Introducing Naturally Gluten Free Liberian Recipes to America
When Niaka Porte first offered me a gluten-free banana muffin to try, I was tentative. I don’t have a gluten-free diet; in fact, I love gluten. Pasta and bread are two of my most favorite foods. Niaka was giving out samples to our work office to get customer feedback. I should not have hesitated; for me, it was love at first bite. Her muffins were light and airy, and incredibly moist, with a clear, fresh, banana taste. Each time Niaka made an adjustment to her recipe, she brought in samples for us to try. I, along with my colleagues, would rush into the office kitchen to grab one before they quickly disappeared. When she added chocolate chips, I was in heaven.
Niaka’s recipe is derived from Rice Bread that she baked with her mom as a child. Rice Bread is naturally gluten-free; it contains cream of rice, instead of wheat. Rice Bread is a traditional Liberian baked good. Her mom and dad immigrated to America from Liberia in the 1990’s to escape the civil war that was decimating their country, to find a better life and provide more opportunities for their growing family. Some of Niaka’s favorite childhood memories were eating Rice Bread hot out of the oven, gobbling it up before her two sisters could get a bite.
Niaka is a third-year student at Drexel University, majoring in Marketing and minoring in Business Development with a keen interest in Entrepreneurship. Her mom, who owns two businesses, has been an inspiration to Niaka. She owns a Liberian restaurant named Kadi’s and a cleaning company called Cameron’s Cleaning Company. (Named after Niaka’s younger sister, Cameron, who ironically, Niaka told me, laughing, doesn’t like to clean!)
When Niaka was a senior in high school, she attended a 6-month after school program at Cabrini College – The Young Entrepreneurs Academy. There, she learned how to write a business plan and how to pitch to investors. She met independent business and franchise owners. It was at The Young Entrepreneurs Academy that Niaka first conceived of the business she is currently pursuing – NP Baking Company. For her Fall/Winter Coop experience at Drexel, beginning this September, she will continue developing NP Baking Company as part of Drexel’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship. There, she will be provided office space, access to office equipment and technology, and receive mentoring from experts in the field of entrepreneurship as well as money to help grow her idea.
Like many small businesses, Niaka has pivoted in reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic. Instead of baking finished loaves and muffins to be sold in retail food stores or online, Niaka is developing her recipe into a mix that the consumer can buy, add their own oil and bananas, and bake at home. Restaurants have been closed and people all over the world are staying home and re-discovering the joy of home baking and cooking. Not only does Niaka’s pivot take advantage of this food trend, but it is scale-able and eliminates the problem of shelf-life that is inherent in a perishable product.
The other driver that ignites Niaka’s passion for NP Baking Company is her desire to expose Americans to the culture of Liberia. When Niaka was in high school, she visited Liberia for the first time to meet her grandmother. She was inspired and fascinated by the country. Liberia is a gorgeous, though impoverished, country on the coast of West Africa. Its landscape is diverse – from coastal beach communities in the west to verdant mountains and rainforests to its north and interior. It is an agrarian society – rice and cassava are its two main crops. Its people are both native Africans and the descendants of American slaves who colonized the country in the 1800s. Christianity is its main religion, but Christianity with a supernatural bent – self-proclaimed prophets interpret dreams and visions; church services include dancing, and holy days are celebrated with colorful processions through the streets.
Upon returning home, Niaka was surprised by people’s perception of Liberia or more aptly, their lack of perception. NP Baking Company hopes to introduce the cuisine of Liberia to America and in the process, raise awareness of Liberia as its own distinct country in West Africa. Niaka is proud of her unique heritage and she wants to share it!
To learn more about Niaka and NP Baking Company, visit her website: www.npbakingcompany.com; her facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/npbakingco; or her Instagram: www.instagram.com/npbakingco/. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.