Selassie Atadika and her family left Ghana due to political unrest when she was a child. They migrated across the ocean to America, settling in New York City, and the urbanite grew up amidst brown-brick walls and a buzzing metropolis — but for Atadika, home was never far from her mind.
She’s now the chef-owner of Midunu, a nomadic pop-up restaurant that serves up new African cuisine. That means utilising ancient grains like sorghum, fonio, teff (most of which have been hailed as ‘supergrains’ for their nutritional content) and the continent’s myriad of spices to impart bold flavours — and health conscious foodies might like this twist — sans any fat.
“People think that African cuisine is just one note, that it’s just spicy and unrefined,” says Atadika. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth — the level of complexity in the cuisine is mind-blowing.”
Atadika spent 10 years as a humanitarian worker with the United Nations before she started Midunu. She travelled through the continent, helping people reunite with their families and communities, and assisting them when they had to rebuild after disasters. And through her years roaming the continent, Atadika began slowly pulling back the veil on the continent that she had been torn from as a child.
Made of 54 countries, the continent of Africa is vast — to say less of the wealth of cuisines it carries. But its cuisine can be broadly divvied up into five geographical categories: Western Africa, for example, prizes Umami goodness from ingredients like fermented beans and dried fish, while the Northern regions — which include Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia — tend to favour spices like cumin and cinnamon. Though even within regions, it’s hard to generalise; Nigeria alone is home to over 200 languages, with each linked to distinct cultures and cuisines.
Atadika explains: “There are so many layers of flavour in African cuisine that comes from ancient preservation techniques and from unique spices which often don’t even have English names.”
While Atadika might have grown up in suburban New York, the colours of her homeland were never far from mind. Food was one of the ways she maintained her connection to her homeland. Thanksgiving dinners, for one, were always an ambrosial blend of cultures. Beside ubiquitous dishes like stuffed turkey and mash potatoes would sit classic Ghanian dishes like tomato gravy and shito, a type of preserved black chili sauce.
Atadika learned much of her repertoire from her mother, though there wasn’t much in the way of recipes and measurements. If you asked for a recipe, she quips, you’d get told to use your eyes to measure.
So use her eyes she did. Atadika shadowed her mother in the kitchen religiously, observing and assisting her where she could. She knew that, as a second-generation immigrant, she’d have to take the cultural baton from her mother in time to come, in part because she didn’t want to lose her connection to her homeland.
And though Atadika has left her post with the United Nations, she still finds ways to give back. She’s currently in the process of launching the Midunu Institute, which aims to document the culinary practices of several Ghanaian regions to start conversations with locals about food, agriculture, and sustainability.
Now, she wants to share what she’s learned with the world. Come November, Atadika will join dozens of other internationally acclaimed chefs — think Momofuku’s David Chang and Gordon Ramsay’s exponentially more fearsome mentor, Marco Pierre White — at the Western Australia Gourmet Escape. She’ll be hosting an eight-course chef’s table experience called Into The New Africa, where she’ll serve up one of the world’s oldest cuisines with a little modern flair.
“I don’t really want to define what African cuisine is for people,” she smiles. “Instead, I prefer to highlight the lessons I’ve learned, and am learning, from the African kitchen to the rest of the world.”