(CNN) — Fatmata Binta has lived in many places throughout her life, but wherever she goes, food is always her home. Her passion for cooking began when she was only five years old.
Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Binta grew up learning the customs of the Fulani people, one of the largest nomadic groups in Africa. She recalls spending most of her childhood in the kitchen helping her mother and grandmother prepare traditional Fulani dishes. “I grew up watching them bring people together through food,” she said.
Fatmata Binta prepares food for guests at her Dine on a Mat event in Accra, Ghana.
“It was stunning in a very good way,” Binta told CNN. “It means that everything we’ve been working on in recent years is finally being celebrated and recognized, and this is just the beginning of many other things that will impact lives.”
She added that being the first African to receive this prestigious title “means so much, not only to me” but to other “aspiring chefs… (and) the people who work tirelessly behind the scenes.”
Every dish Binta serves pays homage to her Fulani heritage. There are about 20-45 million Fulani, many of which are dispersed throughout West Africa.
Binta says their plant-based cuisine, which often includes sun-dried vegetables and ancient grains like fonio and millet, was heavily influenced by their nomadic lifestyle. She described sharing food with the Fulani elsewhere as a child, saying they sat on mats and “bonded over food” while discussing morality and values - the sense of community she saw has changed over the years.
“My heart breaks when I see it slowly disappear,” she said. “These days we ‘grab and go’, everyone is in a hurry. I feel like we need to go back and connect with our roots…especially our culinary traditions.”
Binta describes his dishes as “daring”, “authentic” and having “multiple flavors”. She brings a modern twist to the traditional recipes she learns while visiting nearby Fulani communities. During one of her trips, locals taught her how to use cow’s milk to make wagashi, a mild, soft cheese.
Binta (left) visits a Fulani village in Ghana to find local ingredients and find inspiration for her Dine on a Mat culinary experience.
Back in Accra, Binta smokes the cheese, douses it with honey glaze and grills it, then mixes it with bananas and serves it in his pop-up. “This is one of our crowd favorites,” she said.
Customers then go on a “journey” for a multi-course lunch. Binta explains each dish while diners sit on mats and eat with their hands. She believes that food has a “universal language” and eating in a traditional setting opens the way to communication. “Sitting on the mats, you land… it causes compassion,” she said. “I think it’s powerful.”
“I want to change the way people see Fulani… I want anyone sitting on my rug to leave as an ambassador for the Fulani people,” Binta added.
After receiving the €100,000 (US$100,000) award, Binta said she hopes to expand her Dine on a Mat experience to more countries and “collaborate with many African chefs”.
Fulani women’s empowerment
Proceeds from “Dine on a Mat” will also go to the Binta Fulani Kitchen Foundation. Binta is proud of her heritage, but also says the Fulani tradition means that women are often seen primarily as wives and mothers.
“I want them to get involved and have something to look forward to and live for,” she said.
Binta said she narrowly avoided marriage when she was 16 and has opposed early marriage ever since.
Her foundation aims to empower women in Fulani communities by addressing their social, educational and community needs. So far, the fund has helped more than 300 families in 12 villages in Ghana, she added.
Now Binta says she plans to move to Daboya in northern Ghana, where she bought four acres of land to build a community center to support Fulani women. “I really want to influence (these) issues in a positive way so that these girls have a space where they know they can do so much for themselves,” she said.