Ibu Kemi believes in the healing power of bread.
Kemi, bakes bread with unusual ingredients like carailli, squash and sweet potato, ginger and turmeric or pimento and celery leaf, because she says these ingredients have healing powers.
For Kemi, baking bread is a way to connect to her ancestors’ natural way of eating and her own spirituality.
“The recipes just come to my mind,” she says. “I am a healer, and I work with water. Water is energy.”
Her name, Yoruba in origin, means “where the two waters meet.”
“That would be where the river meets the ocean,” she says.
Grated coconut and flax seed are evident among the 14 ingredients (many of which are secret) in most of her hearty breads. Ibukemi will quicker tell you what can’t be found in them.
“They don’t have butter, any dairy products, sugar or preservatives.
“I feel sad when people say they put butter on my bread. If you really want, you could put some tomato, avocado and lettuce on top. Some people eat my bread with a little fish, but my breads are baked to eat plain with a cup of tea.”
Every week Ibukemi, who was born in Moruga, leaves her home in Santa Cruz with at least 70 loaves and her seasoned versions of coconut bake to sell at the Queen’s Park Savannah farmers’ market in Port of Spain. By 10 am, she is generally sold out.
Her best-selling bread is sweet potato and squash.
“But my ginger and turmeric is fast becoming as popular. Ginger and turmeric bread settles the stomach. Customers who suffer with acid reflux love this bread,” she says.
When customers ask for a sweet bread, Ibukemi offers a raisin bread sweetened only with grated beetroot, which looks like a thin red ribbon on top of each loaf. “My raisin bread takes the place of sweetbread and it is healthy.”
Kemi listens to her customers’ suggestions as well.
“At first I made a bread with ginger. An old lady came up to me and said, ‘Try putting turmeric in that bread. The combination will be good for inflammation, gas and arthritis pain.’”
Kemi took the customer’s advice and created a golden bread, with flecks of grated turmeric and ginger root. Customers took to it, with its kick of ginger and slightly bitter hint of turmeric.
Kemi says her spiritual understanding of water allows her to work with the moisture of vegetables.
“Even the pimento and celery leaf bread or avocado leaf and shadon beni bread require a perfect mixture between dry and wet ingredients.”
The carailli bread and the pimento and celery are the two most difficult to make.
“Pimento and celery is one of my most exquisite breads.”
The trick is to produce a hint of pepper in this unusual bread.
“Making these two breads drain me because they take three hours – the longest time of any of my breads – to make. The flour and the timing of mixing those breads must be perfect.”
Kemi has been baking bread to sell for over six years, but among her circle of family and friends she has been inventing bread recipes for over ten years. She has loved baking it since she was a child.
“We grew up using an outside dirt oven. Everyone was outside together. You would find me out there by the fire and the oven – not in the house working. I was about 13 when I made my first bread, a coconut bread.”
When Kemi realised she could create healthy breads for people who thought they had to give up eating it for health reasons or weight control, it became part of her healing mission.
“My happiest moments of the day are when I am baking bread.”
Her two children help by grating coconut and cutting up some of the vegetables or seasonings, but Kemi bakes all the bread – 24 loaves at a time, in three normal ovens. By Thursday she has gone to the market and she is prepping her ingredients from Friday morning as early as 2 am. On Saturday morning, some of the bread is still coming out of the oven at 5 am. It’s still warm when it reaches the Savannah market.
All of Kemi’s breads are soft inside with a crispy outside when toasted. Her favourite breads to make just happen to be her two best-selling ones: ginger and turmeric and caralili.
“I love making those breads. I have a different smile when I am making them because I know what they do for people.”
Her multi-grain coconut breads and bakes are also popular.
“They are perfect to eat with salmon.”
In the next two months, Kemi feels she will offer customers a new bread.
“Not everyone will be able to eat this bread, because it will have cashews and almonds in it. I made it before, but now I will enhance it. People who can eat nuts will love it. I’m talking about that bread, and I am tasting it.”
Having a purpose makes baking bread rewarding, but Kemi says the compliments buoy her spirit and sustain her.
“I get really nice compliments – even from children. People say, ‘When I eat this bread, I feel like I am in heaven.’”
Ibukemi never doubted that bread could bring such joy.