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NBSV 112


Transcript of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, episode 112

West African cuisine, the plant-based diet + where they intersect, with Nana-Serwa Mancell

Karina Inkster: You're listening to the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 112. Nana-Serwa Mancell joins me to discuss West African and specifically Ghanaian cuisine, including its history, plant-based nature, and its influences on US and Caribbean food cultures.

Hey, thanks for tuning in. I'm Karina, your go-to, no BS vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Today we're taking a deep dive into West African cuisine with my guest Nana-Serwa Mancell. Nana is the founder and chef of Veghana, a meal delivery and catering company based in Dubai that serves vegan West African cuisine. She passionately believes that West African food deserves a place among the popular global cuisines and that West African food has an enormous amount to offer anyone on a plant-based diet.

Nana was born and raised in Ghana, eating the food she's recreated for the Veghana menu. She was educated in the UK where she then lived for 10 years in a career that had her working on projects with the mayor of London, the British Royal family, and other quirky British institutions. Nana's favourite vegan dish is waakye, a rice and beans dish originating from Northern Ghana. Here's our conversation.

Hi Nana. Thank you so much for coming on the show and speaking with me today. Great to have you here.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Karina Inkster: Well I'm excited to talk about what you do and we're gonna talk about West African food and the various influences that it's had. And I feel like there's a lot to discuss, but what I would like to touch on first is your own personal story. So can you tell me and our listeners a little bit about your own plant-based journey and what that means for the business that you're running now?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Okay. I’ll start backwards. So I am currently a chef. I seem a bit of a fake saying that word, but the chef and owner and founder of a business called Veghana and we’re a meal delivery and catering service for vegan West African food. We operate in Dubai and across the United Arab Emirates. My business has been going for about a year. And I have been living in the UAE for about 17 years. And before that, I lived in the UK where I went to university and then worked for about 10 years, but the UK was never home in the sense of I was always an overseas student and my parents never left Ghana. So Ghana was fairly home and I went home for every holiday. And so I'm very firmly Ghanaian and speak all my three Ghanaian languages and actually learned English when I was about five.

Karina Inkster: That's awesome. So how does this relate to you coming to the plant-based world? So the meal delivery company that you have is all vegan from what I understand. So does that mean that you are vegan yourself and then you kind of created a business around that or what's the deal there?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Actually it was the other way around. So I'm actually quite recently a vegan and I've certainly been on a journey with my whole, how can I say, my whole thinking about the philosophy. I was a little bit in the middle, not about the value of a plant-based diet, but I was a little bit in the middle as to whether veganism was a little bit too extreme and actually stopped people from eating plant-based because it seemed like a kind of - I won’t lie - a few years ago I had the impression that kind of only white ladies in yoga pants were vegans, which is completely wrong and prejudice. But that's kind of what I thought and that word, therefore, gave me the impression of it was a club that I didn't necessarily belong to, but I was totally wrong. Cause actually, even with stats there, you look at the US, that's actually not true at all.

So when I had that kind of wrong thinking, I used to think that vegan was a bit too extreme and that to get more people to eat plant-based we needed to use phrases like plant-based, and encourage people just to eat, you know, plant-based often. But they could occasionally tap into eating, you know, animal products. And not very long ago, now I'm a committed, full vegan myself and it's almost like kind of scales fall off your eyes. And I now see what was wrong with what I thought before. But it's very much my own journey. And I'm still in this phase where I’m trying to say to people with my business, look, this really, really gorgeous plant-based food here that comes from my staff that’s absolutely lovely. If you eat it, you won't think about meat. So let's not talk about whether you're vegan or not for now. Let's talk about you being healthy, helping the environment, the planet, helping those African farmers, you know, taking away some of the veggies around Africa and, you know, come and try this food. And that's kinda the message.

Karina Inkster: Mm. I love that. You know, I don't think it's anyone's fault really to have this view of veganism that’s white ladies and yoga pants are basically of the only folks who can do it properly. I think there's a lot of work that still needs to be done honestly, in the vegan, whatever you wanna call it, community, movement, to make it more inclusive and more diverse, honestly. I think part of the problem with the vegan movement is that it's still a little insular and there's issues within the vegan movement itself of course.

But what you're doing with your business and with your you know, kind of outlook is you're bringing what's potentially a new cuisine to some folks, into the public. And that's kind of what I wanted to talk about is West African cuisine. I'm honestly not super familiar with it myself. I really love Ethiopian cuisine, which is on the other end of the continent. So can you give us maybe a quick geography lesson and like an intro to West African food for those of us who don't know a lot about it?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So my first thing is West African food is absolutely generally delicious and very accessible. That has a lot to do with our history and our culture. So the fact that we're not eating it, the fact that when you come to Ghana, you will struggle to find a decent, classy West African - I'm not even talking about vegan, just full stop Ghanaian food - you'll struggle to find somewhere that wants to impress you with something that was actually Ghanian. Cause even we've looked down on our food. West African food, it's so lovely and so delicious, and so easy for everybody to adopt. It really should be out there with like Chinese food, or Indian food or Mexican food. These are across the globe and it really should. And that is Ethiopian food is in that space a little bit more than West African food. It actually really surprises me cause West African’s a lot easier to cook, to eat, and has a lot to do with our own particular colonial history as well. So I can't kind of talk about West African food without talking about colonialism and say even the history of my own particular family. So one of the most well-known dishes would be joloff rice. I dunno if you've heard of joloff rice.

Karina Inkster: No, I haven't. No.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Like, wow. How haven’t you? I mean, that's no cause of your own. But so there's something like there's World’s joloff Rice Day. Across the world, people celebrate joloff rice and joloff rice is eaten. We are very, very ethnically diverse in West Africa. So in Ghana alone, we have nine national languages.

Karina Inkster: Wow.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Ghana, which is about the size of say, England. And underneath these nine languages, then comes the dialect. So say I grew up speaking two dialects, and so two separate languages to the two. And so we are very, very diverse, religiously, ethically, physically, everything. But the one thing we do have is this food that kind of unites us, but also because then they're used as like regional variations. It also kind of reaches back to us, into each other. And a lot of that has to do with our shared colonial history.

So I know there's two that are the most popular dishes on my menu, came from the French troops who then fed the garrisons across West Africa. At least that kind of research I found. So joloff rice, for instance, apparently started by there was a French general who had a local mistress on one of the islands I think off Senegal, and the Wolof tribe is the dominant tribe in Senegal. And so the word joloff comes from there. And then it was, as the sailors sailed around the world they bought various ingredients. So she kind of invented this one-pot dish that's now eaten across West Africa. And it started off not being rice, but with the influence of rice coming in, now it's a rice-based one-pot dish.

Another one that's almost eaten across West Africa is plantain and beans. And I’m almost - how can I say it - I'm almost fanatical about plantain and beans. It's like the equivalent of burger and chips. It's comfort food. Everybody likes it. You can eat it at any time. I haven’t met one person who I've given plantain who doesn't like it. Plantain and beans for instance, in Ghana anyway, it’s very tied into our culture. So I remember as a little girl, and Saturdays were our day cause we’d be given a little bit of money and we'd walk across the neighbourhood where I grew up, which is in the capital, and we would buy plantain and beans, which is, has always been originally vegan. It's only recently the restaurants started putting meat in it. And we'd buy it in a banana leaf, and it was fried plantain in a kind of bean sauce. A very, very simple bean sauce, but it’s absolutely delicious. It’s called red red, and anybody that I introduced to Ghanian food absolutely loves it.

And in Ghana, street food isn't the same as street food anywhere else I've actually visited. So say if I've been to Thailand where you eat a lot of street food, it's still not the same as in Ghana. In Ghana, we're very much where some Ghanaians are a matrilineal society, meaning say families like mine don't even have a term for housewife. It doesn't exist. 

Everybody works. My mother who's a lawyer and a diplomat would only cook her definition of cooking, which would be mix and dishes together before the guests arrive, and wouldn't expect me to do otherwise as well. Like why would I necessarily need to cook? Cause if you're a middle-class family in Ghana you're gonna be working and there's gonna be a cook. So what happens is therefore in every neighbourhood, there's a mother or a grandma, somebody who's at home looking after the babies who has a specialty dish.

So there's many dishes that you just don't cook at home. It's just not the right thing to do. You go and buy it from whoever in your neighbourhood does it best. And so there's this kind of culture where it takes away the pressure of women having to cook all the time and also spreads the money around sort of thing. So to this day, whether you are very kind of rich politician or whether you are a poor gardener, you pretty much eat the same street food. We all have a dish called waakye, which I’ll come to later and still today it's sold by the same woman in the same street, or her daughter now. And we go and buy it and it's the most amazing breakfast ever.

And so our food is very influenced by the sailors that went from Europe around the world to we call this western now, around the world to South America, and then brought us back the seeds and planting of what we think is traditional Ghanaian food. So we actually, we don't know. So we eat a lot of plantain say, but it was brought to us about 500 years ago by the European sailors coming back from Brazil. And say waakye, which is my favourite dish, I think comes with the influence of the Arab traders coming from North Africa down towards the south.

Karina Inkster: Wow. That's amazing. So many really cool kinds of influences. And it just seems like there's a focus on deliciousness and whoever does it best should be the one who's serving it. And like that's who you get it from - no point making it yourself if there's somebody else who can make it better. That's such a cool concept.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Absolutely. Especially, you know, one of our favourite dishes is called kenkey, which is umami. It's too much of an acquired taste and it takes hours to make. So it's like, kenkey is kenkey. There's not a, we don't have like a fancy kenkey that you buy in the supermarket. There's no such thing. There’s just kenkey. You buy it from the street from this lady who's taking her time cause takes ages to ferment, and then you’ve got this cornball. So kenkey is kenkey. There’s not a posh version or a low version. You know you don't make it better than the street version. You just buy it from whoever does it best, and they make it.

Karina Inkster: That’s so cool. So, in some of the notes that we had for topics to discuss, you did mention street food specifically. So kind of like the important role that it plays. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? So it seems like, you know, you already said it's across the board, whether you're rich or not, everyone eats the same food. It's all based on the same street food. Is that kind of the importance? Is there kind of more in that realm around why street food is so important?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So like I said it’s very much tied into our, I mean, I think I come from the most, how can I say it, naturally feminist? So that being, so from my great grandmother to my grandmother, to my mother have all been, you know, career women. So the importance of street is that you buy the food, you bring it home and you eat together rather than somebody staying to cook for the kids. There is that too. And then also we are a culture that is very much, as you can imagine, into our festivals and celebrations. So food is a big thing. I mean, in a lot of cultures food is a big thing, but especially for us and yes, and there's a deliciousness. But also food is very much a cure and a medicine. So we in West Africa, as far as I can tell, we don't have a concept of desserts at all. So now certainly Ghanaians will eat dessert. At least middle-class Ghanaians will eat dessert. But we don't, it never existed. It's not there. We don't have anything to do with sugar cause we didn't have ovens or that. We don't have, we didn't have grain wheat to bake things.

Karina Inkster: Wow. That's super fascinating. So West African food, I mean I'm sure that there are lots of variations based on regions and that kind of thing. It's had an influence itself. I mean, you've talked about the influence that other cultures have had on it, but West African food itself has had a large influence on like Caribbean food culture and presumably also that in the States. So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So from what I, I mean, whenever I think of the figures of the slave trade, like my country's one of these fast - the population has spun in my lifetime. So when I was a kid, there were only 8 million people in Ghana. Now there are 22 million people in Ghana.

Karina Inkster: Oh wow.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And I'm 50, so that’s how much it's grown. But then the figures to the slave trade are between 12 to 25 million people were taken out of Africa. So if I think of that Ghana had 8 million people in it when I was about eight. Cause that's why I remember that fact, how many people left that continent? Then it kind of puts it into perspective for me, you know? That’s emptying a lot of people out of the continent.

Karina Inkster: No kidding.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Anyway, so we know that say waakye, which is my favourite thing, which is essentially waakye is the rice - it used to be millet - but the rice is soaked in a particular millet leaf. And that leaf is actually a superfood. It’s healthy, it's a super healthy thing. So in Ghana that, how we cook waakye, you soak it in the millet leaf so that it absorbs the goodness of the millet. So you have this dark red rice and then you eat it with black-eyed peas and a lot of other stuff on it. So when you look at Caribbean food, say I pick Jamaica, and they have, they call it rice and peas, and it is specifically waakye, just that, because they don't have the leaves to it red it's just a different colour. So you can see, or if you look at another kind of Caribbean dish which is callaloo, you can see that the leaf dish is definitely West African. And Ghana, where I come from - not that all the slaves came from Ghana, but we in Ghana and some of the countries along the west coast - in Ghana, we had some of the biggest slave castles.

They didn't start off as slave castles, but they were where the slaves were held before they were - sometimes for up to two, three, six months - before they were shipped away. So you can definitely see the influence of Ghanaian food around various parts of the world. And then I don't know so much about say Canada, but say in the US, and I found this out recently, so in the us, they celebrate Juneteenth with the colour red. And that is our drink bissap, which I absolutely worship and I live off it. I mean it’s a miracle thing. And I can see why only recently do I understand why the legacy of that has been so strong. So when they went to the States, they couldn't find - the stuff is made from hibiscus leaves. So they used sorrel instead. So on the Juneteenth day the people wear red and dress up. Until this day, if you go to a wedding in Ghana, one of my cousin’s got married recently, you still have it. It's called tsobo when it's what you drink at weddings for instance.

Or if I ever meet American and I say, oh, you know, we eat plantain and yam and they go, I know yam. And I go no you don’t. You know there's this perception in the US, that white sweet potato is yam. Actually white sweet potato is white sweet potato. It's not yam. Yam is something completely different. So when the slaves went to the US and they wanted yam, they were given sweet potato. So they called them yams, but they're not yam. If you come to West Africa yam is a completely, it’s these big, massive, tubers. It’s not this sweet potato thing. And yam for us is a massive thing.

And again, it just reminds me, and now I live in the Middle East. One of the big differences comparing my culture to my Arabic friends is things like take periods. So we grew up, there was no air, there's no kind of aura of shame around a period. So my mom and I were living in London when I got my first period and you have a yam. You cook this yam dish, and you invite neighbours and family to come and celebrate your child's period. And you can imagine how absolutely nervous I was as a 13 year old, absolutely mortified and embarrassed. My mother kind of inviting people to celebrate my first period. 

But it's very much of our culture. Like, and you go, why what's wrong with it? When a woman gets her period, you celebrate, cause you’re normal and you're a woman now and kinda thing. And then you eat yam and yam is big all across West Africa, especially the Nigerians and yam festivals.

It's a bit like our equivalent to a potato. So they store it to last nearly all year, and then there's new yams and a new yam festival. It’s healthier than a potato. It's certainly more interesting than a potato. So what I'm trying to do is to say to people we've been, you know, people and unfortunately, even in Ghana - so like the three main carbs are rice, potatoes, and pasta. Like yeah, they're great, but there's so much more. And if we started to eat so much more, we would be helping so many people. And that's, you know, that's very much part of my message.

Karina Inkster: Yeah!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And it's, you can see when you look across Brazil, you can see these links with the food that lasted these hundreds of years in you know, what would be called soul food in the US. When you look at West African food, you know, you can see the similarities having passed down so many centuries, you know, which is fascinating.

Karina Inkster: Oh, it's totally fascinating. I love the idea too, of having foods that are specific to occasions. You know, like celebrating a girl's first period or I'm sure there's others. You mentioned the drink, that's like kind of a wedding staple, for example. I love that idea. I feel like I'm half German and half British and we don't have a lot of foods other than there's some German things that are literally just available for, you know, three weeks around Christmas and that's it. But I feel like it's not a huge background of like specific foods, you know, for events.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And I feel like I have lived in the UK and maybe I do come from a kind of an English background. Food in the UK, as I saw it, is such divided between classes.

Karina Inkster: Mm. Right.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And there's poor people eating bad food, and rich people eating something completely different, and used almost as a way to look down on people. How you eat, the what you eat, the restaurant thing. Whereas West African food has none of that. We all, you know, there's not a better quality yam than yam.

Karina Inkster: Right!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: It’s yam.

Karina Inkster: Yeah. That's a really interesting point.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: It doesn't have a fancy name. It doesn't have a fancy French name. We all still eat with our fingers. And actually for us in Ghana, we have some of us who have a reverse kind of snobbery. So somebody like my grandmother or my mother would very much look down on any Ghanaian middle-class girl who didn't understand her Ghanaian-ness. So I was brought up in the kind of family that if I don't know how to eat with my fingers properly, it's kinda like a saying that I haven't been brought up properly.

So the, you know, people on the street, eat with their fingers and people from their homes will also eat with their fingers. And a lot of it's the same healthy food. It's changing now, unfortunately, with capitalism and blah, blah, but the change has even only been in my lifetime, which is such a shame. But kind of the health food is the healthy food and you can eat healthy, quite cheaply. So still to this day of being in this kind of vegan space, I still hear it: oh but eating vegan is so expensive. I'm like, what are you talking about?

And even sometimes now I'm in this space I'm even like, I want to lie to people about what my basic food costs are because I make these amazingly tasty dishes that are so cheap. You know a big thing that we eat is okra, and certainly, in the middle east, a is cheap as chips.

Karina Inkster: Mm-Hmm!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: But you can certainly make so many delicious things offered in Ghana. And a lot of West African food is based on, you know, fresh leaves, onions, a little bit of garlic, and a little bit of ginger. We don't really use any preservatives. We don't really use any kind of powdered spices as you might in Indian cooking at all.

Karina Inkster: Hmm!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: We're very obsessed by our different types of fresh cheese and maybe a few different types of dried kinds of leaves and then certainly in Ghana and Nigeria, they would use dried fish to give things a certain flavour. So the challenge for me is that I'm enjoying as a vegan chef is how and what I replace that kind of dried fish taste with.

Karina Inkster: Well, I was gonna ask you actually, I mean, from your descriptions, West African food and Ghanaian food in particular sounds very plant-forward already as it is. So like how much veganizing do you have to do?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: That's the whole thing: hardly any! And so I come from Southern Ghana, which you actually literally go from beach into, from, you know, from the sea, into a small patch of savanna kind thing, but straight into rain forest.

Karina Inkster: Hmm.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So Cape Coast, I'm born in a place called Cape coast, it's actually sea and then straight into rainforest. So it’s meant that we've never really had space or cattle really.

Karina Inkster: Interesting. That's an interesting point.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So we don't have these lovely, you know, hills of grass. So actually when you see a cow in Ghana, jeez I wonder why it's taken me so long to vegan, cause it is the most miserable thing when you see the string of cows going along, cause they don't have the grass and stuff to sustain them. I mean, it's only very recently that the average Ghananian can buy a fridge or get access to ice, which I'm kind of devoting to one of my recent favourite stories. I saw a clip of a lady in the market and she was selling meat. And so because ice is difficult and she was actually spraying fly killer straight onto the meat.

Karina Inkster: Oh wow!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And then somebody said, “what are you doing?” And she said, “I'm the flies now!”

Karina Inkster: Oh man!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Because we didn't have fridges. What we do is you keep - and even the household I grew up with, even though I came from a very westernized sort of thing you know, my dad he’s a doctor - we still kept and killed our own animals. Cause you couldn't trust to go to a market and buy something that hasn't been in the fridge. Which means that the animal will be killed and then to eat it. And traditional meat, traditional Ghanaian meat has absolutely no taste. It's just like cardboard.

Karina Inkster: Hmm.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So they boil it out. So you boil it till there’s you know, to get rid of any diseases or any bacteria. They boil it and after they boil it, they fry it and they fry the hell out of it too. It's really, really stiff. And then it goes into the plant-based dish. So the dish isn't really cooked with stock as you would in other places. So for me to recreate these plant-based dishes, I just leave out the meat.

Karina Inkster: Wow. That's pretty easy to do!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: It is really easy to do. There's only one or two things that might need the stock. One or two soups, but that's really one or two. So across West Africa, the main soups for us aren't starters. Soups are very much part of the main dish.

Karina Inkster: Mm-hmm.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And you eat it with something called a swallow. You literally take this ball of carbs that you put into the ball and you scoop your soup and you swallow with it. A bit like you fashion a stodgy spoon. So soup is a very, very big part of our culture. In a way, we stole, we took the European word, but we should have come up with another word for it instead of soup. Cause then when I'm seeing some of the European, they really don't understand what I mean. It's very much different.

So the three main soups, two of them don't taste any different without the meat. So one of the most popular dishes for me to give to non-Ghanaian is - and even Ghanaians - is peanut soup. It's very easy to teach anybody to cook. It's absolutely delicious. I’ve put it on my, at the moment, on my Veghana menu. It's on as a starter, but for years now I’ve found how impressive it was and when I was having parties, I served bowls of it, especially if it was slightly wintery. If I served bowls of peanut soup, everybody liked it. It’s just so tasty and so easy to make and so healthy for you.

Karina Inkster: Oh, that sounds amazing. All of this food is making me really hungry. All this food talk! Well, I was gonna ask you a little bit about your business. So the dishes that you make with Veghana, I know it's kind of relatively new in the world of business - a year is like still pretty new. So how's it been going? And how does it work with meal delivery?

Nana-Serwa Mancell: I mean, I went into this with not so much research, just one of those things. I was literally between - I was nearly redundant in my job that I loved. I worked for something called the Emirates Literature Foundation.

Karina Inkster: Mm wow!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And we and Emirates would fly in 200 authors over the course of the week from across the world. We would have about 40,000 people at this event.

Karina Inkster: Wow.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And I'm a fanatical reader. So I thought that was my dream job. I mean, I was happily in my dream job. And actually it wasn't. And I realized, cause I kinda worked on the media side, and then I was made redundant. And this was only a year ago. And I thought what am I gonna do with myself now? Even when I was there, cause I worked on the com side. 

And so therefore I was high up enough. I mean not running place or anything, but that I had a team of people who did the social media and I just got involved in what might be posted. So I wasn't posting myself. So when I did lose my job, I thought health, you know, I started off working in PR at a time where we would lick envelopes and stamp them and to walk them to the post office. I thought this is a young person's game. I'm not sure that I can actually go back with the speed of how things are changing and how little I understand. At that time I didn’t understand social media yet. It’s changing now. I thought, what am I gonna do? And just coincidentally I have a, you wouldn't expect it, but I have a happy band of hippy friends in Dubai and just coincidentally a lot of my friends of vegan here.

And one of my, it was in the middle of the pandemic, and we all went through the same thing. We were all in our kind of our bubbles and they got engaged. And I felt blue that maybe couldn't celebrate this with that many. So I took our little bubble and I thought I was gonna create a nine-course vegan dish.

Karina Inkster: Oh wow!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Which the only thing, the only food I could think of, and at the time I wasn't vegan at all, they were. And the only thing I could think of ever whenever I feel like vegetarian or vegan food is cook Ghanaian food because it's interesting. Cause you know, I tried pasta and tomato sauce and couldn't think of anything else a few times. And after that, I kind of run out of ideas. So I thought, I know, I’ll cook this nine-course Ghanaian dish. And I think around that table, we would've been about seven nationalities.

Karina Inkster: Wow!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And everybody responded very well to everything I served. And this coincided around the time I had just lost my job. And I thought, you know, the whole thing I'd always known, people told you, you know, make your career what you love doing. And then I would look up a little bit like, you know, that's such a massive blind spot. And then I would think of the things I love doing and think I don't really love anything that's gonna make me any money. And I just didn't think of cooking or food. I just didn't. And so when I did, the other mistake I made is I ran into it without stopping to really do my full research, thinking yay! I've come across it.

Karina Inkster: Oh you know, you can course-correct as you go along, I’m sure!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Yeah. But what I didn't realize and I hadn't worked anywhere else, is what I didn't stop to think about is both, you know, the cutthroat market of meal delivery. And also the rules and regulations around it.

Karina Inkster: Right.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So I actually just thought I could just kind of open up a kitchen in my house and send people some packages and, you know, have a pretty little logo and bows and when it becomes known go do the next part. And it wasn't that at all, you know? In Dubai, like anywhere else I'm sure, it's very, very, very highly regulated and I had to go through all the food safety. I can only cook from an official kitchen of course. I mean, you know, my ideas, I just didn't know.

So this was a very steep learning curve and also meal delivery - I dunno how it works in Canada, but here we have more of a meal delivery society I think than most Western places I know, simply because labour is cheaper because of the way the society runs, and also because of the heat of the summer. So it means that's very much a delivery culture because if you can afford for somebody to walk through that heat to get something for you, you are not going to do it yourself in our four months in the summer.

Karina Inkster: Good Point. Yeah. Yeah.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So there's very much like, I think this is one of the only few places I know that McDonald's and BurgerKing deliver.

Karina Inkster: Wow. Yeah, probably. Haha!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Yeah so meal delivery is a very big thing here. So I thought that was a good thing for me, therefore, but actually, once I entered it, I realized what was actually happening in the aggregate, the meal delivery people are expecting to pick up the food from you in 12 to 15 minutes.

Karina Inkster: Oh wow!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So that they can deliver it, in turn. I’m sure it probably happens like that in Canada as well when you look at your apps or whatever so that they can deliver it within 30 to 45 minutes. And it was a bit like, then I realized even if I could cook five different courses for people in 15 minutes, I'm not sure I want to, because what am I cooking them in?

Karina Inkster: Good point!

Nana-Serwa Mancell: You know, I'm going and what am I cooking them in and blasting it and microwave and how long has it been out? And how long has this half-cooked thing going to stay in the fridge? So that model isn't really working as I thought it would. But then I'm so new to that. But then I went to compete. I've always been very, very opinionated and always been very much a party girl. So it's funny that doing what I'm doing brings these things together. So I always enjoyed cooking on my own. I would have big meals and parties for about 60 people and I would put it on my own.

Karina Inkster: Wow.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And do a, you know, a massive six-course thing and I love the fiddling. And I love being in that kinda space. And then I found that with my business actually, the direction I'm going in is using my food and my political views more to join with events and markets rather than meal delivery.

And in terms of business sense, cause I'm a new business, you know, I'm in my kitchen and I might get four orders and might make $25 - whoopee doo. Whereas if I put the same time into being at an event, I might then sell 40 dishes with the same effort in the same time. And then I’ve found now people are coming to me with all these awesome ideas. I think what's happened, I don't know about your world, but certainly in mine, ever since the pandemic and so many people losing their jobs, there's been this explosion of creativity.

Karina Inkster: Absolutely.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: In what people are doing and without even having to market myself that much, really every week, somebody's inviting me to cook for something awesome. Or to come and run a stall at something. So we are definitely going in the direction more and more of doing catering and cooking for events.

Karina Inkster: That’s awesome.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: And also, therefore, I'm going in the direction of thinking, what do I want to do and creating these events. So for say at the moment, I'm busy trying to organize - I don't know if you've heard of Fela Kuti? Fela Kuti is the West African, he's the West African Miles Davis with the kind of charisma of say, with the kind of charisma of James Brown.

Karina Inkster: Okay. Gotcha.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: But was a very, very political figure. Now I've said it, I bet you’ll know - there was a Broadway show which won awards, which went to London just about Fela’s life. And he very much spoke against the then military government in Nigeria and to this day, and he declared his compound - he married 27 women. Fela decided he doesn't wanna remember that too much, but he had this compound that he declared as an independent republic and it’s called The Shrine, where his band would practice and people would drop in. And to this day, if you go to Lagos people go to The Shrine and Paul McCartney has this famous quote where he said, you know, The Shrine was the first time music would reduce him to tears or something.

Karina Inkster: Oh, wow.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So it has that kind of power. And so there's a day called Celebration, which is celebrated very much so in Nigeria and also across the world to celebrate Fela's legacy. So I can now use my brand to do something like that. So today I've written to like somebody who does what they call independent cinema here to say, can you show one of the things from that documentary? And I've been speaking to the Nigerians. If I think Ghanaian food is healthy, Nigerian food really uses leaves to the next level in a way that I don't know. So I'm cooking myself and thinking cooking this pretty generic, but there's a whole layer of, as you say, of the differences.

So Nigerians use leaves and it's all the leaves are medicine kind of thing. They're not overcooked, you know, very healthy stuff. So I'm trying to do a celebration event here in Dubai, where I'm gonna try and find somebody to show one of the documentaries and find musicians to interpret some of the styles of Fela, and then also have a more Nigerian-specific menu rather than my generic West African. So I can do stuff like that, which also I don't know if you've heard of the writer, Chimamanda? She’s not so young anymore, but she has a famous podcast where she talks about the danger of a single story. And I mean, I said this when I interviewed her, it is the same as my very wrong perception of veganism; the danger that I saw it as this thing for, you know, for only white women.

So the danger of a single story about Africa is what I’m trying to fight against. Say: there's so many things that go on here. And we have characters like Fela, who in the sixties and seventies was being invited to play all across America, was being invited to play across Europe. I think his mother died from jumping out of a window. His compound was invaded so many times by the then military dictatorship. I mean, he's such a - he would be on stage bare-chested, and he used to make songs in the three, four minutes thing. And he had these songs that would go on for 15 minutes. I mean, he's a fascinating character for sure. So I want more people to know about him. He comes from West Africa. You know, there’s so much that I want to do with that kinda fun.

Karina Inkster: Wow! That's amazing. And I love this concept of, you know, the danger of one story coming out of an entire continent. You know, that's pretty huge.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: I mean there's but most - I dunno if you've heard about her - I actually, I was completely humbled when I, cause I actually thought I would do something special with my Veghana, and then I came across this woman and I just went, wow! Somebody got there before me and is doing it in such a beautifully authentic way. She is both so true and authentic and amazing. And her name is the Canadian vegan, or Canadian Ghanaian, something like that. But if you ever have time, please do find her.

Karina Inkster: Oh I think I might actually already, I think I follow her on Instagram.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: So she, it's almost like I'm doing things in a little bit of a - so also, cause I worked in communications, I'm very aware that preaching doesn’t work, so -

Karina Inkster: Oh yeah! I fully agree with that.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: I have it in my head that this is the mission, to stop eating meat, but it's not what I'm gonna say or have been.

Karina Inkster: Right. Of course. Yeah.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: But she, it's both entertaining and both has a way of talking about our food. So I how was going do to anything with my food now! But she was definitely there before me doing what I'm I'm trying to do.

Karina Inkster: Yeah. Well, this is fascinating. I've gotta let you go in one minute, but I wanna ask you about your trip to Vancouver because that's the closest big city to me. I don't know if you know BC, but we’re actually six hours away from Vancouver. My husband and I moved to a very small Oceanside town. There's only 13,000 people here. We moved in 2018, but from Vancouver. So that's where I grew up. That's the city I know best. And I hear that you were there once.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: I was there a long time ago and I was, when I left university, I was very privileged to work for something called The Royal Commonwealth Society which is a massive building, in Trafalgar Square in London. And when I first worked there, it was still very much run by people who had worked in the colonies in various parts of the Commonwealth. These older people who were all knighted and amazing people. And then you had these Royal Commonwealth Society outposts around the place. And so the Canadian one would have a conference once a year and they would invite somebody from, you know, the top of this Royal Commonwealth Society. It’s one of the charities.

And so about the time I got there, they decided to modernize and hire, you know, younger people from diverse backgrounds such as me and fortunately that was what was happening in the new labor in terms of labour movement and all that. But the rest of the Commonwealth was quite different that way. It was just, I remember they had invited Sir Oliver Foster. He was called to come and speak at the Canadian one. And he was invited every year. They would organize these dinner parties. You can imagine. And that year, the year of the modernization, they decided to send me. And I would've been about 23 with my afros. Not at all what they were expecting. 

Everybody was really sweet about it, but it was kind of, there was an elephant in the room like, wow, you are not Sir Oliver Foster! We invited all these top Canadians to come to the dinner to be addressed by Sir Oliver Foster and then comes along this fresh new graduate from Ghana. But they were lovely. And I absolutely loved that.

Karina Inkster: Oh yeah! Vancouver nowadays is like vegan Mecca basically. I mean, there's so many restaurants that are entirely vegan, all sorts of different ethnic cuisines, all sorts of different backgrounds. My husband and I actually are just going this weekend. It takes about six hours to get by car because it involves two ferries, but it takes 20 minutes on a tiny little plane. So we're taking the plane. It's our anniversary. So we're going. And basically, the only thing on our agenda is food. Like all of the amazing vegan food in Vancouver, which was probably a different scene when you were there, honestly.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: I did have time to spend in kinda downtown and did go to Chinatown and saw all the kinda colourful vibrant shops there.

Karina Inkster: Oh perfect! Yeah. That's the one thing that we miss living in a small town is just the diverse food options and also the vegan specific restaurants where you can just go in there and order whatever you want from the menu and you know it's totally plant-based. That is something we miss well enjoy.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Well enjoy! Happy anniversary.

Karina Inkster: Oh, well thank you. And Nana, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was fantastic speaking with you. This is a total learning experience for me and I actually look forward to going and looking up some recipes. In our business, my coach colleague, Zoe and I have a group of clients who cook something of their choice from a different country every month. And so I'm thinking we should put Ghana in there as our next one and do some research around recipes and we might be hitting you up for some tips if that's okay.

Nana-Serwa Mancell: Absolutely! Great, sounds great. Thank you so much. I'd love to give tips to you.

Karina Inkster: That would be awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Much appreciated. Nana, thank you for speaking with me. Much appreciated. Connect with Nana at our show notes, If you'd like to support the show, the best way to do that is to leave a quick star rating and review on Apple Podcast or whatever other podcast platform you use. It's a big help for new listeners to find this show, and I read every review. Thanks so much.

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