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Cole Street — The Urgency of Sierra Leonean Fine Dining

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Photos by Amelia Martyn-Hemphill

In the traditional community of Murray Town, nestled between the Atlantic and Freetown’s hectic city centre, for the first time in Sierra Leone— Cole Street is disrupting a sub-par and foreign-dominated market with Salone Haute Cuisine!

It’s morninggarlic, nene koro, and patmangi are delicately gathered from the kitchen garden into Chef Miatta Mark’s panier and are off to the chopping board to be stewed in rich bisques with fish, and cassava or garri… sometimes for 8 hours!

These roots, herbs and grains form the basis of Sierra Leonean traditional cuisine. It is a kitchen that finds itself at both the origin and nexus of West African and pan-black-Atlantic flavours. A cuisine that has historically influenced international menus and has been cooking up a storm across global metropolitan cities off late. And yet, in its very own home, Sierra Leonean cuisine was nowhere to be found, dignified and served as haute cuisine, in formal restaurants—before Cole Street. The market has been dominated by foreign merchants with the economic upperhand.

Tucked away in the curious neighbourhood of Murray Town, the Cole Street Guest House has ancestral stories infused through its walls and its recipes—destined for greatness. The mid-century garden-wrapped home originally belonged to Miatta's grandmother, Lati Hyde-Forster MBE, the first woman in Sierra Leone to graduate from university. She was hazed for being the only woman in university, but she overcame the difficulties and rose to become the first Sierra Leonean principal of the country's famed Annie Walsh Memorial All Girl's Secondary School (originally a missionary school).

Miatta and her cousins were born and raised in their grandmother’s space. When they were five years old, her cousin Georgina planted the sprawling java apple tree which shades the tiled courtyard where restaurant guests now sit. It's fruits, indigenous to Sierra Leone, are now used to make sorbets and cakes for the restaurant.

Sweet, steamed rice flour dumplings are laid around a petit assiette of tamarind caramel dipping sauce, arousing intrigue and evoking an endangered practice for young Sierra Leoneans. Foorah are traditionally prepared at ceremonies to honour the dead, 40 days after their passing. As this practice risks being phased out by young generations, so does the amuse-geule known as Foorah. Thankfully, it now sits at the top of Miatta’s menu.

Everything about Cole Street is intentional. Miatta selected the menu based on food she loves the most, but also food that could bring Sierra Leoneans together with memories and stories about “that one time” something funny or interesting happened concerning this or that dish. Food that reminds Sierra Leoneans that their cuisine is rich with stories— geographically far and near.

"My soul died a little bit every time I'd go into what was considered a fancy restaurant in Freetown, and there would be little or no Sierra Leonean food on the menu," Miatta said. "I think on a subliminal level, that messaging really destroys the self-esteem of Sierra Leoneans around their food culture."

Why do it? Why build Cole Street, and why in this way? "My soul died a little bit every time I'd go into what was considered a fancy restaurant in Freetown, and there would be little or no Sierra Leonean food on the menu," Miatta shared with me. "I think on a subliminal level, that messaging really destroys the self-esteem of Sierra Leoneans around their food culture."

Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, offers a range of formal restaurants. Their menus all sort of look the same— grilled creatures with a side of your choice. Intercontinental or fast food favorites— pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, wraps or burgers served with pre-cut, pre-packaged and then deep-fried french-fries that were frozen only minutes ago. Some restaurants have chosen a cuisine— one can find a plethora of Lebanese restaurants, two Indian spots, an Italian place, about five Chinese restaurants and even a Korean hot plate restaurant. Yet, little to no formal Sierra Leonean nor African-fusion places sit steady— dedicated to the nation.

There have indeed been attempts in the past. African foodies of the late 90s to early 2000s will remember the late aunty Joy's Balmaya. A seamless 'indoor-outdoor feeling' two story building with terraces that sprouted from its double decker dining halls serving phenomenally delicious, cooked-to-order Sierra Leonean and West African dishes. Balmaya also offered some Western foods, though local plates were the center of attention. The restaurant shared a garden and a compound with an arts center where the former owner, affectionately known to all as aunty Joy, sold glorious home décor and art curated from the continent of Africa's very best artisan stores. Unfortunately, the entire space closed down in 2019 when aunty Joy passed. Leaving a legacy of the slowly decaying building standing at Congo Cross, one of Freetown's busiest roundabouts. The moss green structure watches over students and pedestrians leaving and going to work and school in the harmattan or raining season, as aunty Joy’s spirit would.

There was also The Cube. At the edge of downtown, an area naturally packed with street stalls and informal markets, faltering government buildings, and new shiny banks— there is water. The Atlantic almost washes over the old Maritime Building that housed The Cube Restaurant on its top floor. Sweltering in the humid heat of sun-boiled water rising from the Atlantic through its wide windows, The Cube served local food the only way the country knows how— the way grandmothers do— packing a plate with the intention of lulling you as you drool into an affectionate food coma. Mine, and everyone's favorite, was the Friday buffets that felt like an opulent wedding or God-sent "owujo" (Krio word for formal occasion) where the caterer's goal was to prove they knew how to cook and serve Sierra Leonean food like no other. The Cube equally offered an exciting intercontinental menu option served on its tables clad with plastic coverings like a middle-town 80s home. Once lively, busy, and hectic, it closed permanently in 2020.

Not discounting the splendor of those restaurants, Cole Street feels different. Cole Street feels like a silent protest. A sing-songy-chant that says a restaurant in Sierra Leone does not need Western or global options for the sake of it. If other restaurants can exclusively serve foreign cuisine— then Cole Street can exclusively serve Sierra Leonean dishes. The ones forgotten. The ones that unite. The unexpected ones. Just Sierra Leonean dishes. And they do it to the highest quality possible, whilst honoring local sourcing, supply chains, labour, and sustainability. These tenants being a rarity amongst the foreign-owned formal restaurants in Sierra Leone.

Cole Street’s most popular dish is the jerk goat, which Miatta explains “seems like an anomaly on the menu, but it is also part of our Creole food story”. Miatta says Sierra Leonean food, language and culture is one of mixing and adapting for survival and resilience— much like Creole. “My dad’s family are the Contons, third generation Sierra Leoneans who hail from the West Indies. A lot of West Indians came over in the late 1800s, so the jerk goat is about authentic old recipes that actually have been circulating in the Creole community for a while. I’ve had that recipe for about 35 years, and it’s prepared just as it was written down for me” says Miatta. The dish and the Creole tribe, now called the Krio tribe, are sort of a microcosm for the country. A nation of 16 distinct tribes, languages, and cultures, yet everyone has blended as one. A feat that Miatta says is one of her favourite things about her country.

Cole Street’s main course options include cassava bread (pronounced ‘casada bred' in Krio) which are cassava flour-based tortillas stuffed with grilled mackerel fillets, crispy minnows, and fried prawn heads— dripping in nut oils, mango chilli sauces and a concoction of local seasonings that form a juice called gron soup. Sierra Leonean dishes are traditionally a starch like rough rice, cassava, fufu, fine grains, or boiled plantains served with a soup, sauce or stew that has been boiled to the richest texture possible by blending steamed root leaves (cassava, potato, krain-krain, spinach, greens or otherwise), and boiling them in herbs, spices and all smoked or fried or grilled creatures of the sky, land and sea.

Pictured above: 'Boil Stew': lobster bisque with sweet potato and pumpkin gnocchi, barracuda steak and tiger prawns. A main course on the Cole Street menu. (the bisque takes 8 hours to prepare)

Murray Town, the neighbourhood of Miatta’s infancy, is known for fishing, traditional masked dancers, secret societies that birth academics, and its ghosts. The most famous local ghost is the Olushora Devil— a female guardian spirit that protects residents from anyone who would dare to harm a Murray Towner.

Miatta returned home to Freetown after training as a human rights lawyer in the UK. She remembers studying and working in Brighton and London, dreaming of red snapper and foorah. Vividly recalling Sierra Leonean food would always transport her back to her prepubescence which she spent travelling between the capital and rural provinces tasting dishes from various tribes and trying to decipher the base ingredients in each one. At 10 years old, she left Freetown to live in the second-economic city, Bo, with her mother. She recalls researching the base ingredients in her favourite Bo-town street food and creating original techniques to cook them. The self-taught chef says these experiences birthed a sort of food detective in her— passionate about cooking Sierra Leonean food in her own way. She knew that as soon as her daughter graduated secondary school and went off to university, she would rush home to Sierra Leone to do something with food.

Miatta opened Cole Street in November, 2021 determined to create a space that would capture the magic and spirit of her childhood and her neighbourhood— a community led and fed by powerful women like her grandmother. She felt that Sierra Leonean women, who traditionally cook nourishing and lavish meals for their families as a cultural duty, should finally be compensated and celebrated for their talents.

Supporting and empowering disadvantaged women in Murray Town is integral to Cole Street. Miatta employs and trains young women facing challenging circumstances and supports them with further studies and opportunities for personal growth. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for staff to attend technical education and vocational training schools to gain other skills that will earn them a living outside of the restaurant. The restaurant also funds higher education for their staff and day-care for their children, as many of the staff are single mothers.

Miatta has also granted usage of 27 acres of farmland upcountry to an association of women and children at risk, who now sell their farming produce to the restaurant. For Miatta, success is about staying connected to community and honouring the sustainable food practices of the generations that came before.

Through Cole Street, the vision for Miatta is to remain committed to local food sovereignty, community empowerment and making her country proud. Despite the logistical challenges of Sierra Leone's patchy infrastructure, water shortages and frequent power outages, she persists.

"I really want to bring a sense of pride to the neighbourhood, and to bring a sense of pride to our Sierra Leonean cuisine."

— Miatta Marke

"I really want to bring a sense of pride to the neighbourhood," Miatta concluded as we chatted over Cole Street's attieke (garri) for lunch, "and to bring a sense of pride to our Sierra Leonean cuisine."

She must be doing something right. The restaurant has to turn down bookings on a daily basis. Cole Street has been fully booked since its opening, drawing in crowds of foreigners, economic migrants, young professionals, families, tourists, teenagers learning more about their culture, and older couples hungry for Sierra Leonean nostalgia.

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