African chefs want to bring back traditional diets across sub-Saharan Africa. Kareem Arthur looks for new ingredients.
My grandmother always led the way in the kitchen. I grew up in London with Sierra Leonean food: stews, rice, soup, cassava, rich leafy-green sauces, plantain, salmon, fried rice, jollof rice, of course – and so many other dishes.
For my grandmother – and her friends – cooking was a part of the day. She cooked for me, my parents, and cousins. If we were full, she would put leftovers into ice-cream containers for the freezer for anyone who came to visit and needed food. Very often I opened a tub of Wall’s ice cream to find not icedcream but last Tuesday’s okra soup.
Ingredients were everywhere in that house. Sometimes the kitchen was full of jugs of palm oil, piles of tripe and pig-foot in bowls from Lewisham market, baskets of plantain and newspaper filled with smoked fish. There were big plastic containers filled with food outside in the back yard, waiting for the pot, big enough for all four gas hobs.
These early experiences of food gave me the idea that food is an important part of life. It made me want to learn more about ingredients and food cultures from Africa. It has so many different ways of gathering, preserving, and preparing food. Four chefs are helping me. They live between East and West Africa and cities in the Global North and they are cooking with indigenous grains, fruits, seeds, and vegetables.
One of chef Njathi Kabui's events. Chef Kabui is also starting a library of books on black food history in rural Kenya. Credit: NJATHI KABUI
African food stories
Our first stop is Kenya, East Africa. It is the home of Njathi Kabui. He is a famous organic chef, activist, and speaker. Chef Kabui was born in 1968, five years after independence. He grew up on a farm near Mount Kenya, on his family’s land. He lived there with his mother until he was 10. He remembers growing enough crops and livestock for nearly all their needs.
‘We had fruit trees: papayas, guava, oranges, lemons, loquats, sugar cane, avocados – all kinds of stuff,’ Kabui tells me on the phone from his home in North Carolina, US. ‘We had grain: corn, wheat, millet; and we grew pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, and cassava. There were cows and pigs once to sell, and we kept chickens and pigeons for their meat...’
Kabui is now an urban farmer and believes strongly in the benefits of eating well in the US and back in Kenya. ‘We know so little about food that we make bad decisions and benefit other people and we don’t even realize it,’ he says.
Society needs to think again about ingredients, Kabui says. Over the past twenty years he has developed the idea of ‘food literacy’, which he thinks is as important as academic literacy. He gives seminars about this idea and has also helped start community gardens to grow raspberries, blueberries, figs, strawberries, herbs, and vegetables.
‘Many corporations have confused how we think about food, what to eat, and how to eat it.’ says Kabui. He feels sad that colonization by Britain took away much of Kenya’s own food culture.
To help bring back this knowledge, he’s returning to his family’s land, this time to build the Thayu Food Literacy and Sustainability Centre near Lake Naivasha. It will have a library on black food history and its chefs, and an international kitchen with the very best of African food, with the best wild ingredients from the land.
Kabui tells me how in Africa they use only a few grain types – maize, wheat and rice – but there are many indigenous types of grain. Millet, a nutritious wholegrain, has a special place in Kabui’s heart. He tells me about a recipe for a warm salad. He mixes millet with black-eyed peas, and lots of vegetables. He adds honey and warm spices such as cardamom.
We talk about an ingredient called ngai ngai: young leaves from the hibiscus plant. With citrus, the flower can make hot or cold tea; we can also use the leaves as a seasoning. Ngai ngai brings out the flavours of grains and salads and makes wonderful sauces – this, he says, is a great example of how to season food without using processed seasoning.
Go away MSG
Fermented locust beans (Iru) in small bowls. Abi Olayiwola / Alamy
Chef Fatmata Binta is from Ghana, West Africa. She says that with the new ingredients like MSG and artificial additives, it’s hard to really experience pure traditional African flavours.
She remembers how on a trip to north Ghana she mostly ate food seasoned with only locust bean and local salt. She introduces me to another ingredient: dawadawa, a pod with a soft, sweet, yellow pulp that grows on the locust bean tree.
‘Africa is so much more than just jollof rice,’ Binta says. She says when she first tasted dawadawa, she loved its umami flavour with flavours of dark chocolate and cocoa. Binta says that they harvest the pod, ferment its seeds, then dry them. They use them whole, ground into a powder, or in a paste and add them to many traditional African dishes such as okra soup and egusi, a soup made with ground melon seeds.
Binta was born into the nomadic Fulani community. She lived first in Sierra Leone and then in neighbouring Guinea. In 2017, she started the Fulani Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant for guests around Ghana. It is there to show the cooking and culture of her childhood.
The Fulani are one of the biggest nomadic communities in the world. Historically, they have travelled throughout West Africa for pasture for their cattle. As they move from place to place, they borrow ideas from the local people, ingredients change, and they get different influences.
Binta remembers that she was living in a village with her grandmother in Guinea when her love for cooking truly began. She learned how to fetch firewood, get ingredients from the farm, and cook from scratch.
Fulani sun-dry almost everything they eat: herbs, vegetables, spices, and meat. Sun-drying preserves food and limits food waste. This makes their lifestyle very sustainable. They eat some animal products, but the Fulani diet does not include much meat. When they kill the animals, they sell the meat at local markets and Fulani families mostly eat the offal, which they will also dry. They also eat grains: millet, maize and local rice. Binta speaks of her favourite dish as a child that she now serves to her guests: a steamed corn couscous served with fresh yoghurt, made from fermented cows’ milk – so sweet you don’t need sugar.
Bringing back ancient grains
For chef Fatmata Binta the ingredient fonio – a nutritious, gluten-free and fibre-rich grain – is at the centre of her Fulani Kitchen in Ghana. APAG STUDIOS
Like Kabui, Binta feels that we need to rethink how we use ingredients. There is not much change in the demand for local foods in rural areas. People still hold on to old traditions, and they prefer a slower approach when preparing and eating food. In cities diets and desires are changing as highly processed foods enter African markets.
In Ghana, Binta says, it’s more often rich people that choose unhealthy food. Because they don’t have money to buy expensive imported products, poorer people will choose to eat local food. ‘A poor person can only get beans, which contain so much protein,’ she says. ‘A poor person prefers local smoked fish more than beef or sausages that are full of bad ingredients.’
Binta’s great hope for preserving and improving food security – and diet quality – in Ghana and other parts of Africa is for people to take their food traditions more seriously.
‘Those that are in the food space need to use their voices in the right way,’ she says. ‘If we continue to talk about food, teach and help others, I think people will want processed food less.’
Binta hopes to travel more with Fulani Kitchen and around the world. She is now spending her time more in farming to help create markets for traditional foods.
She is working with women farmers in northern Ghana, to grow and harvest fonio, an ancient grain, which is for sweet and savoury dishes. Fonio is delicate but it is strong in a drought, nutritious, fast growing – and delicious. Binta works with the company Sassou Fonio, which teaches farming techniques to women and makes sure they receive a good price for their crop. Over 40 per cent of the population work on the land in Ghana, but many cannot sell enough to make a good living. Binta wants to change that.
Pierre Thiam is a Senegalese chef and he also supports fonio. He owns two restaurants, one in New York, US, and one in Lagos, Nigeria. He also owns Yolélé, a food company that produces fonio and it wants to really support local ingredients. His company works with smallholder farmers across West Africa, and it wants to give job security and safeguard biodiversity, and help to make sure that we don’t lose these products.
Thiam grew up in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He says it is ‘one of the most exciting food cultures in the world’.
‘Dakar is a very interesting mixture. As a port, we have a diet of seafood and grains, but as Senegal was for many years the entrance to Africa from other countries, many different flavours have come into its food for hundreds of years.’
Restaurant owner Pierre Thiam wants to make sure we don’t lose Senegalese ingredients and food cultures. PUIS UTOMI EKPEI/GETTY
Getting away from colonial ideas
Thiam grew up eating fresh, home-cooked meals. He is worried that ingredients he saw when he grew up are disappearing. ‘Often in Senegal we have this colonial way of thinking and we don’t value these local products. In the supermarkets in Dakar you see all Western products but you only see about 10 per cent of our local products,’ he says.
With Yolélé, Thiam wants to take back control of diets and the food system. ‘The market is not only full of bad food, but bad food controls it. Big agriculture forces diets on us that are limited to only four crops. You eat rice or soy, wheat or corn and we just ignore grains like fonio,’ he says.
Growing only these four crops is having a bad effect on the planet, he says. Industrial agriculture generates greenhouse gases (around 30 per cent of the global total) and abuses the water supply, with 70 per cent of the planet’s water used for these four crops alone. But, Thiam says, indigenous crops like fonio, millet, or sorghum don’t need as much water and are also much more nutritious.
There are many ways to eat fonio. The traditional way in Senegal is with okra: ‘a pair matched in heaven’ as Thiam describes it. During the summer, at his New York restaurant, he serves fonio with sweet roasted beetroot and spicy carrots, pickled with scotch bonnet chilies and, for dessert, fonio pudding with coconut milk and roasted mango.
Another crop Thiam wants to grow is bambara beans. They taste much like peanuts, but do not have any of the allergens. They grew in West Africa until peanuts, which are far easier to process, took over the market. But bambara beans are much more nutritious and are traditionally grown on rotation with fonio. That keeps the soil healthy.
Thiam wants to grow fonio with other traditional crops with methods developed over hundreds of years. ‘We are trying to support the farmers in a way that they can understand,’ he says. ‘The agricultural revolution brought chemical fertilizers, and stopped the seasons. These things have terrible results. This is why we have to return to the system of rotation, which allows the soil to breathe and to rest.’
Omer Eltigani is collecting recipes from his native Sudan. OMER ELTIGANI
Our last chef, Omer Eltigani, grew up in Sudan. From a young age he watched the women who raised him in the kitchen. Now he is making a reputation as a chef. His first book Sudanese Kitchen is due out later in 2021. Eltigani wants to use food to show a clearer picture of his country.
‘When you hear of Sudan, you might think of war and think it is a destructive place,’ he tells me on the phone from his grandfather’s house in the capital, Khartoum. ‘But Sudan is very rich and diverse, with a wonderful food culture that people really need to understand and value.’
Sudan has a sophisticated cuisine with deep historical roots. When he was writing Sudanese Kitchen, Omer got information from all over the country, visiting different villages and communities, and collected recipes that show the country’s great variety.
Just a few people (often grandmothers) know how to make these dishes. They take patience. And as times change, young people are not learning the skills to continue the food culture. Omer wants to make sure we do not lose these cooking traditions. He has collected and learned the recipes and serves them at pop-up events.
Mullah is a common Sudanese meal that Omer likes. Made with onions and meat, usually ground, and blended vegetables, you eat mullah with different breads and cooked grains that you can make into porridge, dumplings, or asseeda. Asseeda is similar to West African fufu but instead made with flour, yeast, and sometimes added butter. Another classic food is kisra, a fermented crepe. When the batter is ready, you spread it on a hot wide plate and cook it in thin sheets similar to injera in neighbouring Ethiopia. Kisra is made from flour milled from sorghum, which is similar to millet. Its flour is a dull white, with a light texture and naturally gluten free. The flour is mixed with water and yoghurt, and then left to ferment. You eat it with stews and many Sudanese dishes.
Omer would love to bring back the agricultural schemes in Sudan that make the most of the country’s farming potential, increase access to local ingredients, and reduce the demand for imported goods.
Bringing back traditional food systems
All the chefs seem to agree that we must return to the land to bring back indigenous food production as we work to introduce people to the wonderful nutritious ancient flavours.
If we lose all this, I do not know what we will be. Who wants a world where farming is only for cash crops and making money fast; a system with no culture?
The chefs helped me understand why we have to value the cycle of food from farm to plate. And how we can help to bring back the traditional food systems.
I am now learning to cook the food I ate when I grew up and more. I was lucky to find some of Chef Binta’s dawadawa in London and I used it as a seasoning for okra soup. I was happy to find that it has a powerful smell but the flavour it gives to the soup is smooth and delicate. A wonderful ingredient. As I begin to try to use the flavours and spices of my grandmother’s cooking, I only hope I can do it well.
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)