For Maria Bradford, cooking isn't just about food, it's a connection to home
The chef and founder of Shwen Shwen speaks about the food of Sierra Leone, cooking through homesickness and the importance of centring women in conversations around African food
For Maria Bradford , food was never just about what was on the plate in front of her, or in the pot on the stove. After moving from Sierra Leone to the UK in her teens, the once-accountant, now-chef and food producer leaned on cooking as a means of connection to her home country; a cure for homesickness through her taste buds.
“When I moved to England, I was in a town called West Malling, near Tunbridge Wells,” Bradford tells me. “It didn’t have any African shops around that I could just pop into and see ingredients I was familiar with. So I remember for a very long time, the only thing I could cook was peanut soup, because I could get peanut butter from the supermarket to make it.” Until she went up to London for the first time and realised these ingredients were available outside of rural Kent, it was a case of making do with what she could find. “I grew up in Sierra Leone and my only experience had been there or other African countries where everything seems familiar and you see people that are very much like you,” she continues. “All of a sudden you find yourself in this strange part of England where you are the only Black person in the village and there’s nobody that looks like you, and nobody that speaks like you and there’s nothing that’s familiar. But I managed to find comfort in peanut soup.”
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This ultimately sparked a connection with food that endured. Although, while it might have been this cooking to find a connection with home that sparked her long lasting love for the kitchen, the seeds had been sown early in Bradford’s life. “When I was younger, we had this thing called play cook, where kids would be encouraged to try new things – and for me, it was cooking. I was always drawn to cooking and taking ingredients from my mum’s kitchen, making really rubbish concoctions with them, and forcing other kids to eat it,” she laughs. “But I’ve just always been drawn to the process of it. I really love that interaction in the marketplace, the connection that my mum or grandmother would have with the market women. It’s almost like a collaborative process.”
While Bradford’s career path initially took her towards accounting, studying for a degree on the topic and subsequently working in the field, she couldn’t shake her love for food. “On the side I was always doing a bit of cooking and making products,” she tells me. “I would do dinner parties and invite friends round and just spend so much time on that. I still thought I wanted to be an accountant, which I did for ten years, but for all that time food was still deeply in my thoughts, I just didn’t think I could turn it into a career.” That is, until her husband encouraged her to take the leap and make a career out of the thing she was passionate about.
There are a lot of men out there who are doing African food, but I don’t feel it can take off without women being fully involved in it
“He said to me, ‘You’re so good at this, you’re so good at that.’ And if I made drinks, or if I made something else he’d say ‘You can sell this, you could bottle this, it would be so good, I can see it on the shelf,’ just as little hints. About six years ago I decided to give it a go.” It started with an Instagram account. She went to Leiths to train in food photography, and through that enrolled in a culinary course at the school. “I knew that I really wanted to do African food and focus on my tradition of food, my culture and ingredients I grew up eating,” she tells me. “But I was still quite curious when it came to ingredients from all over the world, so I went in and got a bit of classical training. I didn’t want to change the traditional foods, because they’re amazing as they are, but I wanted to kind of weave these new ingredients and techniques into African food.”
And so Shwen Shwen was born. Or, Maria Bradford Kitchen as it was originally called. Named for the Krio word for fancy, it’s a fitting moniker for a company responsible for serving up some of the most interesting, inventive Sierra Leonean food in the country. Bradford’s company is two-fold: the product arm, where she sells sauces, drinks and other products and the cooking sector, where she mainly serves up incredible meals for private clients and occasionally supper clubs, either at home or in her studio in Kent.
It is, for many reasons, a necessary addition to the country’s hospitality scene, not least because the food of Sierra Leone is still incredibly undersung in the UK. And while this ignorance around the cuisine could have posed a barrier to entry, Bradford doesn’t speak too much on obstacles, instead seeming enthusiastic to teach. “People are getting more familiar with African food and people are a lot more trusting in trying things they’ve never had before. But you’re often still trying to serve people things they don’t know anything about. You know, there are still so many people who have never even tried plantain, which just blows my mind completely,” she tells me. “There’s still a lot of work to do to get people not only to be eager to try these foods, but also to understand that these are staple foods that feed millions and millions of people across the globe.”
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The significance of her business isn’t just due to its important education around the food of Sierra Leone but also because it is helmed by Bradford herself as a Black woman. It’s something Bradford says she’s incredibly proud of – having the ability to “not only showcase what African women can do, but what African women can do in the kitchen.” It’s the classic gender split: women cook in the home, but professional recognition inevitably goes to the men, and in Sierra Leone it’s no different. “There are a lot of men out there who are doing African food, but we are a society where women run homes, women run kitchens, you know, women run the budget,” she says. “So I don’t feel like African food can take off without women being fully involved in it. It cannot. It would not, because that’s the society we grow up in, where women cook. It would be really difficult to find an African woman in an African setting who would say, ‘I don’t know anything about food, I don’t know how to cook.’”
It’s almost like a connecting thread among women. Passed from grandmothers, to mothers, to daughters, binding these intergenerational relationships. “It’s the girls that mums and grandmothers talk to about food; about the secrets and about the ingredients. So if you want to know more about African food, or the best African food anyway, then speak to the women.” We both pause, and laugh, because it’s a feeling universally understood by women. And here Bradford is, bringing those secrets to the world – a little bit anyway. African food may be having its moment in the culinary sun in England at the moment, but that conversation will not – and cannot – be had without the inclusion of voices like Maria Bradford.