A taste for sustainability

©Francis Kokoroko / @accraphotos

Do gastronomy and sustainability standards go hand in hand? This is the belief of Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika, founder of Midunu restaurant and finalist of the Basque Culinary World Prize 2019 edition. She opens the doors of her restaurant, Midunu and invites us to discover “New African Cuisine”. A cuisine that celebrates the continent’s abundance in a responsible and committed way.

When the environment feeds gastronomy

My commitment to promote sustainable gastronomy has been influenced by my background. After my bachelor’s degree in geography, international relations and environment, I travelled the African continent for nearly 10 years for humanitarian missions. During these occasions, I discovered the treasures and diversity of African cuisine. My passion for gastronomy and my commitment to environmental protection also strengthened. I have always loved cooking. The time I spent cooking with my mother when I was a child is a memory I cherish. But I had never felt the need to follow this professional path, but after a few years as a self-taught person in cooking, I took courses at the Culinary Institute of America. The various experiences made me rethink my relationship to food. After all, eating goes far beyond a basic human need, it means having a special relationship with nature because what we eat and how we consume it has an impact on the planet.

 

The link between cooking and the environment is so evident; our work as chefs would have no taste without what nature has to offer. No identity. The diversity and quality of the products we find in nature invite us to constantly renew ourselves and therefore preserve these products. Cooking is a way to keep connecting the past, the present and the future, although nowadays, I have the sense that most of the food we eat have become disconnected from this relationship with nature.

 

Thus, it is very important to maintain this bond, in order to guarantee high-quality gastronomy. Today, chefs are highly exposed and followed, players whose voices can be heard beyond their tables, restaurants and books. Of course, it is up to everyone to commit themselves to a specific cause according to their personal convictions. But I think that in our sector, in addition to offering delicious and refined dishes, chefs must consider the effects of their occupation on the planet. Especially since there are many challenges regarding food, particularly in Africa.

 

©Francis Kokoroko / @accraphotos

New diets impacting the people and the planet

During my travels, I have observed the impact of urbanisation on diets. The African middle class consumes much more protein “ready-to-eat”, processed and imported food than before. Indeed, the continent is still highly dependent on food imports. As agriculture is mainly family-based, it is unable to keep up with the growth of the urban population[1]. In the meantime, there are increasingly fewer cash crops. A lot of agriculture is focused on growing for export: many African countries spend agricultural land on coffee, cocoa, tropical fruits, etc. for the Western and Eastern markets not for local consumption… the income earned is then used to purchase from those same countries other commodities needed by the population.

 

All this led to new dietary habits that combined with a more sedentary lifestyle contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or obesity. Nowadays, nearly 35% of the urban population in West Africa is obese or overweight. A trend seen in many countries on the continent[2].

 

In addition to these health and social challenges, there are also negative impacts on the planet: the increase in the carbon footprint of imported food, the development of fodder agriculture at the expense of food/subsistence agriculture, the rise in mono-crop systems that are depleting the soil, loss of biodiversity, increased use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are a few specific impacts our dietary changes are having on the planet. However, Africa has many potential assets that can help address these challenges. It is currently the most plant-forward continent with a diet mainly based on a lot of wild/foraged foods. Moreover, African people particularly in rural areas still consume a lot of ancient grains (millet, sorghum, fonio, teff[3]…) which is a way to preserve crop diversity. We also have a low/no waste approach to cooking. For example, in my kitchen we use all the baobab fruit, leaves and bark and we do the same for tubers such as cassava, sweet potato and cocoyams, roots and leaves are both eaten. Our biggest challenge is more post-harvest loss rather than post-consumer loss.

 

©Francis Kokoroko / @accraphotos

Africa, the new eldorado of sustainable cuisine

I opened my Midunu[4] restaurant in November 2014. Within this institution I wish to celebrate and preserve Africa’s culinary heritage and contribute to the development of healthier and more sustainable food practices in Africa through the promotion of ingredients, culinary techniques and the know-how of local populations. I also want to encourage the development of local economies. Midunu invites you to share with others and create unique experiences in a place where culture, community and cuisine intersect with sustainability, economy and environment. This is what I call “New African Cuisine”.

 

This concept comes from the lessons I’ve learned, and still learning, from the African kitchen. During my decade traveling around the continent, I got to see many singularities in the guiding principles of the African cuisine all over the continent (using bold flavors, ancient grains, foraged food or sharing communal dining for example). I was also able to see some of the challenges ahead in terms of food security and climate change.

 

Therefore, within my cuisine, I search for underutilised and “underdog” ingredients including traditional grains, tubers, a diversity of proteins, climate smart crops and traditional cooking techniques. In my restaurant, I have a very strict policy regarding product quality. There are a lot of middlemen in our food system. So, it is very challenging to know where your food comes from since much of our farming areas are outside the Greater Accra[5] region. It is a long process which we work to improve every day. That’s why I only select suppliers who sustainably manage their farms. In this perspective, my approach can be summed up in three words: good, clean (grown in the best way possible), fair (I make sure I pay a just price)[6].

 

©Francis Kokoroko / @accraphotos

One ambition: to change people’s food habits through cooking and sharing

Midunu is not a classic restaurant where you can order à la carte. We offer a tasting menu once a week where people can come to dine compete with storytelling from our team. We also offer a nomadic experience where I organise short-lived events. Guests (Ghanaians of the middle class, expats living in the capital and tourists) are gathered around a large table and share the same meal. On this occasion I introduce them to my approach and explain where the produce come from.

 

Not all customers want to hear about the food challenges of tomorrow, some make their choices based on convenience, price or what’s trendy, but the common denominator to keep people coming back will always be deliciousness. So, I believe the task at hand for today’s chefs is how we make meals for a healthier and more sustainable diet which is delicious and is targeted to clients regardless of their choice priority. Ghanaians appreciate the nostalgia that comes with my dining experiences. I spend time identifying ingredients that are hard to find. I know I have succeeded when a guest starts telling me about childhood memories which a dish or beverage has conjured up.

 

©Francis Kokoroko / @accraphotos

 

The Midunu restaurant is only a part of my commitment. I recently launched the Midunu Institute to share my message beyond my table. Its mission is to promote the preservation of African culinary heritage through three steps. First, the recruitment and training of Ghanaians youth ambassadors to document traditional culinary practices in 3 of the 16 regions of the country. Second, the launch of a multi-media behavioral change campaign to showcase challenges and successes in developing local food systems that protect indigenous culture and traditions. Third, a kitchen lab to show both at home and restaurant applications for the indigenous ingredients. We believe that this project will mainly enable us to increased income to local farmers due to greater consumption of local agricultural goods; raise interest in agricultural biodiversity, climate-friendly crops and raise global awareness of the ingredients and cuisine of Ghana and Africa. There must be a movement to engage as many people as possible in these culinary traditions rooted in sustainable practices to meet the food challenges ahead.

 

My wish for the coming years is to make African cuisine a reference for sustainable cooking. A world-renowned one, valuing local traditions and offering quality products that respect the environment and people.

 

 

[1] In 2018, the urban population growth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa was 4.1% compared with a global rate of 1.9%. World Bank, 2018.

[2] This figure reaches 50% of Ghana’s urban population. Cornelia van Wesenbeeck, “Disentangling Urban and Rural Food Security in West Africa”, Amsterdam Centre for World Food Studies, April 2018.

[3] Plant originally from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

[4] “Let’s eat” in Ewe, a language spoken in Ghana, Selassie Atadika’s homeland.

[5] The capital and largest city of Ghana.

[6] See the principles of the Slow Food international citizen organisation.

 

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This article was published in the seventh issue of open_resource magazine: "Sustainable food, sustainable planet"

 

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