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Brightly colored plates on a table.
Ekhaya in Durham
Stacey Sprenz Photography

Durham Chef Zweli Williams Wants People to Understand African Food

“I have to be true to who I am and who I am is African; who I am is African food.”

Zwelis Kitchen is my heart,” says chef Zweli Williams, as she sits at a corner table by the window at the newly opened Ekhaya (406 Blackwell Street), located in Durham’s vibrant American Tobacco Campus. Ekhaya means a sense of being “at home” in Bantu, and is the epitome of Williams’ journey.

“It was the turn of the Civil War, and my family got broken up — I was displaced from my family for five years,” Williams says. “I was in rural Zimbabwe when the war was happening. I grew up in landmines — away from my mom, away from my siblings, away from everybody — and I was only two. My memories of my childhood are in here,” Williams notes, of Ekhaya. It is a space that feels like home to her — and along with her husband, Leonardo Williams, co-owner and an elected Durham City Council Member, the duo is the epitome of determination and resilience.

Dining room with gourds on the wall.
Interior of Ekhaya.
Stacey Sprenz Photography

Williams sits upright, smiling from ear to ear, ecstatic to share her story, albeit a mix of emotions — and she’s ready to feed people African food. When Zweli’s Kitchen opened in Durham in 2018, it was reported as the first known Zimbabwean restaurant to open in the United States.

“I’ll tell you a true story,” she says, “When I first moved to this country, about 24 years ago, I’d make African food for lunch and be embarrassed to eat it in front of people and would sit in the car so I could enjoy my food,” she says. “Sometimes I’d heat it up and eat it at work, and my colleagues would consistently ask, ‘What are you eating?’ with a negativity towards my food.” Being comfortable is a big pillar of Willaims’ values. “I know the people I have been around tended to shy away from African food — but that’s who I am,” she says, “I can’t change that.” Williams notes that even though she knows how to make pasta and other delicious foods, it isn’t her core identity. “I have to be true to who I am and who I am is African; who I am is African food.”

African food is underrepresented in the United States. “If I can put Africa on the map, and if I can encourage someone else to do the same thing — to highlight their cultural upbringing— I am prepared to do it,” Williams says. “But you don’t hear about African chefs that are being authentic and representing the continent, and that’s what I want to do. I want to be able to create recipes and storytelling. Everything is a story. Everything is with intention.”

A bowl of rice covered in pepper sauce with a flower on top.
Dovi rice bombs in pepper sauce at Ekhaya.
Stacey Sprenz Photography

Inside Ekhaya are sleek black tables and chairs with African gourds decorating the walls like art installations; straw mats that cover the bar; fabric from Zimbabwe converted into striking cushions; and metal plates in creamy, pastel-colored hues that pop against the wood. “I grew up sleeping on mats. I grew up drinking out of gourds,” she says. “I’m not saying people drink from those — I’m saying I grew up drinking from those,” she says. “I just like to say it’s sexy,” Williams says of the space. “It’s about putting Africa on the map — we can do it too and be unapologetic about it.” Williams and her family sourced interior elements and plates from Zimbabwe to support local villages back home and bring the space to life. “This my childhood,” she says.

Diners are often perplexed by seeing a Scotch egg on the menu as people associate it as British. “I grew up eating Scotch eggs,” she says. This is where education comes in because Africa is a hodgepodge of influences via colonization and spice trade. Two descriptives commonly used to describe the cuisine are soupy and spicy; while not wrong, they’re inaccurate. At Ekhaya, Williams is hopeful to showcase ‘African cuisine's beautiful, vibrant, and bold flavors.

A mug full of an egg souffle.
Bobotie, a sweet and savory meat dish, at Ekhaya.
Stacey Sprenz Photography

Bobotie, a sweet and savory minced beef dish, topped with egg souffle, is one of the most traditional dishes of Africa — served in a metal mug that Williams describes as a primitive plate used in rural villages. “Internationally we know it is an African dish, but it has different origins just like Scotch eggs,” she adds.

If you have a peanut allergy this probably isn’t the place for you. “We are unapologetic in staying authentic to the recipe,” Williams says, noting that peanuts and grains were and still are a crucial part of survival in African cuisine. Dovi rice bombs (peanut butter rice) doused in a not-too-hot pepper sauce are love at first bite. Williams cooks the rice as she would back home, and shapes it in the form of a “rice bomb” or more simply put, a mound of rice. “We grew up eating the pepper sauce with everything and decided to put it on the rice bomb because that’s how we would eat it,” she says.

A roasted whole fish on a plate with herbs on top.
Roasted whole fish at Ekhaya.
Stacey Sprenz Photography

You won’t find a freezer or a microwave at Ekhaya, but you will find Williams perusing Capital Seafood Market. The roasted whole fish rotates depending on what’s available and is artfully displayed, sitting upright on a plate, accompanied by plantain tortillas and an unforgettable fennel and dill slaw. “We talked about a burger, but it just didn’t feel right,” she notes, of staying true to her roots and paying homage to the Bantu people.

The cocktails and wine list are also intentional. The Tamarind Old Fashioned includes a delicious homemade tamarind syrup; the Bantu Bellini is a fresh take on a regular Bellini with passion fruit puree; and the wine list is thoughtfully curated with South African wines that pair with the menu from Elephants Corner Wines.

A blue bowl full of beets.
Roasted golden and red beets at Ekhaya.
Stacey Sprenz Photography

In fall 2023, Zweli’s (currently closed) will move from Oak Creek Village Shopping Center in Durham to Brightleaf Square. Zweli’s Cafe is currently located on Duke University’s campus.

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