Freedom food

Rebel chefs are on a mission to decolonize diets across sub-Saharan Africa. Kareem Arthur goes in search of new ingredients.

Freedom food

Rebel chefs are on a mission to decolonize diets across sub-Saharan Africa. Kareem Arthur goes in search of new ingredients.

My grandmother always led the way in the kitchen. I grew up in London surrounded by Sierra Leonean food: stews, rice, soup, cassava, rich leafy-green sauces, plantain, dressed whole salmon, fried rice, jollof rice, of course – and so many other dishes that I couldn’t possibly name in one go.

For my grandmother – and her friends – cooking was an integral part of the day. She would cook for me, my parents, cousins, and, if we were full, she would ladle leftovers into ice-cream containers to load into the freezer, just in case someone came round and needed food. There have been many moments when I have opened a tub of Wall’s vanilla ice cream to find last Tuesday’s okra soup.

Ingredients were everywhere in that house. On occasion the kitchen tiles were lined all the way to the cooker with jugs of palm oil, mountains of tripe and pig-foot in bowls from Lewisham market, baskets of plantain and bundles of newspaper filled with smoked fish; huge plastic containers piled with food spilled outside into the back yard, until it was their turn for a dip in the silver pot, which would take up all four gas hobs.

These early experiences of food filled not only my belly but also my mind with the notion and practices of nourishment as being an important part of life. It has set me on a path to learn more about ingredients and food cultures from Africa, which is home to so many different ways of gathering, preserving and preparing food. My guides on this journey of discovery are four chefs – living between East and West Africa and cities in the Global North – who are championing indigenous grains, fruits, seeds and vegetables.

Activist chef Njathi Kabui is setting up a library dedicated to black food history in rural Kenya. Credit: NJATHI KABUI
One of chef Njathi Kabui's events. Chef Kabui is also is setting up a library dedicated to black food history in rural Kenya. Credit: NJATHI KABUI

African food stories

Our first stop is Kenya, East Africa, home to Njathi Kabui, a celebrated organic chef who doubles up as an activist and speaker. Chef Kabui was born in 1968, five years after independence. He grew up on a farm near Mount Kenya, on land owned by his family, where he lived with his mother until he turned 10. He remembers growing enough crops and livestock to provide 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 current home in North Carolina, US. ‘We had grain: corn, wheat, millet; and we grew pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots and cassava. There were cows, pigs at one time for commercial reasons, and we kept chickens and pigeons for their meat...’

Chef Binta describes her favourite dish: a steamed corn couscous served with fresh fermented yoghurt -- so sweet you don’t need sugar

Kabui is now an urban farmer and passionate about the benefits of eating well in the US as well as back in Kenya. ‘We are so illiterate about food that most of the decisions we make disempower us and benefit other people even without us realizing,’ he explains.

Society needs a total revamp of the way we think about ingredients, Kabui argues. Over the past two decades he has developed the concept of ‘food literacy’, which he thinks needs to be taken as seriously as academic literacy. He gives seminars to advance this idea and has also helped set up community gardens, which grow ‘raspberries, blue berries, figs, strawberries, herbs and vegetables’.

‘We have been manipulated by many corporations and powers that have confused how we view food, what and how we consume,’ says Kabui, who regrets the way colonization by Britain erased much of Kenya’s own complex and diverse food culture.

Chef Binta describes her favourite dish: a steamed corn couscous served with fresh fermented yoghurt -- so sweet you don’t even need sugar

To help restore 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 eventually be home to a library dedicated to black food history and its chefs, and to an international kitchen that elevates African food, combining the best wild ingredients grown on the surrounding land.

Kabui tells me how only a handful of grain types – maize, wheat and rice – dominate in Africa, despite an abundance of indigenous types. Millet, a nutritious wholegrain from a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, has a special place in Kabui’s heart. He shares a recipe for a warm salad where he mixes millet with black-eyed peas, an abundance of vegetables, adds honey for sweetness and warm spices such as cardamom.

We go on to talk about an ingredient called ngai ngai: young leaves from the hibiscus plant. Laced with citrus, the flower can be used to make hot or cold tea; the leaves should not be wasted and can be used as a seasoning. Ngai ngai draws 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.

Move over MSG

From Ghana, West Africa, Chef Fatmata Binta reflects that since the arrival of new ingredients like MSG and artificial additives, it’s hard to really experience pure traditional African flavours.

She recalls how on a recent trip to north Ghana, she mostly ate food that was seasoned with just locust bean and local salt, and 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 dawadawa was first introduced to her taste buds, she was blown away by its umami flavour with hints of dark chocolate and cocoa. Binta explains that the pod is harvested, and its seeds fermented and then dried. They can be used whole, ground into a powder or made into a pungent paste that is added to give depth and flavour 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, living first in Sierra Leone and then in neighbouring Guinea. In 2017, she set up the Fulani Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant that she hosts for guests around Ghana that seeks to highlight and preserve the cuisine and culture of her childhood.

The Fulani are one of the largest nomadic communities in the world. Historically, they have travelled throughout West Africa seeking pasture for their cattle. As they move from place to place they borrow from the locals, ingredients change and they absorb different influences.

Binta recalls that she was living in a village with her grandmother in Guinea when her love for cooking truly took root. She learned firsthand how to fetch firewood, gather ingredients from the farm and cook from scratch.

Dawadawa, from the locust bean tree, has an umami flavour with hints of cocoa

Fulani sun-dry almost everything they eat: herbs, vegetables, spices and meat. Sun-drying is not only a form of preservation, but also a way to limit food waste, making their lifestyle exceptionally sustainable. Although they do eat some animal products, the Fulani diet does not include much meat. When animals are slaughtered, the meat is sold at local markets and Fulani families mostly eat the offal, which they will also dry. Alongside this, they 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.

Reviving ancient grains

Like Kabui, Binta feels that there needs to be a rethink about how ingredients are used. While the demand for local foods hasn’t changed much in rural areas – where people still hold on to old traditions, and a slower approach is encouraged with 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 wealthy people that opt for unhealthy options. Lacking the money to buy expensive imported products, poorer people will opt to source and eat local. ‘A poor person can only access beans, which contain so much protein,’ she says. ‘A poor person would rather go for some local smoked fish than beef or sausages that have been packed 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 culinary inheritance more seriously.

Big agriculture imposes diets on us. We ignore ancient grains like fonio

‘Those that are in the food space need to use their voices and platforms in the right way,’ she says. ‘If we continue to have these conversations, teach and mentor others, I think the desire for processed items will slow.’

Dawadawa, from the locust bean tree, has an umami flavour with hints of cocoa

Although Binta hopes to travel further afield with Fulani Kitchen, and enjoys the idea of rolling out her mat around the world, she is now investing 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, versatile grain, which can be used for both sweet and savoury dishes. Fonio is delicate but drought-resistant, nutritious, fast growing – and delicious. Binta works alongside the company Sassou Fonio, which teaches farming techniques to women and makes sure they receive a good price for their crop. While over 40 per cent of the population work the land in Ghana, many are not able to sell enough to make a good living. Binta wants to change that.

Another fonio advocate is the Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam, who owns two restaurants, one in New York, US, and one in Lagos, Nigeria. He also owns Yolélé, a food company that produces fonio and has a mission to bring local ingredients to the forefront. Working with smallholder farmers across West Africa, it aims to provide job security while safeguarding biodiversity and helping to make sure that these products don’t disappear.

Thiam grew up in Dakar, the coastal capital of Senegal, which he describes as ‘one of the most exciting food cultures in the world’.

‘Dakar is a very interesting melting pot. As a port, we have a diet that is a combination of seafood and grains, but as Senegal was for many years the entrance to Africa from other countries, its food has been enriched with many different flavours over centuries.’

Restaurateur Pierre  Thiam is on a mission  to rescue disappearing  Senegalese ingredients  and food cultures. PUIS UTOMI EKPEI/GETTY
Restaurateur Pierre Thiam is on a mission to rescue disappearing Senegalese ingredients and food cultures. PUIS UTOMI EKPEI/GETTY

Shedding colonial mindsets

Thiam grew up eating fresh, home-cooked meals. He is concerned that ingredients he saw growing up are disappearing. ‘Often in Senegal we have this colonial mindset and look down on 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 is on an active mission to take back control of diets and the food system. ‘The market is not only full of bad food, it’s controlled by it. Big agriculture imposes 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.

The cultivation of these dominant crops is having an adverse effect on the planet, he reports. 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. In contrast, Thiam points out, indigenous crops like fonio, millet or sorghum don’t require as much water and are also much more nutritious.

Big agriculture imposes diets on us. We ignore ancient grains like fonio

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 is looking to cultivate are bambara beans. They taste much like peanuts, but do not have any of the allergens and used to grow throughout West Africa until peanuts, which are far easier to process, took over the market. Bambara beans, however, are much more nutritious and are traditionally grown on rotation with fonio, which keeps the soil healthy.

Thiam wants to grow fonio alongside other traditional crops in line with methods that have been developed over hundreds of years. ‘What we are trying to do is support the farmers in a way that makes sense to them,’ he says. ‘The agricultural revolution brought chemical fertilizers, and eliminated the seasons. These things have terrible consequences. This is why we have to return to the system of rotation, which allows the soil to breathe and to rest.’

Recipe collector

Our last chef, Omer Eltigani, grew up in Sudan. From a young age he was an avid observer of the women who raised him, witnessing their activities in the kitchen and enjoying the intimacy that surrounds that space. Now building a reputation as a chef (his debut book Sudanese Kitchen is due out later this year), Eltigani is keen to use food to present a more accurate picture of his country.

‘When you hear of Sudan you might think of war and think of it as a destructive place,’ he tells me on the phone from his grandfather’s house in the capital, Khartoum. ‘But in reality, Sudan is extremely rich and diverse, with an incredible food culture that really needs to be understood and acknowledged.’

Sudan has a sophisticated cuisine with deep historical roots. In the process of researching Sudanese Kitchen, Omer has gathered information from all over the country, visiting different villages and communities, and compiled recipes that reflect the country’s great regional variety.

Expert knowledge of how to prepare these dishes is buried inside the minds of a handful of people (often grandmothers). They take patience. And as times change, young people are not picking up the skills to continue the food culture. Omer is making it his mission to make sure these cooking traditions are not lost. As well as recording recipes, he has learned them himself and serves them up at pop-up events.

Mullah is a common Sudanese meal that Omer finds comfort in. Made with onions and meat, usually ground, and blended vegetables, mullah is eaten with different breads and cooked grains that can be made into porridge, dumplings or asseeda, which is similar to West African fufu but instead made with flour, yeast and sometimes added butter. Another classic food is kisra, a fermented crepe. Once the batter is made, it’s spread on a hot wide plate and cooked into 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. Once cooked it is eaten with stews and alongside a wide range of Sudanese dishes.

Omer would love to see a revival of 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.

Undoing erasure

All the chefs I spoke to seem to agree that we must return to the land to begin to restore indigenous food production as we work to introduce modern palates to the delights and nutritional benefits of ancient flavours.

If all this is lost, I am left wondering what we will be. Who wants a world where farming is dedicated only to cash crops and fast money-making schemes; a system void of culture, story and traditional ritual?

The chefs gave me a sense of why we have to appreciate the full cycle of food from farm to plate. And how we can help to rebuild the food systems that have been erased and side-lined. Unless these foods are elevated and valued, who will step up to defend them, or protect and nurture them in national policy?

For my part, I am now learning to cook the food I ate growing up and beyond. I was lucky enough to find some of Chef Binta’s dawadawa in London and I used it whole as a seasoning for okra soup. I was happy to discover that while it has a powerful smell, the flavour that it delivers to the soup is smooth and delicate. A truly wonderful ingredient. As I begin to match the flavours and levels of spice of my grandmother’s cooking, I only hope I can do it justice.

Kareem Arthur is a chef and writer who runs the Healing Table, a project providing a space that celebrates women who cook and explores emotional connections between food and cooking.

This article was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.