Chef Fatmatah Binta: The Journey of a fulani chef
Food is love made visible, as Africans food is central to our cultures and traditions. It is what binds us together as a family and a community. It is therefore unsurprising that food plays a major role when Africans from all four corners of the continent celebrate love; be it welcoming a new born,at naming ceremonies, for birthdays, for weddings, after right of passage ceremonies, and even death.
It is this belief that food is love that drives my passion for cuisine. A passion that as an aspiring african chef drives me to bring Africans together through food.
My love affair for food goes all the way back to when I was five years old and I have the scars to prove it. You may ask scars???? How can food give you scars?? Well when I was five, like many others at that age I often didn’t follow instructions (especially from my mom).
I was intent on showing everyone that I knew my way around the kitchen. Well I learnt the hard way, when I got second degree burns from falling hands first into a hot pot of oil. Let’s be honest, most people would have a Phobia of the kitchen after such an incident and if not would have broken up with their love,not me.
In fact,looking back I think I fell even deeper in love with cooking.
At age eight I went to live with my grandma and she appointed me head of customer service of her mini restaurant or in our local language a ‘cookery baffa’.
To be honest the role was pretty much a gloried steward, washing all the dishes and pots. Pots that I could probably fit into. Do not get me wrong I still do not enjoy washing dishes but the experience gave me a deeper respect for food preparation.
Wars and civil unrest often reveal the strength of the human spirit to over come hate and prejudice, with food many times playing a catalyst role. I experienced first hand how food and food preparation can bring people together and bring down walls during Sierra Leone’s civil war.
During many episodes of the conflict, food was probably the second most important ally for residents of Freetown. As I recall there were several times during the conflict when no one could go out to buy food….let me rephrase food was not available as either shops and markets were closed or due to an embargo food ingredients were in short supply.
Food or the lack thereof brought communities and neighbourhoods together.
I saw my neighbours contribute and share ingredients to prepare meals that could be shared with everyone who had contributed. This is what I call creating food for sustenance The food we could afford like rice had loads of cockroaches which we had to hand pick and repeatedly wash and then blend with bulgur in order to get enough to share for everyone.
I honestly believe, 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.
Later we fled to my ancestral home, a village in Guinea where I lived for a year which allowed me to learn a lot more about food and farming. Even though there was no electricity and no infrastructure as I had to fetch water and carry wood, it was an adventure and the experience helped shape my perspective about food,family and love.
There is a beauty based on cultural norms to sharing food in such villages. You mainly eat in one big bowl and you have to use one hand to hold the bowl while eating, you don’t talk when you have food in your mouth, meat is shared by elders and food should never go to waste.
My journey like any others has it own set of sub-plots, for me these have mainly been pursuing other careers that society or family have felt were best suited for.
From starting as a TV presenter, then as an IT sales person, then studying international relations, to working in marketing one common thread exist across all which was a lack of fullfilment.
My eureka moment was several thousand miles from home in Madrid Spain. As the saying goes when your back is against the wall you discover your true talent. And that was what happened to me after I lost my job as a private english tutor and I had the idea of selling sandwiches to MBA students.
The response was quite surprising and encouraging, the students could not have enough. The sandwiches would finish within an hour of delivery. For once I finally believed all those friends and family members that had said “Binta you cook very well”. However, on my return to Africa (Accra, Ghana) I felt that I needed one of the traditional African woman careers.
This unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) led to me being depressed till it hit me “follow your passion”. So I took the brave step to travel to Nairobi Kenya to pursue studies in culinary arts.
Today I realise what it means waking up everyday with so much passion and zeal even when very exhausted I still find strength to learn more and do more.
The story of my journey shall continue…….
Fatmatah Binta is a Chef, Food Blogger and Taste Guru. Visit Chef Binta at the nyamu café