• Kadijatu Sesay's mum and grandma taught her how to make this West African staple. (Kadijatu Sesay)Source: Kadijatu Sesay
Food is a vehicle for Kadijatu Sesay to honour her past and tell her story as a refugee.
By
Melissa Woodley

16 Aug 2021 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2021 - 11:37 AM

Despite a childhood filled with fear and instability, Kadijatu Sesay has always found comfort in cooking. She was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and was practically raised in the kitchen by her mother who sold food for a living.

When the Sierra Leone Civil War broke out in the early 1990s, Sesay and her mum fled to Guinea, also called Guinea-Conakry, where they found shelter in a refugee camp. Life in the camp was challenging and Sesay longed for the independence of living in her own home.

"You don't have that sort of freedom to be able to go out anytime you want, come in anytime you want, to be able to have good food," Sesay says. "There is no privacy…you have all this crowded living in the one compound."

Since she couldn't afford to attend school, most of Sesay's early memories are of watching her mother and grandmother cook. They first taught her how to bake cakes in their outdoor kitchen and by the age of 10, she was cooking dishes such as jollof rice, cholo fries, peanut butter soup and okra stew.

This stew is a staple in West Africa and a dish that her mum would serve for dinner at least once a week. Sesay was initially sceptical about the stew's slimy texture and unappetising appearance, but it quickly became a weekly ritual she looked forward to. She loved the spices' fragrances and the stew's thick texture that paired perfectly with pounded rice, maize, semolina or fufu.

To earn an income while living in the refugee camp, Sesay's mother would cook traditional West African foods for the pair to sell at marketplaces across town.

"Sometimes I'd have to go to the school area to sell the food to friends and schoolgirls," Sesay says. "It was hard…but I'd do anything to help my family survive."

"You don't have that sort of freedom to be able to go out anytime you want, come in anytime you want, to be able to have good food."

The pair would even travel to neighbouring villages as far as 35 kilometres away.

"We walked for four or five hours to go sell the products and then had to walk all the way back home," she recalls.

Sesay and her mum worked and lived in the refugee camp for 13 years before they had the opportunity to move to Australia. They initially settled in Sydney where her uncle was living and after four months relocated to Canberra.

The transition from Guinea to Australia was challenging and in the early days, Sesay was severely home sick.

"I couldn't speak any English when I came. I couldn't even say hi or communicate with people," she says.

Whenever Sesay found herself missing her friends and family, she would find comfort in the kitchen and cook dishes that reminded her of West Africa. She knew that she wanted to share the cuisine of her homeland with the wider community and in 2019, followed in her mother's footsteps and started her own food business.

Mama and Pikin Kitchen is more than just a business for Sesay. It represents her story of escaping the war in Sierra Leone, surviving in a refugee camp and finding a new home in Australia.

The name, Mama and Pikin, translates to mother and daughter, and pays tribute to her journey.

"The name honours my story and my past because my mum is the one who taught me how to cook, and then [it also represents] what we went through back home until now," she explains.

Over the years, Sesay has become known for her West African inspired sweets and desserts, including puff puffs, sesame snaps, peanut bristles and akara black eye bean cakes. These are loved by Canberra locals, as well as the West African community, of which she is an active member.

Her community understand her journey, and she loves cooking and sharing a meal with them at special events and celebrations.

"All the women come to my house…and we go in the backyard and cook together and then eat together as well," she explains. "This is what we used to do back home and we're still doing it in Australia."

"All the women come to my house…and we go in the backyard and cook together and then eat together as well."

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sesay was selling her sweets at various markets and cafes around Canberra. She has had to pause this because of the pandemic, but she's staying optimistic.

"My goal is to have my own restaurant in the future where I would cook my traditional food and Australian influenced food as well," Sesay says. "I want people to try my cultural food, West African cuisine, and I want to share my stories with other people."

Okra stew remains Sesay's favourite dish to cook; every mouthful transports her back to her days in Guinea Conakry. Being able to cook for the community has provided her with an outlet to showcase her passion for cooking and stay connected to her culture. 

She also plans to teach her two sons about their cultural heritage by feeding them the food she ate in West Africa and hopes that one day they'll pass on this knowledge to their own children.

"I would love my kids to grow up and learn my story…what I went through, what they can do to stand up for themselves and be independent," she says.

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.


Okra stew

Start this recipe one day before.

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 500 g okra, half minced and half sliced
  • 600 g meat or 1-2 large snapper or tilapia or 200 g salmon fish
  • 1 small eggplant
  • 1 red bell pepper large
  • 2 large onions minced
  • 2 habanero peppers (optional)
  • 1 cup spinach
  • 1 cup shallot
  • 300 g prawn
  • 1 large dry or smoked fish (optional)
  • 3 tbsp crayfish
  • 1 cup palm, vegetable or olive oil
  • 75 g ginger
  • 4 pieces garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp seasoning powder
  • 1 cube stock or 50 g stock powder
  • 2-4 cups water or stock
  • 4 pieces of cow skin (optional)
  • Salt to taste

Method

  1. In about 1 Litre of water, boil the meat with salt, ginger, garlic, seasoning powder and minced onions. Cook until tender. While the meat is boiling, mince half the onions in a food processor and slice the other half. Set aside. Add water as you go, until the meat is cooked, and save the water to use as stock. 
  2. Mince the red bell pepper and habanero pepper in a blender and set aside. When the meat becomes tender, add the minced peppers, crayfish, eggplant and the palm or any other oil of your choice and leave to cook for about 10 minutes.
  3. As an optional step, you can add the washed dry fish or the precooked cow skin and leave to soften for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the minced and sliced okra and leave to cook for about 3 to 5 minutes. Add your shrimp, a vegetable/chicken/beef stock cube or powder and salt to your taste and cook for 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in the spinach, spring onion or shallot and mix until wilted. Remove from heat immediately and serve.
  6. Serve with white rice or semolina, or other West African sides such as pounded white rice, fufu, kenkey or banku.

Note: Some of the ingredients are optional and this recipe can be vegan if you omit the meat and oil.

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