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Noma in Accra: From Buckthorn to Baobab

Nothing would seem more incompatible with The New Nordic Cuisine than bissap and baobab. Yet Selassie, founder of Midunu, is proving such assumptions wrong. Meet the female protagonist of The New African Cuisine.

”You have to fall in love with your landscape and to explore it properly.” Selassie says almost mechanically as if she has uttered that sentence a hundred times before. She then continues: “Reach out to everyone for help and make the biggest trip of your life around your own place...” She then pauses and sums of the rest in her own words.

In Ghana, anyone can quote the Bible. Yet, when we meet Selassie at the Midunu compound in Tesano, we soon realize that it is a different book of reference from which she seeks guidance in life.

She is quoting Réné Redzepi, co-founder and Master Mind of Noma, the world’s most famous restaurant for almost a decade, and chief representative of The New Nordic Cuisine, a culinary philosophy hatched by a group of Scandinavian chefs in the early 2000’s advocating the use of purely Nordic ingredients and lending primacy to the ”home-grown” – whether that be recipes or produce.

Réné Redzepi made Noma the heart of a gastronomic revolution that has changed the idea of  ”fine dining” world-wide, insisting that the ”weed” that grows in our back yard can have as much culinary merit as foie gras, thus giving back value and prestige to the foods and dishes of our ancestors long forgotten and depreciated – mainly due to the influence of foreign foods.

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“It is not wrong to go back to what was forgotten”

Although based in Copenhagen, Redzepi and his Noma team have applied their food philosophy world-wide on a pop-up basis, hosting Noma-inspired dining events in Australia, Japan and Latin America. Yet so far, the African continent has not been made part of the Noma world tour. And maybe it’s all the same: From inside the compound of her family house in Accra Selassie is Africanising the revolution that Redzepi started. Thus, it is fair to say she is the female rebel leader of what she calls ”The New African Cuisine”. Insisting she is a devout ”redzepian”, emphasizing how she learnt the technique of pickling from ”Réné”, she is eager to point to her collection of New Nordic cookbooks piling up on her living room table.

Yet, more than anything, to Selassie ”Réné” mainly serves as proof that what she has always dreamed of can actually be done successfully. To her, the Noma philosophy translates into: ”All you need, it’s right there in front of you, if you open your eyes, and not least your mind, to it”.

Selassie, having served as a UN minority protection and human rights officer around the world since she finished her Master’s Degree in International Affairs at Columbia University, always knew she would come back to Ghana to use her internationally acquired cooking skills and gastronomic experiences to open people’s eyes and minds to the treasures of the Continent’s food chamber. Especially the eyes and minds of those who appreciate and take advantage of it the least: Her fellow Ghanaians and Africans. ”In fact”, she says, ”that’s why I initially had a different name for the dining concept in mind: Sankofa. Like the adinkra symbol.”

The Sankofa bird is an important symbol in traditional Akan mythology, roughly translating into: ”It is not wrong to go back to what was forgotten”. To rephrase it in more popular parlance: Go back and rediscover your roots. Only then can we build the future.

As far as Selassie’s mission is concerned the adoption of this legendary Twi catchphrase is almost literal down to every single word. However, she eventually picked ”Midunu” which means ”come let’s eat” in one of her parents’ native language.

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A gastronomic fieldtrip
”The only thing African food needs is presentation, because it’s all right there in front of us, but it needs to be rediscovered and presented”, says Selassie, again with a nod to Redzepi. That’s why she recently sent a member of her team back to her village to get the recipes of her favourite dishes that her aunt used to cook for her as a child.

These types of gastronomic field trips are essential to serving the overall purpose of Midunu: discovering the culinary heritage throughout the continent. It’s ironic, Selassie emphasizes, that South American and Caribbean food enjoy reputation on an international scale, yet most of what constitutes Brazilian or Creole food originates in Africa: ”The slaves brought their food and cooking methods overseas to where they were deported”. In Africa, however, the reservoir of traditional culinary knowledge has shrunk to almost nothing. Even what many Africans consider to be traditional African food does no longer deserve that label.

According to Selassie that makes her endeavour the more urgent. Ironically for Ghanaians who take so much pride in their cultural traditions, ”only five percent of a ”traditional Ghanaian meal” is sourced in Ghana”, she points out: ”Take our beloved Jollof Rice: The rice is imported from Asia and the chicken mostly from Brazil”. It’s not only that local ingredients are more expensive than imported ones; Ghanaians don’t value them. There’s no prestige in eating local food.”

This sad reality always makes her ask the same agonizing question: ”What would Kwame Nkrumah say?” Indicating that the modern eating habits of Ghanaians are an insult to Nkrumah’s proud vision of African self-reliance and sense of self. Her indignation doesn’t come across as patronizing, though, or as the arrogance of an ”enlightened” returnee food snob.

Her concern is genuine and is about more than culture. ”Africa is continuously haunted by hunger and droughts, but the solutions are actually right there in front of us. Take millet, an ancient West African staple, it takes much less water than rice to produce, but you can’t buy it in any of Accra’s supermarkets and no-one seems to bother. In Whole Foods, though, my mum can go and buy overprized millet that she used to eat for free in the village when she was a kid. But chefs can change that. I hope to change perceptions with what I do.”

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Still to visit Noma
Indeed Selassie is changing perceptions: Her nomadic dinners are growing a steadily expanding fan base within the expat community of Accra and among the city’s growing crowd of successful Afropolitan foodies and creative class urbanites with a penchant for anything ”Africa revisited”. She’s not afraid of accusations of ”elitism”, however: ”This is the first step towards creating a critical mass that will change consumer demand and our eating habits long term”, she insists. ”When I use bitter leaf instead of kale in my smoothies, I make these people realize that we have local alternatives that are just as nutritious”.

This type of awareness-making is integral to how she composes Midunu’s multi-course set menus. It’s not just about pleasing the taste buds. Every dish served is meticulously thought out according to a fixed set of principles:
1) Green mile/CO2 foot print
2) At least one unknown African ingredient
3) A communal/share food aspect
4) Reduced serving size
5) Nutrition
6) More greens than meat

In fact, these criteria for composing a meal are almost identical to the core principles of what is referred to as The New Nordic Diet, a public health initiative in Denmark building on The New Nordic Cuisine. Yet for all the parallels and inspiration, Selassie hasn’t had a chance to visit Noma, unlike her sister who had lunch there.

Topping her  list of priorities, however, is an invitation to the MAD Symposium, a recurrent international ”culinary summit” hosted by Réné Redzepi and a small group of international food avant-gardists: ”The MAD Symposium is actually part of my five-year plan. I’m now 2,5 years into it” Selassie jokes.

Maybe, before that time runs out, ”Réné” will be begging for tickets for dinner at Midunu.