The first African nominee for the Basque Culinary World Prize, Ghanaian Selassie Atadika is pioneering the New African Cuisine movement.
For Selassie Atadika, a Ghanaian chef and chocolatier who grew up in the US, one of the most common misconceptions about the cuisine of sub-Saharan Africa is that it is singularly spicy and unrefined. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says.
“The level of complexity is mind-blowing. There are so many layers of flavour, which come from preservation techniques such as smoking, salting and fermentation.”
New African Cuisine
She is a pioneer of New African Cuisine, which she describes as boldly flavoured communally shared plant-forward meals, full of wild and foraged ingredients, ancient grains like millet, teff, fonio and sorghum, with a low or no-waste approach. Atadika is determined to shine a spotlight on Africa’s diverse culinary heritage.
One of her fondest early memories is of cooking Ghanaian cuisine with her mother when was she six years old. “We had just moved to the US and I was helping my mother make “stew” [a spiced tomato sauce], one of the mother sauces of Ghanaian cuisine. Today, I am still working to perfect it to her level of excellence.”
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in geography and environmental studies, and a master’s degree in international affairs, she engaged for over a decade in humanitarian work with the United Nations in locations such as Angola, Liberia, South Sudan, and Kenya.
An Ambassador For African Cuisine
It was in April 2010, while visiting friends who were working in the Central African Republic, that Atadika had an epiphany. “After a two-day drive to the [remote] Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve, we stopped at the only lodge and met a summer intern from France who had arrived a few weeks earlier. I heard the intern deride ‘African cuisine’.”
She learned that he hadn’t been anywhere else on the continent but the isolated village they found themselves in. “It wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last I found myself defending the cuisines from the various parts of the continent, [explaining] to people who were not familiar with the flavour profiles. I decided to become one of the ambassadors of African cuisine and share the deep roots and lessons from the African kitchen,” she says.
Atadika, who runs Midunu, a nomadic kitchen experience in Accra, Ghana, that she established in 2014, goes on to explain that in Ghanaian and other African cuisines, some layers of flavour come from unique spices “which oftentimes don’t even have English names”.
The Midunu Institute
Her Midunu kitchen has led to the Midunu Institute, which serves to “advance consumer health and awareness and create new economies through the understanding and use of indigenous African ingredients and culinary knowledge”, she says.
In Ewe, Midunu means “come, let’s eat”. Both these initiatives caught the eye of the Basque Culinary Center, and Atadika was elected as one of ten finalists for the 2019 Basque Culinary World Prize, worth €100 000.
It was the first time an African has been featured since its inception in 2016. Joxe Mari Aizega, the director of the Basque Culinary Center, says: “In the international culinary landscape, Africa is still a universe to be “discovered”. Selassie opens the way for Ghana, which represents an admirable feat.”
Previous winners include Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa, who has fostered networks for the country’s indigenous people and their foodways, and chef Jock Zonfrillo, whose Adelaide restaurant Orana aims to create sustainable incomes for Australia’s Aboriginal foragers and growers.
Aizega comments further: “Selassie’s contemporary discourse, committed to the development of a regional identity, and with a responsible and conscious practice of cuisine, is not only inspiring, it constitutes an example of what new generations can add to the gastronomy sector when concepts such as ‘identity’, ’sustainability’ and ‘social commitment’ become a reality.”
Documenting Traditional Culinary Practices
Atadika’s initial goal with Midunu was to start a food enterprise that would celebrate Africa’s culinary heritage. “I wanted to offer both Ghanaians, expatriates living in Ghana, and tourists a place to experience African cuisines.”
Having travelled to 80% of Africa’s territories, she felt that her journey through the continent offered her a unique opportunity to experience the food and foodways. “I wanted to share that and add value to what was local, and stimulate the economy for local ingredients,” she says.
For Midunu Institute’s pilot phase, Selassie aims to recruit and train selected Ghanaian youth ambassadors to document traditional culinary practices in three regions. “Their work will help spark a national conversation among youths and middle-class consumers about the central role of culture in food and agriculture,” she says.
A concurrent multi-media behavioural change campaign will showcase challenges and successes in developing local food systems that protect indigenous culture and traditions.
Her ultimate goals are to increase the income of local farmers due to increased consumption of local agricultural goods and to amplify interest in agricultural biodiversity and climate-smart crops, especially amongst the youth.
The hope is that this will also stimulate a world-wide interest in Ghanaian culinary heritage.
“I’ve chosen to bring the flavours of the continent to the world one bite at a time and through thought leadership,” Atadika says.
“I offer Midunu to the world as a way of expanding the table for more voices and to link humanity to its greatest desire – to be seen, heard, and filled with the best parts of itself.”
Words by Ishay Govender-Ypma