We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
Here, Maria Bradford, a food writer from Sierra Leone, shares how the food of her youth shapes her cooking today, and the sweet-savoury snack that her grandmother would make for her.
See Maria's res kanyah recipe.
Maria's favourite dish
As a child in Sierra Leone, Mara Bradford would break out her mum's ingredients and "force-feed friends". She explains that, "I've been cooking since I can remember. It's always been a love of mine."
It was not until 2017, however, that this passion – previously expressed in cooking for family weddings or for events at her husband’s company – became a profession. After completing a professional cookery course at Leiths, Maria, now 41, left her work in accountancy and launched herself into private catering, cookery classes and selling her own drinks and chilli sauces, focusing on popularising food from Sierra Leone, “a tiny country of big flavours”.
Soon, fans on social media were tagging Maria’s cooking, a mix of traditional and modern ‘Afro-fusion’ dishes, as #shwenshwen (meaning ‘fancy’ in the Krio language). Maria rebranded her Kent-based business and Shwen Shwen’s mission to promote the “creative versatility” of African ingredients has flown. Next year, Quadrille will publish Maria’s debut cookbook, Sweet Salone, a highly personal celebration, says Maria, of the “culture and people of this beautiful country. That is the Sierra Leone I want people to see.”
“I had a really happy childhood growing up in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. My mum, a primary school teacher, has four children, and we all had responsibilities at home,” Maria explains.
“From nine years old, I would cook rice. It’s a Sierra Leonean staple. We have a saying: ‘if we haven’t eaten rice, we haven’t eaten’. After school, I’d cook the rice and heat the sauces mum had made.
“I was taught to cook by my mum, aunties and grandmother. As an African child, you help in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter how young you are, you have a job. But I was inquisitive, too. I wouldn’t stop asking questions about ingredients, stories behind dishes, the cost of things. I was very proud of taking charge of the day cooking.
“I also wanted to taste everything. In Sierra Leone, we have street food, but – and I’ve never understood the logic of this – eating on the street is considered rude. I was constantly in trouble with aunties, uncles or neighbours who’d spotted me eating street food. I’d save my school bus money, walk home and buy green banana morkor fritters (my goodness, I loved them!), ice lollies made with hibiscus or tombe [tamarind] and res kanyah.
“Res kanyah is a sweet-savoury delicacy, a simple combination of rice flour, sugar and peanut butter. It’s a traybake, but without the baking. My grandmother would bring us res kanyah when she visited from Bo in the south or, often walking home, I’d buy it on the street to snack on.
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“I loved shopping at our local market. There was a real sense of family and community there. Mum knew everyone: who sells the best palm oil, fresh fish or peanut butter, freshly ground in a machine. That’s how we ate. If you wanted chopped tomatoes, you bought fresh tomatoes and chopped them.
“At home, we ate more fish than anything. If we ate chicken, it was chickens we reared. We had a vegetable patch and neighbours would have mango and banana trees, or grew sweet potato and cassava. We’d eat the sweet potato leaves, then the root as it comes through as sweet potato, and feed the peelings to our animals. There was no waste and a lot of creativity.
“In Sierra Leone, when we say stew, we mean it’s a slow-cooked caramelised onion base with tomatoes and spices, and no liquid, just a bit of oil. Our soups use more liquid and, when we say sauces or plasas [similar in consistency to spinach curry], we’re talking about leafy greens like sweet potato and cassava leaves or crain crain [jute leaves]. Plasas are the really traditional Sierra Leonean dishes, eaten with rice or fufu [cassava dumplings].
“In Sierra Leone, life revolves around food. All our parties, any event or celebration, involves food, and when you invite someone to your house, you feed them until they can’t move. Especially at the weekend, everybody came together at mealtimes. Food was served on a central platter and, using our hands, we’d eat together. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is. Cooking together, eating together – it builds relationships.”
Five key Sierra Leone ingredients
“Red, unrefined palm oil from West Africa. It’s done in small batches and has a delicious flavour that can’t be replicated. It’s used to fry, flavour or finish dishes, as you might use good olive oil.” (Check the label to ensure you’re using a sustainable palm oil.)
“Boiled, fermented, salted and smoked sesame seeds. Ogiri intensifies savoury flavours and is used as a base seasoning in a variety of traditional dishes. For example, if cooking sweet potato leaves, it goes in the pot first with the meat, palm oil and stock, so the ogiri cooks as the meat softens – that’s the base sauce.”
“From the leaves to the ‘lady finger’, we eat it in many ways. I like it finely sliced in stews.”
“I love plantain in all forms: from fried in the morning on a sandwich with onion, garlic and smoked fish sauce (like eating a chip butty!), to making ice cream with really ripe, dark, sweet plantains – the ones they’re almost giving away.”
“In Sierra Leone, red hibiscus is used to give ice lollies and party drinks a cranberry-like tartness. I also use it to make desserts and cure fish. It’s an amazing ingredient.”