In Accra, Ghana, Selassie Atadika wraps pieces of fish in banana leaves alongside her cooks and kitchen staff. The chef has spent the day preparing food and setting up at the headquarters of Midunu, her organization which celebrates Africa’s cultural and culinary heritage through events and cuisine. Sixty some guests will be seated on long tables on the Midunu House lawn to enjoy a meal that explores the tastes of Central Africa.
The house has a large kitchen area where the cooks prepare the meals, quickly adding sauces to plates or delicately opening fresh cocoa pods for a surprise dessert. Guests are invited into the living room when they arrive, free to look at the variety of art and sculptures Atadika has collected from across the continent. Soon, they will be served a five-course meal inspired by her travels in Gabon, Brazzaville, Kinshasa, and across the Central African Republic.
Atadika hosts Midunu nomadic dining pop-up dinners every two months to promote food from across the continent, celebrate and preserve Africa’s culinary heritage, and encourage interest in African cuisine. Thinking back on the first seven years of her life in Ghana, she remembers the wide variety of foods, spices, and meals available. Now, she now fears that, with changing lifestyles and a heavy reliance on imported food, traditional dishes in Ghana are being forgotten.
Atadika moved to the United States with her family when she was seven years old. She went on to work for the United Nations doing humanitarian assistance across Africa, eventually returning to Ghana in 2013 to start her new career as a chef—with the goal of sharing the ingredients and dishes she had come across in her work traveling across the continent.
“I realized that, among Africans, we don’t get a chance to see each other’s food and taste each other’s food—but at the same time, even in times of war or post-conflict, that was something that still tied people together. I was really drawn to it and getting to see the similarities and differences, and I was able to trace sometimes the movement and migration of people,” Atadika says. She remembers trying a dish in South Sudan which was similar to what she would eat in Ghana, realizing migrating nomadic people had brought the dish across the continent.
These tastes cross oceans, as well—when the family moved to the U.S., they took their own food traditions with them. Atadika’s mother would search for plantain and cassava in New York, and the family would come together for shared meals at home. “It was how we held on to our heritage,” she says.
“These type of family meals are part of the inspiration behind Midunu,” Atadika says. “Just before meal time, my father would gather us around the table by saying ‘Midunu!’ In Ewe (a local dialect), it means ‘Come, let’s eat!’ Once we would hear those words, no matter where we were in the house, we would drop everything and instantly gather around the table to start eating and sharing stories of our day.”
When she moved back to Ghana in 2013, Atadika found that many of the dishes she grew up with, which were time-consuming to prepare, had almost disappeared. With changing lifestyles and the need for quick, convenient meals, she found that traditional meals are often only be eaten on weekends or special occasions. Rice, fried foods, and bean-based dishes dominate, and commercial seasoning cubes called Maggi replace traditional, homemade stock and spices.
At a recent Midunu event, Atadika served a cheese made in the north of Ghana, which she said her diners had heard of but hadn’t tried. She has also done a spin on the popular West African jollof rice (a spicy, aromatic rice dish) by replacing the rice with fonio, a grain native to the region.
Atadika sometimes serves food that has a stigma of being for the poor, she says, despite being highly nutritious and native to the land. She hopes that pushing local, nutritious food will help combat growing health issues like diabetes and ensure Ghana grows crops that work for the changing climate. She wants her work to be able to inspire people to support local foods, grown by Ghanaian farmers, helping to strengthen demand for local – rather than imported food.
“Going going back into our culinary heritage allows that to happen, millet, sorghum, and fonio are some of the grains well suitable for our climate and climate change.”
She finds that many of her clients tend to be middle class and have the purchasing power to create changes—like demand for local ingredients instead of imports.
And there is a lot more to be discovered across the continent, Atadika adds. Every country and region of Africa offers something unique, such as East Africa’s Swahili cuisine with its deep spices and rich coconut milk, and a ginger crab dish in Lamu that she still dreams about.
In 2018, Atadika plans to continue with her nomadic dinners and keep pushing food from Ghana into the limelight. “We just have to keep an eye on certain issues: preservation and sustainability of our culinary heritage in the face of globalization and climate change, ensuring a balance between current lifestyles and food intake, access to good quality food, and strengthening our value chains,” she says. “I often fall back on the Slow Food principles: good, clean and fair. Working toward that will go a long way.”