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How one chef in Accra unites African cuisine

Neatly packed in the box, cubes of dark chocolate painted with edible gold patterns sit snugly beside spheres of pistachio-green truffles. The Accra kitchen fills with the earthy smell of cocoa, mingled with that of herbs and spices: hot Ethiopian berbere, aromatic chai, Moroccan mint.

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Midunu Chocolates is a one-of-a-kind chocolatier, not just in Accra (the home city of proprietor Atadika) but in the world. While all chocolate made here uses Ghanaian cocoa – and the traditional method of fermenting cocoa beans in plantain and banana leaves, which dates back to the 1870s – the fillings take inspiration from every corner of the African continent.

“All the fillings tell a part of the African story,” says Atadika, holding out a gleaming-silver tray of tea and truffles. “If you ask Africans, we probably don’t know much about what our neighbouring countries are doing with food, or how they’re using our same ingredients in different ways. I felt it was important to do a cross exchange.”

These chocolates – which are sold in outlets around Accra and available online – make up just one aspect of Atadika’s growing culinary empire. Midunu (which means ‘come, let’s eat’ in local dialect) also provides private catering as well as its flagship offering: Nomadic Dining. These pop-up supper clubs are held every quarter in secret locations around the Ghanaian capital, and have recently taken Atadika’s unique fusion food overseas: she held a pop-up banquet in Hong Kong in August 2019, and this month (26-28 February) hosts a nomadic dinner at Cape Town’s Design Indaba festival.

Midunu’s supper clubs offer an even more ambitious version of its chocolate ethos. Each dish is inspired by a different African country’s cuisine, and informed by Atadika’s extensive travels around the continent. Her refined take on African food traditions even made her a top-10 finalist in the 2019 Basque Culinary World Prize.

“I was born in Ghana and moved to the US when I was seven,” she says. “I did my schooling there – geography with environmental studies and then international affairs – before working for the UN in Africa, reunifying children affected by conflict.”

It was during this time – experiencing the diverse food cultures all across her home continent, which would persevere even in conflict – that the budding foodie grew to understand the cultural significance linked to the way we eat.

“I worked in Liberia, South Sudan, Angola – and I ate really well along the way,” she recalls. “I heard beautiful stories about food, and how it could bring people together in strange and sometimes sad ways. But a lot of my colleagues, who weren’t from Africa, couldn’t see what I could see in the food. When a country’s in conflict, you see the skeleton of its cuisine, without its full complexity and an understanding of how it’s evolved.”

Sometimes, Atadika’s interest in the dishes she experienced on the road would come full circle.

“Once I was in South Sudan at a roadside grill,” she remembers, smiling. “I ate a beef dish that was really familiar. I spoke to the cook and it turned out it was a dish from West Africa from a community that had originally emigrated from there, via Darfur, which they’d left because of the conflict. I recognised it because I had eaten it in Ghana. Seeing how people carry food with them in their movements wherever they go, and how that links us all together – that inspired me.”

Atadika returned to the States in 2010 to study at the Culinary Institute of America. “I gave into my obsession,” she laughs. “And in order to give African cuisine the respect it deserved, I needed to get a good foundation in culinary techniques and apply it to the African continent. When you know the rules, you can break them.”

By 2014 her nomadic dinners were underway, each featuring a mash-up of cuisines across Africa and the diaspora. After the 2018 release of Black Panther, she ran a Wakanda-themed event.

“It needed to be a meal befitting of royalty, so I served goat head, which is for special occasions in most African cultures,” she says. “That was served with massa, a kind of galette made of fermented rice, from northern Nigeria and Ghana. Then to represent the beautiful seafood from the east African coast we did a calamari, passionfruit and cabbage salad. North Africa was a beetroot and sorghum (an African grain) risotto. For dessert, we did poached pear smoked with rooibos tea from South Africa.”

Feeding the Ghana of the future

Adventurous diners keen to taste Atadika’s menus either have to find themselves in the exact right place at exactly the right time, or in Accra – because the chef has no plans to open a restaurant outside of her native country. Instead, she’s increasingly working as a food and climate change advocate, making TV appearances in Ghana and documenting Africa’s culinary heritage. By celebrating her country and continent’s culinary worth, and introducing it to diners, Atadika hopes to help address the upcoming food challenges facing Ghana, as global warming and the population increase.

“In Ghana we need to appreciate and understand what we have,” says Atadika. “Jollof (a tomato-based rice dish) is our national dish, but if you look at a plate of it, about 75% of it is rice, from China. Then you have chicken, which has probably come from Brazil. The onions and tomatoes are probably from Burkina Faso or Mali, or even Holland. How do you build an economy on food that is all imported?”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that there’s one dish you’ll never find on a Midunu menu: rice.

“Last year we didn’t serve rice once at our dinners, and I told our guests why,” says Atadika. “We eat a lot of rice in Ghana, but we need to focus on ingredients that are more attuned to climate change. I’m trying to get people excited about grains that are better placed for our future and grow locally to us – like sorghum and millet.”

If anyone can do it, chef Atadika can.

While you’re there…

Atadika isn’t the only chef making waves on Accra’s culinary scene. Check out the Skyscanner community’s top 10 voted restaurants in the Ghanaian capital.