Ceci Tadfor’s Cameroonian Menu
Celebrates Cuisine from Africa’s Best-Kept Secret

Words and Photos by Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers

When Cameroonian chef, culinary instructor, and cookbook author Cecilia (Ceci) Tchakounte Tadfor stepped off the plane onto US soil in 1984, the first place she went was the grocery store.

“Growing up in Cameroon, men were the only ones who ate gizzards,” says Tadfor, who created Ceci’s African Kitchen in 2009. “I came here and on my first day in the country, I walk into a grocery store and see packages of gizzards. It blew my mind!” One of her first orders of business was to break taboo and taste these forbidden innards, an experiment that proved disappointing. “They were so overrated!” she says. This became the first of many new culinary experiences Tadfor would have living in the States, including in Santa Fe, where she has been sharing her knowledge and food since 1992. Today Ceci works out of her home kitchen, creating savory Cameroonian dishes and decadent desserts for catered events, as well as takeout and delivery.

To write about Tadfor is to write about the history of Cameroon, a country nestled along the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. First colonized by the Portuguese in 1472, Cameroon has since felt the influences of German, French, and British culture and cuisine, melding it with the foods of 240 indigenous groups, including the Pygmies, as well as Bantu-, Semi-Bantu-, and Sudanic-speaking ethnic groups. With so many different cooks in the kitchen, it comes as no surprise that Cameroonian food is perhaps the best-kept secret in gastronomy.

“I love to teach because Cameroon has one of the most spectacular cuisines in the world,” says Tadfor. This cuisine, she laments, is largely overlooked because of the country’s inability to promote itself, due in part to its political situation. Cameroon has been in a civil war since 2017 and currently faces serious food scarcity issues, which the United Nations reports result in 90 percent of the country’s people
requiring some sort of humanitarian support. But, through the simple act of creating and sharing meals, Tadfor gifts us with the complexity of her country’s culture and history—beyond the one-dimensional lens through which Africa is so often presented.

“I want to show Cameroonian food to the rest of the world,” says Tadfor, “so that maybe they can see what I see in this food,” which she describes as coming from a culture that celebrates life with good food, fine wine, and great music.

Through cooking classes and traditional African dishes, Tadfor shares the story of her native Cameroon. For Tadfor, that narrative also includes her story of immigration, which comes through in the fusion of Western and, in particular, New Mexican ingredients. Tadfor’s menu, which she makes available for pickup, delivery, and event catering, invites us not only into her story but into a culinary legacy that is passed from Cameroonian woman to Cameroonian girl.

When she was a culinary instructor teaching African cuisine at the Santa Fe Community College, Santa Fe Indian School, and the Cooking with Kids Program, people would often ask Ceci how she was able to teach without any formal training. But in Cameroon, there is no better classroom than the family kitchen, and no degree more difficult to receive than a grandmother’s stamp of approval on a dish, which is exactly how Tadfor honed her skills.

“[Mami Ncha] would taste something I made and say, ‘What’s this?’” Tadfor remembers, explaining that this was her grandmother’s way of telling her it did not meet her standards. “She would tell me, ‘You don’t serve food to other people without tasting it first. That’s like serving poison.’”—advice Tadfor adheres to and requires of her students to this day.

Born with a disability that prevented her from walking to the family farm in Buea—a town nestled at the eastern slopes of Mount Cameroon—Tadfor’s responsibility fell to working alongside her grandmother in their home kitchen. Together, they would prepare meals to have ready when her family returned from the farm, which produced a myriad of crops such as plantain, cocoyam, guava, papaya, avocado, and more. The seeds planted in those fields became the meals she learned to cook at an early age under her grandmother’s tutelage.

Last year, Tadfor published her first cookbook, Ceci’s African Kitchen: A Chronicle of Cameroonian Cuisine and Culture. This collection is full of traditional recipes found in the English-speaking part of Cameroon where Tadfor was raised. Many have been carried down from her grandmother, who learned them from elder women in her family, and they from their elders, as is the custom of many cultures around the world where women keep the home fires burning and take special pride in the food they serve family and friends.

This year, Tadfor is due to release a second cookbook, a collection of recipes that will reflect her time spent in Santa Fe, bringing in our beloved chile and other Western ingredients she has learned to work into her cuisine out of both necessity and a love for the flavor. But some African flavors just can’t be duplicated, and Tadfor’s kitchen is stocked with the most important hard-to-find spices and ingredients, sourced from big cities around the United States or brought back from trips home to Cameroon. Spices like njangsang, jowe, bebeh, and country onion are staples in any Cameroon kitchen, and are all used in one of her most popular dishes, poisson braisé, a grilled red snapper served whole and garnished with fried plantains and tomatoes.

Bitter leaf is another common ingredient, which Tadfor dries and freezes to have handy for a bowl of ndole, a stew that combines this bitter West African green with blanched peanuts, shrimp, beef, and smoked fish. Ndole is served with a side of fufu, a West African staple made from boiled and mashed cassava, rice, corn, or even plantains. Fufu is West Africa’s twist on mashed potatoes and gravy—with the fufu typically dipped by hand into the soup or sauce instead of being smothered with it.

In addition to these hearty entrées, Ceci’s African Kitchen offers a few handheld options that can be ordered by the half or full dozen, such as koki corn and akara beans. Koki corn is a tamale-esque dish that blends fresh corn with palm oil, spinach, and smoked turkey in a roll that is then wrapped in a banana leaf, steamed, and served in its wrapper. Akara beans are a Cameroonian delicacy comprising black-eyed peas that have been soaked, skinned, blended, and fried into cakes that are served with hot sauce.

Tadfor’s belief in feeding others from the heart extends beyond Ceci’s African Kitchen. She also serves as the chef trainer at Santa Fe Youth Works, an organization that provides education and job training services to help marginalized youths reconnect with their community. Here, she feeds the approximately twelve hundred youth a year who come to them seeking help, and is part of a team that makes and delivers nutritious meals to local shelters—three times a day, seven days a week.

Orders can be placed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with pickup and delivery on Thursdays and Fridays. 505-395-8931 or 505-577-0119, ceci@cecisafricankitchen.com

Follow at: @ceciafricankitchen2018, cecisafricankitchen.com

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