This Sierra Leone Chef Brings a Modern Twist to Nomadic Cuisine
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because an adventurous palate can make mealtime almost perfect.
- Fatmata Binta is Sierra Leonean chef is an evangelist of the cuisine culture of the Fulani, one of West Africa’s major ethnic groups.
- Her previous “day job” of tutoring private students in English is well in her rearview mirror.
Eight Christmases ago, Fatmata Binta was a budding chef in a Madrid culinary school distraught at losing her job as a private English tutor and unsure of how to make ends meet before the end of her education. But last Christmas, her Dine On A Mat dinners in Accra attracted so many guests, including celebrity DJ Walshy Fire of Major Lazer, rapper 6lack and Calvin Klein model Ebonee Davis, that she hosted a slew of sessions all month. Sometimes twice a day.
Many of them were part of the influx into the Ghanaian capital for the Year of Return celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade. “I was so exhausted I had to take the whole of January off,” Binta laughs heartily, recalling how different that Christmas in 2011 was when she survived by making sandwiches and African meals for MBA students at the popular IE Business School in Madrid.
Dine On A Mat has been the 35-year-old chef’s signature event for the last two of her eight years in Accra. For just $70-$120 per ticket, 20-80 people participate in a session that normally comprises a three-course meal with meat or corn, peanuts, fonio (an African grain) and sometimes full vegan options, herbal teas and background music.
In the middle of the mats, Binta sits near a lit lantern like a pivot on a carousel at an amusement park, talking about Fulani history and pop culture. She has also hosted variations of the event in Berlin, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere outside the continent.
Ghanaian food and travel blogger Akosua Shirley swears that attending a session last December was like no other personal experience for her. “It was a shared experience with people I had not met before but conversation flew easily. It was a vegan-inspired menu that night, and even though I am not vegan, I totally enjoyed it. … Drinks were abundant, servers were pleasant and [the] food portion [was] just right.”
“I get bored easily in my life working, cooking the same thing. … so the inspiration came to promote something,” Binta explains. “I grew up eating on the mat. … and I don’t see that anymore. You hardly find people coming together to pause and enjoy a good meal. Dining has become something people do quickly and go, so I decided to bring this idea of a traditional nomadic pop-up restaurant and change locations.”
Born in Freetown to Fulanis of Guinean descent, Binta, who spent her childhood rummaging through her mother’s kitchen collecting burns from hot pots of oil and spending holidays back in her grandmother’s restaurant, scripts her pop-up dinners as adaptations of the nomadic cuisine culture of her people.
The Fulani (also called Peul or Fula) are a nomadic ethnic group mostly dispersed across West and Central Africa — the women are often pictured wearing elaborate jewelry and the men are tall, slender and often given to cattle rearing. Their role in ongoing pastoralist crises — a decades-long problem that is being exacerbated by climate change, population explosion and ethno-religious tension — has invoked memories of their violent history of mounting jihads across the region in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Little wonder that NGOs have enlisted her help in curating peace dinners between Fulani herdsmen and local farmers in northern Ghana, acting as a mediator and translator in improving communication between both parties. She also works with women growing fonio in that part of Ghana where owning land is laborious for women.
But while that helps Binta put her international relations degree to good use, the chef believes her main role is shedding light on a lesser-known part of that culture, promoting and preserving the organic and healthy cuisine of the Fulani — as her people deal with gentrification and being ostracized. And she is infusing lessons from her own personal nomadic experience and Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002) to do so.
“There were several times during the conflict when no one could go out to buy food or food was simply not available. … Having knowledge on how to blend and create totally new dishes with a handful of ingredients is a life-saving skill in a war zone,” she says.
Those skills were polished in culinary schools in Madrid, where she lived for two years, and Nairobi, where she worked afterward in a hotel but soon tired of the routine. “I was about to go to Sierra Leone in 2014 but then there was Ebola,” Binta explains. “So I decided to come here [Accra] and wait, then ended up liking it so I didn’t move again.” By 2017, the idea for a modern twist to an ancient culture came as she grew bored once again while working at a Ghanaian hotel — and Dine On A Mat was born.
The sessions are already stirring interest in Fulani culture. “I miss your food and experience so much,” purred Nigerian-American travel blogger Jubril Agoro, who curates cooking experiences for Airbnb, on Binta’s Instagram page.
“[It] created an interest I didn’t necessarily have before in getting to know about them,” acknowledges Shirley, who hails from southern Ghana. “Chef Binta was pleasant and hearing her share her story, you could tell this goes beyond money and fame. It’s storytelling for her. I plan to go again soon.”
This article earlier mistakenly suggested that the Fulani are “commonly” associated with jihad. We apologize for the error.