Maimuna Zubairu-Burnette shares traditional recipes for the home chef.
Restaurants featuring dishes from Sierra Leone and other West African nations are rare in the United States, let alone a cookbook with recipes from those countries. So, you know you are holding a treasure trove of traditional treats when you get your hands on Maimuna Zubairu-Burnette’s “Cooking with Mai: Easy-to-Prepare West African Food” cookbook.
The beautifully depicted dishes are the handiwork of the founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Mai’s Kitchen Food Service, who takes inspiration from the food she enjoyed growing up and watching her mother and grandmother prepare.
Born in Sierra Leone and raised and educated in the United States, Burnette feels the time is ripe for global audiences to enjoy the delicious flavors of West Africa in their own homes.
Driven by Business Acumen
“I think this is the time for West African food, learning about our roots and I love that everyone is so interested now in the culture,” says Burnette, speaking from Sierra Leone for this interview during a recent trip to expand her business there. She was hosting several events in Freetown and promoting the book, which was released in December 2020.
Burnette launched Mai’s Kitchen in August 2019, offering food services, catering and private chef services, and soon will start featuring products such as West African seasonings and other packaged goods.
She then launched Dinner with Mai in October 2019 to offer more elevated private dinners—intimate parties of no more than 20 people that were open to the public as an avenue to meet and learn more about West African culture overall. The idea was to take the concept to major cities and host dinner parties there; until the pandemic affected both aspects of her business.
But Burnette admits it also had a positive impact. “I was able to write my book. I’m not sure if I would have written my book that quickly if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” she says. Another plus was doing live cooking shows on Instagram and Facebook that became popular. She has since received interest from people looking to open restaurants and a couple of restaurants that want to include recipes from her book on their menu.
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The cookbook contains 16 recipes along with a brief history of West African food and the different influences, types of spices and greens used and serves as an introduction to the cuisine from the area. Jollof rice lovers will find a recipe for the popular dish there, along with other traditional recipes for cassava leaves, fish stews and Nigerian Egusi soup, among other delights.
Inspired by Local Culture
For those not too familiar with the cuisine of Sierra Leone, some of the staple dishes are groundnut stew, also called mafé in Zambia and Senegal. “The stews are easy, and one thing about most of our recipes is the base is very similar,” says Burnette.
“There are three different types of bases that you use, one trinity being onions, hot peppers and tomatoes.” Commonly used spices include turmeric, bouillon cubes, cumin and ogiri (fermented sesame seeds).
“A typical dessert is groundnut cake-like coconut patties, akara – black-eyed pea fritters similar to banana fritters, basi where you soak couscous and make it with milk and yogurt, and rice bread.” Drinks featuring sorrel and tamarind are also local favorites.
“The most important for me when cooking any food is the freshness of the ingredients and the time you take to cook the food, knowing when to cook what, make sure you cook the food at the right time.”
Born in Sierra Leone, she moved to the U.S. as a 9-year-old and revisited 24 years later in 2011. She now returns often to Freetown where she has family, and will now be dividing her time between the two countries that she calls home. Burnette also founded the Women’s Empowerment network in 2018, which started as a brunch to bring women from different professional backgrounds together.
Given the success of those events, she began hosting financial and personal development workshops, social events with guest speakers and more. “It’s about connecting and collaborating and inspiring each other. Women come together with similar interests and build friendships. It was like a safe space, and I am going to launch that in Sierra Leone as well,” she says. “My greatest strength is I’m resourceful. I’m a people person. I have a great network, so people are happy to partner with me.”
Motivated by Future Plans
Other efforts Burnette is involved with include an initiative called Hand Off Our Girls by the First Lady of Sierra Leone to help protect girls and women from gender-based violence in the country. Burnette previously worked with the U.S. Ghana Chamber of Commerce and is now working with the ambassador for Sierra Leone to set up the U.S. Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce.
She has an undergrad degree in political science and criminal justice with a minor in sociology and an M.B.A in management from Frostburg State University. It might seem worlds apart from her current professional pursuits, but she has transferred her skills well to serve her entrepreneurial goals.
Working in both countries also affords her an insider view of the major cultural differences in doing business within the U.S. and Sierra Leone, primarily punctuality and professionalism.
“It was a culture shock for me when I got here in Sierra Leone, and I’m getting better but certain things I see like no order or no professionalism. Then the skill sets,” she shares. “The big thing most people will experience here is the integrity—you work for people always trying to get over you. I’ve heard stories of people opening businesses and family members robbing them!”
The challenge for her though has always been finding the right people who will believe in your vision and help execute it. “There are times where you find people who say they buy the vision but then come in and try to change it. Or people who just can’t see your vision at all, so they are not motivated or ready to execute it. My mom always says, ‘Nothing good comes easy,’ and I have experienced that in my life.” But taking all challenges in stride, Burnette is forging ahead with her plans.
She is already considering working on two more cookbooks: one for stews and soups and another on street food. On next steps, she says, “In the next five years, I see myself having a couple restaurants, doing business in West Africa, not just Sierra Leone, Ghana too, and in the U.S. and having my products available at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, some packaging and frozen foods. I see a show; that’s something I am going to work on. I am a business strategist by trade and have a passion for food and serving people, so it all comes back to that service.”