For West African chef Fatmata Binta, who grew up as part of Africa’s largest nomadic tribe, creating vibrant dishes from what she could find in her immediate vicinity has been a lifestyle since she was a child. Fulani tribespeople move from place to place, picking up ingredients – and smatterings of languages – as they go. While the specifics of their dishes may evolve over time and distance, they always stick to a couple of key principles. First, you can do a lot with a little; and second, eating is not just about sustenance, it’s also about building relationships.
However, when Binta decided to make food her career, after completing her studies in international relations in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, and moving to Spain to teach English, it took a while to win her family around. Her mother didn’t understand why she would drop her international relations qualification for cooking. “For the longest time, she would call me and ask: ‘Are you sure cooking is what you want to do for a living?’” Binta recalls. It was only years later, after Binta attended culinary school and was featured in an in-flight magazine for her work promoting Fulani cuisine, that they really started to get it.
“My Mum would take that magazine everywhere,” Binta laughs. “There are negative connotations when it comes to Fulanis in Africa because we are not registered, we are always moving across borders and sometimes our cattle invade farms and create issues. But because I’m trying to share what we do in a positive light and promoting the good things about us, my family is extremely proud.”
In June, Binta’s achievements were recognized on the international stage when she won the Basque Culinary World Prize for Her ‘Dine-on-a-Mat’ pop-up initiative, a traditional nomadic restaurant serving vibrant dishes inspired by Fulani communities. The award recognizes that food can bring much more than sustenance to communities; it can be a force for change. “It means so much; I was so emotional when I won,” Binta says.
“I wanted to tell stories through this restaurant, not only Fulani stories, but also stories about sustainability, highlighting grains that are superfoods, highlighting important ingredients that are good for the planet and can help with the food crisis,” she continues. “But, most importantly, I wanted to present African culinary traditions to the world and reflect the lifestyles of these people. I didn’t want a physical restaurant because they are in one place. I wanted it to be a moveable restaurant just like the people.”
The power of community
Binta believes Western countries can learn a lot from African culinary traditions, something that is never clearer to her than when she is reflecting on life during the civil war, when she had to move away from Sierra Leone. “I come from a very large family with over 500 cousins,” she says. “When we had to move to a village in Guinea that was supposed to accommodate all these people, the food that was available couldn’t sustain us.
But even though there wasn’t enough food, everyone came together as a community and brought something to put in a pot of rice. That was powerful and it was all done from scratch. When we cooked, we went and fetched it ourselves, from the firewood to all the ingredients.
There were no additives such as MSG.” Binta’s appreciation for food, family and community were shaped during the civil war. “I actually miss those times,” she says. “I know I will never experience that the same way. I wanted to start the pop-up restaurant to tell some of those rich African stories, to preserve them.”
“We don’t have to rush”
Binta sees the key difference between African and European kitchens as the speed. “As Africans, our food is slow. We believe in eating not just for sustenance but also building a social structure and the home and family. Outside of Africa, people are doing a lot of grabbing. The world is moving too fast. Technology has taken over. We are so busy we don’t have time to spend hours cooking,” she says.
“I wanted to really plant those seeds into the minds of people. When anyone sits on my mat, it’s an opportunity for me to share with them that we don’t have to rush, especially with food. It should be something people enjoy together, not just because of sustenance.”
She is also an advocate for the sustainable nature of nomadic cooking, such as the tribes’ preservation techniques, which include sun drying. “We are not carrying a freezer; we are not carrying a cooker. So, we have to find a way to preserve the ingredients we have,” she explains.
So far Binta’s Dine-on-a-Mat pop-up has traveled across three continents, spreading her message and also raising funds for community projects. But her focus now is on another initiative that is close to her heart – the Fulani Kitchen Foundation. Aimed at women and girls from all Fulani regions, its goal is to meet social, educational and community needs as well as to transform ingredients such as the African grain fonio, into income, economic autonomy, food security and employment for these rural communities.
“Fonio is easy to grow, once you sow it you can have it within 8-12 weeks. You don’t need to plough the land too much and you can grow it in the same place over and over, you don’t need too much water, plus, it’s gluten-free,” Binta says.
Already, Binta’s foundation has helped more than 300 families from 12 communities as well as four regions of Ghana. The next step, which the €100,000 prize money from the Basque Culinary World Prize will go towards, is to build a physical center in the north of Ghana where Fulani women can gather and benefit from programs designed to empower them and give them security and stability.
“Many of them are growing fonio already. We will not only grow more fonio at our farm, we also want to buy it from them, package and export it, and the money then goes back to them. We will also help them get registered,” Binta explains.
She’s keen to stress that it’s not just a case of the foundation helping the Fulani women; it’s a collaboration. “I wanted to create a space where we can collaborate better. I’m a student of theirs. In so many ways, I’m learning from them,” she says. “They are putting in the hard labor, processing the fonio in the traditional way that includes stomping on it and dancing on top of it, and I’ve noticed that when we process it in the traditional way compared to with machines, the traditional way achieves better quality.
“I want to share all these stories, but also my personal connection to this grain. During the war, I experienced first-hand how it fed me and my family during that time.”
There are not enough hours in the day for Binta to achieve everything she wants to, and she admits that she is exhausted. But she certainly won’t be slowing down. In the pipeline is a collaboration with the IE Africa Center, which promotes business innovation and social entrepreneurship in Africa through knowledge generation, research and technology. “There are students there who are going to come and work on the ground with me as part of an internship program, so I will get all the help I need,” she smiles.
She is also setting up a team with their communications faculty. “It’s not going to make everything straightforward and it’s not going to be an easy journey but I am passionate about this,” she says. When she looks further to the future, she doesn’t necessarily see herself in the kitchen forever. “It will get to a point where I’m going to be involved more in social work. For me, the food is just a vehicle for change.”
BASQUE CULINARY WORLD PRIZE
The Basque Culinary World Prize, now in its seventh edition, celebrates the transformative power of gastronomy. Awarded by the Basque Culinary Center, a leading academic institution in gastronomy, and the Basque Government, it recognizes chefs who use cooking as a tool to promote progress and transformation in areas ranging from social innovation to food education. The winner receives €100,000 to put towards a program of their choice.
Talking about Binta’s win, Joan Roca, president of the jury of the Basque Culinary World Prize, said: “This year’s award to chef Fatmata Binta focuses on Africa and that it is possible to grow through cooking, the circular economy, culinary knowledge and the preservation of the traditions of a community where the use of these is key. With this, she sends the message to the world that sustainability must be the norm and not something exceptional, based on common sense, reinforcing female empowerment, and the matriarchal base of these communities.”