Colours, flavours, culture and heritage in a pot make the heart merry. How Maria Bradford is using Sierra Leonean cuisine to build bridges in a world hungry for something different.
Saturday afternoons were for okra stew with white rice. My mother never missed a beat with her gumbo-like texture, burnt-red stew with the crunchiness of green okra pieces, smoked catfish and fall-off-the-bone chicken wings. This was what made it my first favourite home-cooked meal. As I headed into my teens, cassava leaves plasas, a soup made from the dark green leaves of cassava plant, with blended onions, scotch bonnet pepper cooked in either palm oil or coconut oil made its way to my faves list, perhaps because it was one of the first Sierra Leonean dishes I cooked with my mother. On special occasions, such as a baby-naming ceremony known as pull na door in Sierra Leonean Krio, I had a particular penchant for pap, a hot drink made from hot water, sugar, lemon and flour balls, and they could range in colour from a dark-pinkish hue to that of a creamy white. These are some of the multi-coloured Sierra Leonean delicacies I’ve enjoyed for as long as I can remember. And it is a delight to see them at the forefront of a recently published book, Sweet Salone: Recipes from the Heart of Sierra Leone,which collates both hidden and well-known dishes of this small West African country.
Maria Bradford is on a mission to put Sierra Leonean and West African cuisine on the UK food map, and introduce the world to new and familiar flavours. Sierra Leonean by birth, UK-based by choice, Bradford is an adventurous and innovative chef, who wants her Afro-fusion creations to create a melting pot experience on palates. Bradford’s food brand, Schwen Schwen, which translates as ‘fancy’ in Krio, has been a core part of her vision to bring the mouth-watering flavours of her childhood, inspired by her family and national heritage to an evolving global culinary space. A journey which has culminated in the publication of her first cookbook, Sweet Salone. Published in July, it is a comprehensive recipe book which weaves together Sierra Leone’s cultural and historical food pathways on its own terms alongside that of the West African region. Bradford tells Pin Africa why celebrating Sierra Leone’s food heritage is important to her on a personal level and integral to her brand.
Pin Africa: Sweet Salone is, and has been a labour of love for you. Given your various commitments with your catering business, and other ventures, how did you manage to fit in writing this book?
Maria Bradford: I don’t know. It was tough. That I cannot deny. Writing a book is a significant time commitment, and requires a lot of discipline and dedication to complete. Meeting self-imposed or publisher deadlines can add pressure. Fitting in writing, measuring, and cooking to make sure everything I say and describe in the book is what it is, was stressful with a day job and family obligations to contend with. I was certainly saying ‘never again’ at various points.
What would you say is a quintessential Sierra Leonean recipe? And how does your book, Sweet Salone, reflect this?
It’s got to be a main (dish) like Plasas sauce, which is a traditional West African dish. It’s a hearty and flavourful sauce made with a variety of ingredients, including leafy vegetables (such as potato leaf, cassava leaf or bitter leaf), palm oil, groundnut (peanut butter), ogiri (a flavouring made from either fermented sesame or egusi seeds), onions, and various spices. The sauce is often served with rice, fufu (a starchy side dish made from cassava, plantains, or yams), or other staple foods in Sierra Leonean cuisine.
What does Salone cuisine have to offer that’s distinctive from other West African countries?
Sierra Leonean cuisine shares some similarities with other West African cuisines but also has distinct characteristics that set it apart. Rice is dominant and Sierra Leoneans have a unique way of preparing it. We use peanut butter in a lot of our traditional dishes, we have the C-bomb! Cassava leaf plasas. We eat a lot of leafy greens too like sweet potato leaves, jute leaves, okra leaves etc. There are plenty of other differences in street food and the influences of our colonial history and migrations of people, for example, we also have Lebanese heritage as part of our history.
Sierra Leone’s culinary influence extends beyond the continent into the Americas. During the 18th and 19th centuries, plantation owners in the American South and parts of the Caribbean sought to purchase Africans to work their rice fields. They amassed a large number of slaves from what was then known as the Rice Coast. These were the rice-growing areas of West Africa, which stretched from Senegal to Sierra Leone, where distinct types of rice were cultivated for thousands of years, an example being the Oryza glaberrima species. The importance rice holds in Southern cuisine is just one of the cultural connections between the Gullah Geechee people (an African-American community in the Deep South who are descendants of the enslaved peoples who worked on rice plantations) and countries like Sierra Leone.
At the heart of cooking is the importance of connection, which forms a central part of your work. What kind of connections would you like Sierra Leoneans and non-Sierra Leoneans alike to experience with this book?
For Sierra Leoneans, it would be my joy if it could strengthen our sense of belonging and community, and reignite an interest and pride in the cultural heritage and traditions of our nation. For non-Sierra Leoneans, I want to promote a sense of understanding about our past, where we come from, and let people know we are not simply a small West African nation that went through a civil war over a decade ago. Sierra Leone is a country with significant ethnic diversity, reflecting the multitude of cultural groups that have inhabited the region for centuries. It was easy to talk about the three largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone i.e. Mende, Temne, and Limba, however, I’m still learning about many of the smaller groups.
"For Sierra Leoneans, it would be my joy if it could strengthen our sense of belonging and community, and reignite an interest and pride in the cultural heritage and traditions of our nation."
Are there any traditional recipes or foods you wish to keep alive through the work you are doing with Schwen Schwen and your book?
Palm oil holds cultural significance in many West African communities and is often used in traditional rituals and ceremonies. While palm oil is widely used and appreciated for its flavour and cooking properties, its production has raised environmental concerns in recent years, particularly regarding deforestation and habitat loss due to unsustainable farming that began in Asia. In Sierra Leone, by and large, our farming has been small-scale sustainable farming. Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, and it is rich in flavour and nutrients, making it a popular choice for cooking and food preparation across the region. I share concerns for the environment and the practices which form part of the process of mass farming this valuable commodity. However, to tell us West Africans we cannot eat it is like telling an Italian he cannot enjoy olive oil. Big businesses farmed it in Asia and put it in countless supermarket products, from soap and toothpaste to chocolate and pot noodles. West Africans have enjoyed the fruit of this homogenous plant in Plasas for centuries, without damaging our environment.
What do you want readers, regardless of their background, to take from what is supposed to be an introduction to Sierra Leone’s food heritage?
Sierra Leone offers a unique and enriching travel experience that combines stunning natural beauty, vibrant cultural heritage, and warm hospitality. It is still an emerging tourist destination, which means that travellers seeking off-the-beaten-path experiences might find it appealing. If Africa’s culinary scene can be considered a frontier of food, then Sierra Leone has its place firmly on that map!
Sweet Salone: Recipes from the Heart of Sierra Leone is published by Quadrille, and is out now in hardback.