Sierra Leone food: how to cook like a local

Imagine mountains rising from the sea, beautiful beaches, rainforests, mangrove swamps, savanna grasslands and rivers. That’s Sierra Leone. A country so beautiful that the locals have nicknamed it Sweet Salone. We have a rich culture, expressed in our arts and crafts, folklore and religion, clothing, cuisine, music and languages. Our cuisine is diverse and influenced by the country’s cultural heritage. There are 18 recognised ethnic tribal groups in the country, which adds value to the diversity in our food, food stories and culture.

Our food is known for its rich flavours, use of fresh ingredients and a combination of African, European and indigenous culinary traditions. Rice, yam, fonio, plantain and cassava are key staples. We have a number of plasas (vegetable stews) made with a variety of leafy greens such as cassava leaves, sweet potato leaves and jute leaves. We are known for our groundnut stew, also known as peanut stew, which is a hearty dish made with peanut butter, tomatoes, onions, spices and meat.

Sierra Leone also has a rich culture of street foods including morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), untu (steamed fish or chicken balls) and gari kanyah (a chewing snack made with cassava and peanut butter). In many ways Sierra Leone’s colourful culture brings people closer together through food.

Sierra Leone recipes

Pepe chicken

There are 54 beautiful countries in Africa and one thing they all have in common is African culture. We are party people. Our culture encompasses a love of celebrations that combine food, fashion, music and dance. In my view, no party is complete without pepe chicken. Street vendors in Freetown grill this over hot charcoal throughout the night and it is perfect pre- or post-club.

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A plate of chicken with dip on the side

Fish huntu

This traditional dish of steamed fish balls is commonly sold on the streets of Freetown by Fula women. Fula people are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa and are widely dispersed throughout the region. They are predominantly followers of Islam and have traditionally been nomadic, trading and herding cattle, goats and sheep. I’ve used haddock but you could use cod or another white fish such as plaice, coley or pollock.

Coated fish balls in an oval-shaped bowl

Gari kanyah

Kanyah is a simple snack that’s sold all over Sierra Leone. It’s gluten free and very simple – just three main ingredients: garri*, peanuts and sugar. The women in the villages make kanyah the old-fashioned way, using muscle power to pound it into oblivion. Women in Sierra Leone have muscles of steel and chat away as they work the ingredients to a smooth paste.

Peanut bars sliced into squares with one slice on a plate

*Cook’s note

Garri – dried, toasted, granulated cassava – is made from the dried, ground tuberous roots of the cassava plant. The dried granules have a texture similar to medium semolina. Garri is a major part of the diet among various ethnicities of Nigeria, Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana, Guinea, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Buy in West African grocers or online.

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