For 'fufu' in Freetown, this African diner’s the place
Sadia Pratt – aka ‘Mama’ – runs a gem of Sierra Leonean cuisine not found in tour books.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Freetown, Sierra LeoneSkip to next paragraph
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You might not recognize Sadia Pratt in the early morning. She wears a long house dress and an apron, orange in places where palm oil has soaked in. Her hair is wrapped in a pastel cloth, and her glasses fog up when she stands over the stove just outside her front door. On a Monday morning, she’s stirring ground nut stew in a dimpled metal pot over the hat. A chicken weaves in and out of her legs as she cooks.
Later in the afternoon, she’ll be prim again, in fresh pressed clothes and small gold earrings. She’ll leave the grueling kitchen heat and preside over her cozy wood-paneled restaurant, laughing as often as she speaks, her round, young face betraying only mirth. Everyone will greet her with what has become, by now, her real name: Mama.
In a city where entrepreneurial spirit is the only abundant resource, Mama’s restaurant has a small following, and an even smaller menu. Mama runs Kieman’s, a small lunch-and-dinner spot off the beaten track here. In the wood-paneled dining room, before a bar with empty shelves, the stews she serves are more than meals; they’re a little piece of history in a country whose capital pulses with the energy of recovery.
Mama opened Kieman’s in 2000, the year Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war techically ended, but few knew whether the peace would last. The restaurant is named after her sons – Aki and Emmanuel – and in the eight years since it opened, Kieman’s has become a favorite of the intrepid tourist. You won’t find it in the growing tourist literature for travelers here, but Mama has a loyal following abroad. Britons, Americans, and Germans who’ve happened upon her Fort Street spot sing its praises on Internet message boards and chat rooms.
“If you tell her in advance that you’re coming ... she truly prepares a FEAST for a bargain price,” one Australian tourist wrote. When told about the Australian, Mama said, “Ah, she’s always sending me people.”
In a post-conflict city full of aid workers and other expats, escaping mediocre “continental cuisine” and finding gems of local dining can be a challenge. The free advertising means Mama’s place is one of the few local eateries foreigners know when they hit Freetown, a destination for native dishes like cassava leaf or ground nut stews. They’re also among Mama’s favorites. “I love tasty foods,” she says. “Can’t you see I’m fat?”
Tasty Sierra Leonean foods give no pause for caloric considerations. The ground nut and cassava leaf stews so common in this part of the world are full of an ingredient that make weight watchers wary: oil. Palm oil is the foundation of many stews here; the oil is tapped in the countryside and brought to town, sold in plastic water bottles, a liter or two at a time. A rich orange in the bottle, the oil turns deep brown when it mixes with cassava leaves, making a stew that looks held together by chocolate syrup. In ground nut stew, a dish colored by the thin purple skins, the oil turns almost pink.
It may be the hints of cinnamon, or a special spice her German friends send – even Mama doesn’t know what it is – but her ground nut stew tastes like more than a thick peanut soup. It’s her mother’s recipe, Mama says. “But I improved on it.”
Food here is, of course, about more than improvisation. To explain its diversity, Americans are fond of using the metaphor of the melting pot. In Sierra Leone, where 16 ethnic groups with different languages and traditions share a country the size of South Carolina, the melting pot is literal. In fact, in West Africa, the cassava leaf and other staples cross not just provincial but national boundaries.
“These are native foods that were brought here when slaves came through,” says Hindolo Trye, Sierra Leone’s minister of culture and tourism. “Freetown was for freed slaves, and when they came here, each one from [a] different place ... they started making what they’ve known before.”