A growing movement across West Africa sees a number of chefs seeking to reclaim authentically African food traditions. In The Gambia, a Chef like Ousman Manneh is setting the pace for this culinary reckoning. He delves deep into rich, indigenous cooking histories excising the influences of colonialism. Ousman, who presides over Kololi’s Luna Lounge, one of the Gambia’s top restaurants, says high tourist traffic makes decolonization especially important, as foreigners’ tastes for familiar food threaten to supersede local offerings.
“If we are to move forward as a people—as a continent—our food has to be localized,” Ousman tells me over a steaming pot of his homemade Benachin. “Ninety percent of our food is coming from outside—Europe, North America, even New Zealand. Chefs and restaurants must take the lead to empower the African farmer,” Ousman said.
Global agricultural structures have long privileged crop uniformity over a diversity of regionalized products, a practice that originated in catering to colonial powers’ needs. Over centuries, native African grains like sorghum and fonio have been eclipsed by foreign wheat, rice, and oilseeds, imported crops that often beget financial and social inequities in local economies where they often cannot be processed, and therefore cannot be used for local consumption. Where they can be used, they pose the risk of creating an erasure effect on knowledge of native ingredients.
Ousman points to Yassa—a popular chicken dish from the Senegambian region made with onions, citrus, and mustard—as a good example of how a traditional dish can change over time. Mustard is a modern additive to the dish, included after the plant was imported to Africa from North America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Changes like these, Ousman says, will affect the historical authenticity of any country’s cuisine. “The food becomes caged by needing ingredients from outside West Africa to be considered ‘authentic.’ If any meal deviates from its original ingredients, you are unconsciously creating a whole new meal.”
Ousman also cites the stock cube, which has usurped locust bean (known regionally as Sounbareh or Dawadawa) and fermented sesame seeds (Ogeri) as West Africa’s principal flavor enhancer. But there are countless other such endemic substitutions that can be made for invasive ingredients, to reassert local products: Bambara beans for peanuts; Tatashe for tomatoes; Buchu, Baobab, Sorel, and Ngai Ngai leaves, for imported teas and juices.
Upcoming generations of chefs will need guidance and leadership from existing professionals on how to use those domestic ingredients. This was chef Saikou Bojang’s epiphany when he saw West African culinary schools passing over what was viewed as “lessor” African dishes to teach foreign cuisines.
After 20 years of cooking in over a dozen countries, he returned to the Gambia in 2017 to rectify that imbalance and has since led the country to gold in three categories at the prestigious African Food Festival, including Best Chef and Best Dessert.
“So many people are leaving, but I am back to find my greener pasture,” he told me on a hot afternoon near Kololi beach. “I want to make home again,” says Ousman.
For Bojang, helping to proliferate West Africa’s traditional cuisine means preventing the culinary brain drain that has afflicted the region in the past. Today, he travels West Africa, teaching upcoming generations of chefs to honor their culinary heritage and to cook their ancestral foods without reservation. All the same, his culinary approach to food decolonization is the intermarriage of foods.
“I believe in integration,” he says. “If I say no to foreign food, then I am saying no to foreigners.” By tempting both foreign and local palates, he’s able to highlight the West African contribution to a particular dish. His creations are an innovative melding of traditional Gambian cuisine with western tastes, with dishes such as wonjo cheesecake, chicken Yassa cordon bleu, Churragerrte pudding, and beetroot brownie.
In her 2020 film Coast to Coast, Sokoh underscores food as one of the “most resistant and resilient markers of cultural identity, sustained by memory and lived experiences.” What these chefs and innovators prove is that, for them, their heritage is not defined by foreign countries, but by the deep roots of their homeland.