Fatmata Binta gives the world a taste of nomadic food culture

Fatmata Binta gives the world a taste of nomadic food culture

(CNN) — Fatmata Binta has lived in many places throughout her life, but no matter where she is, food is always her home. Her passion for cooking began at the age of five.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Binta grew up in the customs of the Fulani – one of the largest nomadic groups in Africa. She recalls spending much of her childhood in the kitchen helping her mother and grandmother prepare traditional Fulani dishes. “I grew up watching how they bring people together through food,” she said.

Binta, 37, now lives in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and continues this tradition. In 2018 she launched Dine on a Mat – a pop-up restaurant that has traveled to cities in Europe, the US and Africa, giving people around the world the opportunity to experience their home culture. She also established the Fulani Kitchen Foundation to empower and support women in rural communities across Ghana and West Africa.
Fatmata Binta prepares a meal for guests at her Dine on a Mat experience in Accra, Ghana.

Fatmata Binta prepares a meal for guests at her Dine on a Mat experience in Accra, Ghana.

CNN

These ventures resulted in Binta receiving one of her highest awards to date. In June she won the Basque Culinary World Prize. Launched in 2016 by the culinary hub of the same name in Spain, the award is given to a chef who uses their talent and creativity to transform society through food. Organizers said Binta was selected from 1,000 nominees for her “ability to showcase sustainable nomadic culinary culture and explore the West African cuisine diaspora” through Dine on a Mat.

“It was overwhelming in a very good way,” Binta told CNN. “It means everything we’ve been working toward over the past few years, it’s finally being celebrated and recognized, and it’s just the beginning of so many other things that will impact life.”

She added that it “means so much to be the first African to win this prestigious title,” “not just for me,” but for other “aspiring chefs… (and) people who work tirelessly behind the scenes.” work”.

Fulani cuisine

Every dish Binta serves pays homage to her Fulani heritage. There are around 20-45 million Fulani, many of whom live scattered across West Africa.

According to Binta, her plant-based cuisine, which often includes sun-dried vegetables and ancient grains like fonio and millet, is heavily influenced by her nomadic lifestyle. She described sharing meals with Fulani elders as a child, saying they sat on mats and “bonded over food” and discussed morals and values ​​— a sense of community that has shifted over the years.

“It breaks my heart to see this slowly disappearing,” she said. “Nowadays we’re ‘grab and go’, everyone is in a hurry.

Binta describes her dishes as “bold”, “authentic” and “full of flavour”. She brings a modern twist to traditional recipes she learns while visiting nearby Fulani communities. On one trip, villagers taught her how to make wagashi, a soft, mild cheese, from cow’s milk.

Binta (left) visits a Fulani village in Ghana to source local ingredients and find inspiration for her Dine on a Mat dining experience.

Binta (left) visits a Fulani village in Ghana to source local ingredients and find inspiration for her Dine on a Mat dining experience.

CNN

Back in Accra, Binta soaks the cheese in smoke, drizzles it with a honey glaze and grills it before pairing it with plantains and serving it in her pop-up. “It’s one of our crowd favorites,” she said.

The customers are then taken on a “journey” with a multi-course menu. Binta explains each dish while guests sit on mats and eat with their hands. She believes that food has a “universal language” and that eating in a traditional setting opens a path to connection. “Sitting on the mats grounds you … it brings compassion,” she said. “I think that’s powerful.”

“I want to change the way people see Fulani… I want everyone who sits on my mat to leave as an ambassador for the Fulani people,” Binta added.

After winning the €100,000 ($100,000) prize, Binta said she hopes to expand her Dine on a Mat experience to more countries and “work with many African chefs”.

Empowering Fulani Women

Proceeds from “Dine on a Mat” also go to Binta’s Fulani Kitchen Foundation. Binta is proud of her heritage but says the Fulani tradition means women are often viewed primarily as wives and mothers.

“I want them to be committed and have something to look forward to and live for,” she said.

Binta said she narrowly avoided getting married when she was 16 and has since spoken out against early marriage.

Her foundation aims to empower women in the Fulani communities by meeting their social, educational, and community needs. So far, the foundation has helped more than 300 families in 12 villages in Ghana, she added.

Now Binta says she plans to move to Daboya in northern Ghana where she has bought four acres of land to build a community center to support Fulani women. “I really want to positively impact[those]issues so these girls have a space where they know there’s so much they can do for themselves,” she said.

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