Dishing Up Sustainable Flavour with West African Food
It's widely acknowledged that plant-based diets are generally more sustainable than other diets. But plant-based eating doesn't have to be boring. Ngwafu Tansie is on a mission to unleash flavour in vegan food, and introduce the UK to plant-based versions of popular dishes from her birth-home of Cameroon.
Manchester-based Ngwafu is a chef and the founder of Gwafuvegan. You can order Ngwafu's indulgent Puff Puff to enjoy from the comfort of your own home, anywhere in the UK, or try her West African dishes at some of Manchester's best food markets.
When Ngwafu and I chatted, she shared her motivations to live more sustainably through food, as well as how she uses local ingredients in the UK to recreate traditional West African flavours. She also shared how climate change is already affecting her family in Cameroon, and some of the practices we can learn about sustainability from West Africa.
You'll also find Ngwafu's low carbon Jollof Rice recipe and Suya Mixed Grill & Salsa Verde recipe, along with their carbon footprint, in the Floop app.
Founder of gwafuvegan
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Why did you decide to become a plant-based chef, and what's the ethos behind your recipes?
I became vegetarian over uni through a few seminars that we did about sustainability, before it was a whole big thing. At the time I was a meat-eater and then we did a few seminars on sustainability and how food affects it.
The amount of information I got from that shocked me so much. I was very eco-friendly at that time, I was still thrifting and stuff, but I didn't really touch on food that much.
So when I got all that information, I was like, "No... I have to do better. I have to basically self teach myself to be able to cook vegetarian and vegan food well" because I really enjoyed food and I didn't want to eat 'beige' food. So, I built my skills around that.
Then the more skills I gained, I realised that there's not actually much good food for vegans - this is nine years ago. So I was like, "I'm going to try and do this myself and actually learn about food cookery and how to make things taste a lot nicer, not just use basic ingredients".
So, I got more practice, and then I got into restaurants and got more more practice there. I really wanted to elevate vegan food and show people that eating vegan doesn't mean bland food. We do get our protein, we do get all our vital nutrients, we eat so much better than everyone else, and we could eat more of it.
So I was like: "Okay, I have to push this mission" and that's a lot of the reasons why I started my business as well, as well as trying to showcase [vegan food] within the West African community. So that's like a big mission statement, I guess, for our business.
That's interesting that sustainability is the driver for why you started eating vegetarian and vegan in the first place and now shapes your business. What did you study at university? Was it food-related?
Yeah, it was food technology. The subject basically covers a little bit of nutrition, manufacturing, and food science: the structure of food, how it behaves within your body and how it breaks down, what not to eat, and the science around food.
Can you tell us about Cameroon's food scene and how plant-based food fits into day-to-day Cameroonian diets?
The Cameroon scene is very much broken down into two things: there's street food, and then there's home cooking. There's a little bit of a restaurant scene, but people don't really sit down and eat; they'd rather have guests around and do that for a guest. So the street food is more prominent there.
In terms of the cuisine itself, it is actually vegan-friendly up to the point where you add the meat. Meat is still there, though it's really expensive, so people don't have a lot of it but when you do, you're really indulging in it.
A lot of the base recipes of Cameroon's food, like all the sauces, the jollof rice, or the stew bases, bean bases...all that... use plant-based ingredients. Then they start adding fish stock or chicken stock, or add chicken to it in the middle stage.
So, I learned that if I just take that out and add flavours that simulate a similar type of taste, pretty much 90% of Cameroon's food can be vegan, which is actually quite interesting when I looked into it.
I suppose there's not a lot of dairy [in Cameroonian food], is that right?
No, yeah... butter, dairy, is just not a thing people eat. It's a very western world drink, because people have cows for the meat, not for the dairy. Dairy is very expensive to manufacture because you need cooler environments, and the African continent is just so hot; to assimilate a cold environment will be so expensive.
Jollof rice and puff puffs are very popular across West Africa. What are they, and why are they so special to West Africa?
I actually don't know... I'll hold my hands up. I don't know why it's so popular because growing up, that was just something that my mom cooked on a daily basis. She never really told us why this dish and this particular ingredient are so popular.
But from a food science point of view, I can answer that question. Puff puff is very wheat-based, and wheat and rice are the two highly eaten grains in Cameroon or West African countries.
So, because most of puff puff is wheat, and you just add water and a natural yeast, it's a very cheap commodity that everybody can make.
Same with plantain. Plantain is grown in Cameroon in abundance. So because those two things are so readily available, I guess people will use those ingredients and basically try to make a dish out of it, or a component of it, that can go with foods which is cheap and sustainable at the same time.
They sound like they're comfort foods as well, or the type of dish where every family has their own recipe?
Yeah! The recipe that I have is my mum's recipe but made slightly more scalable. I had a Cameroonian family recently [come to my stall], which is the first time ever, who came and tried the jollof rice and they asked what region I was from. Even within Cameroon, within regions, there's different types of jollof rice. I kind of felt like I was put on the spot!
Even families, regions of Cameroon it all changes, but it's just the spices that would differ. The base of how you make it is the same across Cameroon; I'm not sure about Nigeria or Ghana... they might add a few different things in it.
Some of the traditional ingredients for West African dishes struggle to grow in the UK's climate. How do you substitute common ingredients in West African dishes with local ingredients in the UK?
Well, funnily enough the spices that I use in the jollof rice now are additional spices that you get in African countries. There's one called dawadawa, and then you have Cameroonian black pepper, as well. So you have other things that you can put in the Jollof rice.
But I just had to take them out [the recipes] because although you can get them in African shops dotted around the country here, but they're not readily available. I know people aren't gonna go out and get that very specific thing for one recipe that they might make a couple of times.
So, a lot of the spices I've used, a lot of my ingredients, are things that you can get in your local supermarket or in your local shop, and it's not hard to get hold of. I really wanted to push on that because I know I'm the same, right?
If I see a recipe and it has these spices I'm never gonna use again, I'm just gonna swap them out or use something that's more comfortable, or decide to use it for a special occasion. So, I adapted a lot of my ingredients for that.
Cameroon is a country that's quite vulnerable to the effects of climate change. So how is climate change affecting Cameroon?
So, generally what I've heard from family [in Cameroon] is that the drier seasons are drier, and the wetter seasons are wetter. So, what's happening is your growing season narrows drastically because, in the wet season, you can't really grow much because it's just too wet - nothing can really grow apart from spinach. But in the dry season, yields are significantly lower, and I think that's happening across a lot of Africa.
There's a huge plastic ban in Cameroon, purely because a lot of the western world exports their waste to other regions. Cameroon is one of the places that receive some of that waste. So the way they're combating is trying to not accept as much, and then not consume as much because they're there's no space anymore. So now by law you can't use plastic bags. I think that came about long before it actually hit [the UK] because I went to Cameroon six or seven years ago, and that was already implemented.
In terms of climate change, it's hard in Cameroon because they don't have all the infrastructure and money to do things and implement things as quickly as you can in the western world. The only thing they can do is ban things really, because that's very cheap. So, they're feeling the effects, but they don't have solutions to it. I guess it's an ongoing thing to try and solve over there.
Food waste reduction is a huge thing. Because food is so expensive, producing food is so expensive, people don't waste food. It's just not a thing that happens and refrigeration is hard to come by. So, people will literally go out and buy what they need for that day, cook it, and that's it. They'll go out every day just to buy what they need, rather than do huge shops and keep it in the fridge and it goes bad.
So there are some really good [sustainability practices], but then there's some aspects that they're struggling, but it's something they just don't have the resources for.