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Maria Bradford is changing the way diners perceive African cuisine. She pairs her African-inspired modern savory street food snacks with English cakes and scones and caters them to a tea party in London, United Kingdom. She mixes hibiscus with strawberries picked at her neighborhood farm in Kent and sells the “Passionately Bissap” juice bottles through her online store.
Bradford is a native of the West African country Sierra Leone that is typically associated with transatlantic slavery, Ebola, poverty and corruption. “I divert the conversation to food,” says Bradford, founder of Maria Bradford Kitchen, based in the U.K. “I talk about my fun childhood in Sierra Leone, where I was surrounded by aunties and grandparents. Though I had a single parent, I was always around people.” Bradford points out that Sierra Leon is also known for welcoming people, beautiful beaches and great food.
Childhood Foods Reinvented
If you browse through Bradford’s Instagram page (which has 22K followers and counting), you can visualize the comforting, yet contemporary food she is referring to. Bradford did not want to present the stereotypical West African dishes, such as peanut stew and jollof rice. Instead, she is inspired by the street food she fondly loved as a child but was not allowed to eat, as her mother considered eating on the street to be rude.
“I would use my taxi fare and walk back home so I could buy donuts after school,” she points to the inspiration behind her pumpkin drop donuts with cinnamon sugar. Her sophisticated dishes, such as fish untu (steamed fish balls) and lemongrass soup, morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), cassava flatbread with pan-fried sea bass, use the flavors and ingredients from Africa and are presented with her own unique twist.
Bradford’s culinary journey started only a few years ago when she was cooking for family and friends. Her first catering gig — a cousin’s baby shower in London — motivated her to start her own business. She created an Instagram page, enrolled in culinary school, set up a catering business, and started a product line selling drinks and sauces.
Bradford creates the Sierra Leonean-inspired drinks and chili sauces with seasonal, natural ingredients. “Again, I took from the beverages sold from bicycles on the streets and had my own take on them,” Bradford explains. With tropical flavors of coconut water, lavender, tamarind juice, ginger, hibiscus and mango, the different juice concoctions are great as cocktail mixers.
She advises drinking them by themselves or adding a bit of brandy or whiskey for a special holiday treat. Passionately Bissap pairs exceptionally well with gin or prosecco. The products are available online on her website or by messaging her through her Instagram page.
Travel, Food and a Cookbook
When not cooking, Bradford is traveling and drawing inspiration from other chefs around the world. She takes cooking classes, cooks with local chefs, hosts pop-up restaurants and draws parallels between how people eat in Sierra Leone versus the rest of the world. In Javier, Spain, she went down to the fishing bay each morning and cooked with the locals.
“Growing up, 90% of my diet was fish, as it was cheap and accessible, so I love to cook with fish,” she says. You can see many of her fish dishes in her picture feed.
In Malaysia, she compares the chicken satay to Sierra Leone peanut chicken. Her latest travels took her and her family to a homestay in India, where she learned to cook from an older lady in Kerala. “It reminded me of my own family and how we love to invite strangers,” she adds.
“A cookbook is definitely coming at some point,” says Bradford, but currently she is focusing on renting a commercial kitchen where she can host frequent supper clubs as she continues to positively showcase the flavors of West Africa.