My grandpa taught me to love cooking – I wish he could see the chef I am today

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When she was nine years old, Awa used to find learning to cook with her mother boring and stressful.

They cooked every day – mostly in the evenings around dinner time.

Her mum needed everything to be perfect so they’d have to follow the recipe to a tee. But all Awa wanted to do was play with her friends.

It wasn’t until her grandpa took over the kitchen that she fell in love with cooking.

Everything with him was fun – they’d sing and dance while making food together, then he’d tell fascinating stories from when he was in the army.

He’s the reason she became a chef. It’s also through her grandfather that she learnt to make bisap juice – a Gambian spicy hibiscus-flavoured drink.

Here, Awa tells us about the huge impact her grandad had on her cooking – and her life.

‘I never – ever! – used measurements when I cooked with my grandpa.

He used to tell me: ‘Follow your instincts and everything will be OK.’

Unfortunately, my grandpa passed away before he could see me live my dream as a chef. I wish he could have been here to see this because he was my best friend and the reason I do it.

The life lesson he gave me isn’t the only piece of advice of his that I still carry with me today.

When I was in a bad mood as a child and came to the kitchen to cook with him, he would just tell me to go and play: ‘Today, we’re not going to cook’. I happily obliged without asking why.

But when it happened again one day again, I asked him his reasoning He replied: ‘It’s not going to be fun if you are angry – you are going to cook s**t. If you are happy, you are going to cook delicious food.’

Since that day, whenever I enter the kitchen, I remember his words and they make me happy.

Bisap juice: How to make it

Ingredients:

  • 8L water
  • 6 inch piece of ginger, roughly chopped (no need to peel)
  • 10g hibiscus leaves
  • 3 lemons, sliced
  • 30g fresh mint
  • 300g brown sugar

Method:

Growing up in Gambia, the earlier years of my childhood were fun. My grandpa taught me how to make bisap juice, which he’d make for friends and family who came over to visit us. It’s a very popular drink you’d find in street stalls, too.

Different people can use varied ingredients – some of our neighbours did it with pineapple, while others just used fresh mint – but we went with ginger and lemon.

It’s an important recipe because it holds such a good memory for me with my grandpa, as my childhood was scarred in other ways.

When I was just nine years old, I went through female genital mutilation (FGM) . It’s a part of our culture and every female I know went through it. 

It often happened in September so that month is still difficult for me every year. I can’t do things like go on holiday and I always try to work a lot to distract myself.

Three years after my own FGM procedure, my younger sister had hers too. I remember talking to her right before it and telling her, ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine. We all go, and we all come back. You’ll recover after a month. Don’t be scared.’ But she didn’t come back and those were the last words I said to her.

Afterwards, I got very angry. I wanted to know more about FGM and why it is done. I started asking questions, but it was hard to get to talk about it or get any answers.

It was my grandpa who told me to get out of the country – he knew it was now very difficult for me to stay there, and I am so grateful to him for this.

In 2012, I traveled from Gambia to Tunisia and then three years later I came to the UK. Now I have a daughter – and I want to protect her.

I don’t want her to go through the things I went through, I just want her to be happy and to have a nice life.

About four years ago, my councillor told me about Migrateful – a charity that supports migrants, refugees and asylum seekers on their journey to integration through preparing them to run cooking classes.

First, I had six weeks of training, where I attended every Tuesday sharing food and recipes with the other Migrateful chefs in training. Then I had my first ever class – it was amazing.

Right before it, I actually got the call from my lawyer to say that I finally got my refugee status after two years! I was so happy and it felt like everything was falling into place.

I have met amazing people there – it’s like a family. I really love to go.

It’s through my love of cooking from my grandpa and my experience in Tunisia of learning about food that helped me get my head chef job at Comptoir Libanais in London – a Lebanese restaurant in Chelsea.

I love working there because of my colleagues. They are so nice and we always have jokes in the kitchen. If we are having a stressful day, my manager will try to make us laugh.

Even though I have my head chef job, I still like to be involved with Migrateful. I teach and attend other people’s classes, and I just love to socialise with everyone, seeing new faces – happy faces.

I have been teaching people to make things like bisap and other family recipes at Migrateful’s London public and private classes for over three years now.

I talk to my grandpa all the time, even though he’s not physically with me anymore. I tell him about all the things I’m doing.

Every time I enter the kitchen, I think of him telling me to ‘hit the music!’. I will never forget about him – especially as it helps me cook with joy and happiness from the heart.

You can make Awa’s bisap juice, as well as her Yassa chicken or mackerel and veg parcels at one of her Migrateful classes. For more information about Migrateful’s public and private cookery classes taking place across London, Bristol, Brighton, Kent and online, visit their website here.  

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October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of Black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.

For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.

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