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 when she was only five years old.

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

Now based in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Binta, 37, carries on this tradition. In 2018, she launched Dine on a Mat – a pop-up restaurant that has traveled to cities across Europe, the United States and Africa, giving people around the world a chance to experience her home culture. She also started the Fulani Kitchen Foundation to empower and support women in rural communities in Ghana and West Africa.

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

CNN

These endeavors led to Binta receiving one of its highest accolades to date. In June, she won the Basque Culinary World Prize. Created in 2016 by the eponymous culinary center in Spain, the prize is awarded to a chef who uses his talent and creativity to transform society through food. Organizers said Binta was chosen from 1,000 nominees for her “ability to showcase a sustainable nomadic culinary culture and explore the West African cuisine diaspora” via Dine on a Mat.

“It was overwhelming in a good way,” Binta told CNN. “It means everything we’ve been working on for the past few years is finally being celebrated and recognized, and it’s just the start of so many other things that are going to impact lives.”

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

Fulani cuisine

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

Binta says their plant-based cuisine, which often includes sun-dried vegetables and ancient grains like fonio and millet, is heavily influenced by their nomadic lifestyle. She described sharing meals as a child with Fulani elders, saying they would sit on mats and “bond over food” discussing morals and values ​​- a sense of community that she has seen change over the years.

“It breaks my heart to see this slowly disappearing,” she said. “These days we’re ‘takeout’, everyone’s in a rush. I feel like we need to go back and connect with our roots…especially food traditions.”

Binta describes her dishes as “bold”, “authentic” and showcasing “lots of flavor”. She brings a modern twist to traditional recipes that she learns while visiting nearby Fulani communities. While traveling, local villagers taught him how to use cow’s milk to make Wagashi, a soft, mild cheese.

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

Customers are then taken on a “journey” through a multi-course meal. Binta explains each dish as diners sit on mats and eat with their hands. She believes food has a “universal language” and eating in a traditional setting paves the way for connection. “Sitting on the mats grounds you…brings compassion,” she said. “I think it’s powerful.”

“I want to change the narrative of how people see the Fulani…I want anyone 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 “collaborate with many African chefs.”

Empowerment of Fulani women

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

“I want them to get involved and have something to look forward to and experience,” she said.

Binta said she narrowly avoided marriage when she was 16 and has since advocated against early marriage.

Her foundation aims to empower women in 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 purchased four acres of land to build a community center to support Fulani women. “I really want to impact (these) issues in a positive way, so these girls can have a space where they know they can do a lot for themselves,” she said.

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