puff puff on the side of the road.
It's amazing to come to a first-world country like America, and puff puff can still do the same thing—maybe in a different setting, but it's doing the same thing. We're still eating it and having conversations. That's why I say puff puff is a conversation starter.
Is there anything else you would want people to know about the community you serve?
The one thing I always cry about, and why I love L.A., is that the community we serve is not just one community. Yes, we have served the first-generation Africans, but we serve everybody. Asian Americans and Latino Americans love our food—and when I say love, they rave about it. It's beautiful to see that we're able to all eat together and whether or not we're familiar, somehow we're able to identify as people—and it doesn't matter where we come from. So it's really great to serve a community that embraces culture. People are open to learning, trying, and seeing themselves in the food that we still serve—so that, to me, has been beautiful. I love the community in L.A. They've been great to us, and I can't wait to be back on the streets and have our location where we can continue to break bread together.
EXPLORE MORE FROM african chop truck
To see what's cooking at the African Chop Truck's check out africanchopfoodtruck.com and stay tuned for their upcoming return to serving puff puffs throughout LA County.
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