“Being Fulani is my journey”

Basque Culinary World Prize winner Chef Binta
lifts the lid on her heritage

Fatmata Binta photo by Francis Kokoroko and image by TOPIA

The award-winning chef, who celebrates her Fulani community’s rich culinary heritage at pop-up dining experiences, explains what being part of this nomadic tribe really means, and shares favourite spots and artisans – in her Good City Guide to Accra

Sustainable and minimal people.
That’s our way of life.

Chef Fatmata Binta

While Fulani chef Fatmata Binta was awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize for exploring West African cuisine’s diaspora through her innovative ‘Dine on a Mat’ experience and setting up the Fulani Kitchen Foundation for women and girls, two questions struck me: who are the Fulani and what does being Fulani mean? 

Fatmata Binta Insta

“I was raised in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to [settled] first-generation Sierra Leonean Fulanis of Guinean descent and now I’m based in Accra, Ghana’s capital,” says Fatmata, more usually known as Chef Binta, of her origins. 

Today’s digital nomads might choose to adopt a pastoral lifestyle, scampering after tax breaks and Airbnb deals, but being on the move is a way of life for the Fulani, also known as the Fula and Fulɓe people. The world’s largest pastoral nomadic tribe, this West African people is restless and brimming with energy, always in motion, packing and unpacking their limited possessions, seeking out highlands to graze their livestock and raise large families in a sustainable and minimalist fashion.

“Cook from the heart and measure with your eyes.”

And, by beginning to unravel a little of the nature of Fulani culture and traditions, it becomes easier to understand what propels Chef Binta, making history as the first African to receive the Basque Culinary Center’s prestigious award.

Where the journey begins

“Being Fulani is a big part of my journey,” she says. “My philosophy stems from family and community, shaped by the culture, making everything from scratch, over and over. As a kid, I hated working so hard for everything, but time in the villages was well spent as I have cousins who [haven’t been and] don’t speak the Fula dialect. So when I visit Fulani communities today, we can communicate and people open up – and I’m truly appreciative of that experience.”

This writer is the eldest of four siblings, what some might consider to be a notable size for a British brood, but the mostly Muslim Fulani raise the large family stakes considerably. Men usually marry four wives and each woman might bear eight children, a family unit that moves together around West Africa, raising offspring and cattle, farming then cooking, living among a wider migratory community. The beauty of being Fulani, says Chef Binta, is that moving doesn’t limit them so they use whatever resources are at hand. 

Fatmata Binta, left, with Fula girls Mariama, Assatou and Fatima in Abuja

“The generation before me didn’t go to school, in fact people didn’t really believe in education because they were always on the move, and that made it a very family-oriented culture. While my grandparents were Mbororo (nomadic), my parents were tired of that life and moved to Sierra Leone [to settle]. Mum was a true artist who used her skills to take care of us; she’d make soap from scratch and sell it, and she always cooked for us.

“On her side of the family I have over 500 cousins, and there’s another 500 on my dad’s. When it comes to birthdays, we hold secret parties and don’t ever invite anyone! Weddings are crazy too: family travels from every corner, from Senegal and Guinea: everybody comes.”

The Fulani are mostly Muslims and many men are polygynous with three or four wives. Imagine preparing the nuptial banquet for that many guests… where you start from absolute scratch. 

“If you want to cook, you first have to fetch firewood, or water from the stream,” she says. “A day starts with men milking the cows then women preparing breakfast, using calabash gourds to pasteurise milk. They have fun with it, and sing special songs that go with the moment. Lyrics might go something like ‘beautiful girl, you’re growing up so well’, praising themselves.”

Then women cook the main meal together, while weaving or plaiting someone’s hair, chatting and gossiping as they prepare. Dishes are pounded for 30 minutes to an hour with a giant pestle and mortar, three or four women working together with one foot on top of the mortar… and you can imagine there’s a lot of gossip if you are one of three or four wives!

“This traditional and sustainable way of living means we don’t have time to carry things – we’re minimalist – and that hugely influences our cuisine. We grow vegetables and make our own compost by mixing it with cow dung; that’s how we support ourselves. Sustainable and minimal people – that’s our way of life.”

Food memories

One of Chef Binta’s most vivid childhood food memories is being rewarded for her efforts to learn the Holy Quran as a five year old. “After graduating from that course, your family soaks red or white rice overnight, pounds it, then mixes it with honey to create a sweet treat called chorbal; it’s only prepared for graduation. There was also a candy competition that brought together all the kids aged between five and 12, someone counts, ‘one two three’ and everyone dives on to them. I always looked forward to gathering toffees!”

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Another key aspect of Fulani food culture is communal dining experiences, enjoying meals out of one big bowl, and the chef is convinced that food tastes better this way.

“Everyone washes their hands, then sits on a mat or pillows before eating the first dish, a platter. Sitting on the floor is grounding, it creates space for empathy, you look the person next to you in the eye and that’s our social structure. In my culture, you hold the bowl for your elders while they eat, seated upright. You don’t eat the meat in the middle, you wait until it is divided, so as to learn patience and contentment. You don’t just choose. Eating in this way instils values. I created the ‘Dine on a Mat’ concept because that’s how I grew up eating.”

A late bloomer to the gastronomy world – like Leo Espinosa, the Colombian winner of the Basque Culinary World Prize 2017 – Chef Binta enrolled at culinary school aged 29. It paid off: other accolades include winning the Rising Star 2021 prize at The Best Chef Awards. She says: “I’d studied international relations and used to host dinner parties every weekend, and my friends were all about my cooking, such as Jollof rice, a single-pot spicy stew with peppers, that I’d keep for a week! 

“I taught English in Madrid for a while then lost my job; it was a challenging time. I wanted to support myself, so I looked up African sandwich recipes on YouTube, and survived selling the sandwiches. I had to return to Sierra Leone for my visa but it wasn’t possible because of the ebola outbreak, so I went to Ghana and decided to try and do what I loved.” 

It wasn’t until she became a cook that Chef Binta started spending more time in Fulani communities because, while she knew they all spoke the same language, she wanted to discover whether there were any gastronomic similarities between Sierra Leone and Guinea.

That, combined with the desire to shine a light on ancestral cooking techniques and ingredients such as grains including fonio millet and spices, led her to open a pop-up kitchen initiative in 2018; her nomadic restaurant’s immersive experience has taken place on three continents to date.

Introducing the Fulani foutti

Chef Binta shares some Fulani cooking tips with TOPIA readers

“We don’t tend to have recipes in Fulani cuisine because women don’t calculate ingredients in these communities: they cook from their hearts and measure with their eyes, and always know when enough has been added. When grilling, we use simple salt from the lake. Essential ingredients for a community are sun-dried okra, African locust bean, sun-dried cayenne pepper, salted fish, ghee butter, shea butter, sun-dried grains and plain yoghurt.

A Guinean specialty, foutti is also popular in Mali, Gambia and Senegal. It consists of aubergines, fresh eggs, palm oil or ghee butter, African locust beans, water, toasted and ground sesame seeds, local red rice or fonio, a small grain millet, and okra.

Slowly simmer the ingredients for about 20 minutes and the sauce is then ready to use. Serve with rice or meat dishes.

The main prize

In recognising the work of chefs with transformative initiatives, the Basque Culinary World Prize – known as the Nobel of gastronomy – can be an engine of change when it comes to supporting initiatives such as the Fulani Kitchen Foundation, helping them come to fruition. US-based French chef Dominique Crenn forms part of the illustrious International Council of the Basque Culinary Center jury chaired by Catalan chef Joan Roca and has been following Chef Binta’s work for a long time.

The awarded French chef says: “I’m a fan of a woman who goes out there and does things for their community, to sustain their culture, and Binta does that in a place that people gave little thought to. Plus, she supported herself, on her own. She’s amazing. I am in love with what she’s doing and so very proud of her.”

She added that the best leaders in this world are the people that do things without wanting any awards. “They do things because they care about others. Binta is an example of an amazing human.”

Being virtually awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize in a Zoom call was undoubtedly a huge moment for the Fulani chef. “I was so emotional, not just because I’m the first African to win but because I realised that dreams can come true, and that the vision of creating a space for women has been recognised. It validates that I’m on the right path and should keep going forward and continue visiting all these communities whose women remind me of my own family. The €100,000 prize money will go towards building a centre that can inspire and educate women,” she says.

“Many Fulani women don’t have a voice at home and can’t be entrepreneurs, and even if they can, there are limitations such as ‘you have to be home at a certain time of the day’. Moving from one place to another is historic, it’s culture. My family wanted me to marry at 16, but I said no and escaped this [cycle]. Fulani women need to know that by having skills, being able to read and write, they can do whatever they desire. Because if you create a space for women, they can make decisions for themselves. 

“Of course, it’s important to protect heritage and know where you are from before you know where you are going. I don’t want to wake up and find that Fulani culture no longer exists.

“I’m looking forward to everything unfolding and for the Fulani Kitchen Foundation to start creating a space for these women. And, I also wish my mum was alive to see this happen because she never got to eat at Dine on a Mat.”

Q&A: Fatmata Binta on life in Accra

What does Accra mean to you?

Accra is home away from home and it has given so much to me, such as the platform to showcase my food and culture to the world. I’ve built something here and while I don’t have family, I do have my friends. It’s an inspiring city as I have been able to connect with people who look, think and eat like me.

What’s the vibe?

Vibrant, rich in culture and home to many gems –  I love Accra! But it’s got a good balance because it’s also a peaceful city. People are polite, the food is interesting and the nightlife is amazing! It’s buzzing, you won’t ever get bored and that’s the reason it’s the West African hub! 

What neighbourhood do you live in?

I live in the Aburi Mountains, as I love the quiet and solitude. After all the travelling, I like to be in the hills with my own company. It’s cool and misty between 5am and 7am, which is amazing. It’s mostly forest with a few homes, but it’s slowly developing. It’s about a 50-minute drive into Accra, 35 in light traffic.

What’s the music and arts scene like?

Afrobeats are dominating right now, plus there’s a lot of art and fashion. You can check out contemporary local artists’ works at Gallery SoView; its founder Barbara Kokpavo is responsible for a lot of collaborations.

There’s also always something going on at the Nubuke Foundation, which showcases arts and crafts made by local artists. 

Agriculture cultivation is fundamental to the Fulani; what do you grow?

I cultivate tomatoes and aubergines in my garden, there are also fruit trees such as lemon, lime, orange and mango, plus there’s a lot of avocado. I can’t eat it all so I drop food off to my friends. They always laugh and say: ‘delivery is coming!’.

How do you continue food exploration living in Accra?

Once a month I travel outside the city and visit the Fulani communities as they are the keepers of our authentic recipes.

Fatmata Binta, right, with Hadja Assia in a Fulani community in Abuja, Nigeria | Photograph: Courtesy of Basque Culinary World Prize

I start by milking the cows, then make all the dishes with the women, taking notes as I go, then create Dine on a Mat dinners inspired by them.

How have you incorporated the Atlantic ocean into your life?

I love going to the Osu Night Market to eat kenkey, which is fermented corn and cassava dough wrapped in a fermented corn leaf with shito – a smoked fish and vegetable hot sauce – and fried anchovies or shrimp. It’s very good!

Osu Night Market is the busiest night market in Accra | Photo by Fred Dahe

Given a bottomless budget, how would you improve Accra?

I’d like to see consistency in restaurants, in terms of the quality of the food. They start out well then the next time I go, it’s totally different. And, traffic is becoming a problem. 

Pay it forward: Chef Binta’s top tips and hot spots

Sourcing local products is a priority at Dine on a Mat. Chef Binta pays it forward by sharing some of her favourite spots and suppliers in Ghana, from organic farmers to black tea experts.

1. Usifu Djallow
On ceremony with the Ataya tea expert 

“I met Usifu, who is Ghanaian Fulani, five years ago in a small and quiet corner of the Nima market while sourcing ingredients for the Fulani-inspired dinner, but he’s been blending and undertaking the Ataya tea ceremony there for 20 years.

It’s traditional to start cooking once all your guests have arrived and Ataya tea is a caffeine-high welcome drink enjoyed at the start of the meal. Sometimes the Fulani community adds garlic or ginger or mint; Usifu prepares tea at all my dinners now, though we serve it after the main dish for its digestive benefits. 

2. Jason Kleatsh
Getting fired up with the sustainable ceramicist

“I was searching for house plants online in 2019 and met Jason, who not only makes ceramic plants pots but also knows a lot about horticulture.

I was travelling a lot, so I’d take my 12 pots to his house, and he’d look after them for me, also replacing them when they die;  I don’t give up though, and three days ago he delivered me some new ones! Jason has carved a niche for himself and if you’re passionate about an idea, he will create it for you if he thinks you’ll appreciate it. We only use clay and calabashes at Dine on a Mat and the way he finishes his handmade bowls with fire really adds a special element to my food: it’s easy to plate on them. And he works sustainably because if a bowl gets broken, he will break it down and make a new one.

3. Sowgreen Organic Farms
Accra’s pioneering organic farm

“It was easy to find breadfruit in Sierra Leone but not in Accra. One day, I saw it at a farmers’ market and asked how I could get more – that’s how I met Mr Kobby of Sowgreen Farms in 2013.

It’s challenging to maintain an organic farm here because of the bugs and locusts, but you know you are eating well because they are 100 percent organic. They are very conscious and don’t use plastic packaging and also supply free-range chickens. They really are pioneers. We order our fresh seasonal ingredients for the kitchen from here and you can also visit this farm that’s located up in the mountains in the Aiyim-Eastern region. 

4. Evans Nargei
The sustainable oyster mushroom farmer

Akotroko, also known as oyster mushrooms, grow in palm plantations in a town called Suhum in the eastern region of Ghana.

After several palm nut harvests and once palm wine has been tapped, Evans – who has good energy – cuts down the tree and replaces it with a new one. These particular akotroko mushrooms grow on dead palm trees and are harvested every three months. I usually honey glaze them with Nigerian suya spice blend [cloves, salt, ginger, chiles and peanuts], then chargrill them; you can also use them in soups, stews and for adding flavour.

5. Nima Market
Savour northern Ghana’s authentic flavours

6. Shai Hills community
Empowering women with a known skillset

“One of the communities we work with in Abuja’s Shai Hills hand paint the calabashes and gourds we use in our test kitchen.

Creating these colourful patterns is part of Fulani culture and an arts-and-crafts space will form part of the Fulani Kitchen Foundation as it empowers the women with skills they already have. Patterns often replicate home or clothes, and are painted with flashy colours, such as red, green, white or blue: calabashes are colourful, historic and beautiful. You can buy them in markets, but they are often mass produced and not even made by Fulanis. Gourds are traditionally used in communities to serve milk and the welcome drink at Dine on a Mat is usually served in the gourd. Nenna Hafsa is a leading light in driving these women forward and is the first wife of the chief so she leads not only her home but organises the whole community with daily chores, weddings and blessings. If you come bearing gifts, you give them to her. I’m always inspired when I visit as the women show me how to get the best out of ingredients, and I use that knowledge to become more sustainable.

Fatmata Binta in Shai Hills | Photo by Francis Kokoroko

What’s so good about this?

Chef Binta champions fonio in her dishes served at Dine On A Mat. Part of the millet grain family, fonio is a heritage grain cultivated across West Africa. Thanks to its low cholesterol, sodium and fat levels, as well as the highest calcium content of any grains, according to the FAO, it’s considered to be an ancient superfood. “By increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers in its value chain, an alternative source of income will be generated for farmers which will lead to improved livelihoods, allow them and their households to be more resilient to climate shocks and enhance food security in rural communities” she says.

Follow: @chef_binta, @fulanikitchenfoundation and @bculinarywp.

Sorrel Mosely-Williams writer profile

Meet the writer

A freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires, Sorrel Moseley-Williams pairs well in many situations as she’s also a sommelier. Decanter of good words, creator of Sorol WinesDill & Tonic G&T and top chef fluffer, you might spot Sorrel sampling vintages by tiny wine producers in the Andes (or indeed her own two Cabernet Franc 2021), fishing for paiche in the Bolivian Amazon or on the pages of Monocle, Decanter and Condé Nast Traveller – and reporting for TOPIA from the wildest parts of South America. She’s also the Academy Chair of 50 Best Bars, South America. Follow @sorrelita.

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