“If Nigella Lawson and Beyoncé had a baby” is how Lerato Umah-Shaylor once described herself – and she’s certainly hard to pigeonhole.
Born in Nigeria but now a proud resident of the Sussex seaside, Lerato has been, variously, a breakfast TV presenter, a producer, an economics student and a newspaper editor – before finding her groove as an acclaimed food writer and cook.
Her first book, Africana, cements her position as a leading voice in African cuisine. A vibrant celebration of cooking from across the continent, Africana shines with personal stories and sunshine flavours, from Tunisian Tagine to Spice Island Coconut Fish Curry.
With the book launch (“my biggest break and proudest accomplishment to date”) under her belt and a stay in our beach lofts fresh in her mind, we spoke to Lerato about everything from African afternoon tea to making the perfect Jollof…
She started ‘cooking’ with sand…
“My first memory of cooking is as a child; mixing sand and water and serving it on beautiful kids’ china. My ‘guests’ – family friends, neighbours, cousins and playmates – were all expected to pretend to eat and sigh with great satisfaction while I served my concoction.
I then moved onto flowers…and then real food! From my teens to university and beyond, the more I travelled, the more inspired and experimental I became – especially marrying African produce with other world flavours.”
She was an economist and journalist before professional chef…
“I studied economics at university in London, and always thought I’d work in development – helping countries grow out of economic, political and social malaise. This is still a great passion of mine, but somewhere along the way I become disillusioned with international organisations’ administrative processes, and slowly fell into the world of cookery.
I’ve worked as a journalist and newspaper editor, a TV presenter and producer, creating my own cookery show in Nigeria and presenting breakfast television. My first dive into the professional food world was as a columnist in a magazine. I couldn’t believe I could write about food and get paid for it.”
Africana is the book she wishes she’d had growing up…
“The book is a treasured collection of those secret whispers that have been passed on as recipes and stories from generations past; from my mother, grandmother, friends and family. Growing up, I needed a book that not only reflected, documented and celebrated my culture, experiences and food, but also that of as many people as possible from Africa and beyond.
Over the years I’ve increasingly realised just how under-represented food from the African continent was and still is – especially in mainstream media. Many people simply have no idea what it is or where to begin.
I hope Africana will bring us together as one, and inspire food lovers across the world to embark on a delicious adventure from your kitchen to this incredible continent.”
We already eat more African food than we realise…
“Africa as a continent is responsible for producing a lot of food enjoyed all over the world. Just look at the source of your ginger, squash, cocoa, teas, coffee, sesame/ tahini and many more ingredients we rely upon.
I want to inspire cooks to look to Africa for culinary enrichment. We’re not as far removed as we think. And what better way to connect with people, than through food?”
The taste of hibiscus takes Lerato right back to her childhood…
“Hibiscus is one of my favourite flavours, which I discovered as a child when I lived in the Republic of Benin.
After school, we’d rush outside to meet the women selling a refreshing brew of tangy iced hibiscus with fiery ginger, locally called bisaap or bissap. With a bucket-load each wrapped in cellophane and tucked on top of wrappers, expertly folded on their heads to ensure balance. To this day I don’t know how they balance such weight so gracefully.
I write extensively about hibiscus in Africana, and have since developed many recipes – from hibiscus syrup used in cocktails, to salad dressings, and marinades for lamb and fish.”
She started with ‘African Afternoon Tea’…
“My immersive events started around 2015, with African Afternoon Tea. This married the quintessentially English experience with bold, vibrant flavours from across Africa. I also used the opportunity to highlight the importance of fairly traded produce, while my guests enjoyed teas, coffee and cocoa products from Africa.
These experiences then developed into supper clubs. Guests would ask for many of the recipes, so a cookery school was the next logical step...
In my classes, I teach many African recipes, from traditional to modern and inventive. Most importantly, I teach how easily you can adapt these recipes using changing seasonal produce, and for various different diets.
The response has been phenomenal; slow at first, but my steadfastness is paying off! I’ve been able to inspire not only people at home, but also global brands to represent and celebrate foods from Africa.”
She’s a child of the coast…
“My paternal ancestry is from Akwa Ibom state in southern Nigeria; one of the most beautiful regions and a popular tourist destination. So perhaps it’s in my DNA to love being by the water. I also grew up in Lagos, which is practically an island with various other islands within.
It’s no surprise now that I live on the English coast, and I’m most at ease spending time by the water – whether in France or Ghana!”
She loves fish – but has a love-hate relationship with mackerel…
“I love the ease that comes with cooking fresh fish. Although it can take on massive flavour and spices, when you come by good fish, you don’t have to do much to enjoy it.
In West Africa, one of the most popular fish is tilapia, which is firm and flaky, with a mild flavour. It’s typically cooked with lots of chillies. From British waters, I love meaty monkfish – especially for fritters and in curries – and hake, a sweet and more assertive taste than the popular cod.
After being fed a lot of mackerel as a child, I now have a love-hate relationship with it – but when smoked, it does wonders to soups and stews.”
She finds the sea breeze refreshing, calming and inspiring…
“I scribbled a lot of my cookbook on the beach and after many relaxing beach walks, which I try to enjoy as often as possible. The outdoors is a powerful resource – not just for foraging, but also for learning, and inspiration.
There’s so much inspiration and produce from the sea that goes beyond cooking with fish. One of my favourite ingredients to cook with is seaweed and salty crisp samphire simply steamed or stir-fried in oil, garlic, ginger and sometimes chillies.”
She can’t now imagine NOT waking up beside the sea…
“Watergate Bay is such a dream. The hotel is a home away from home. I travelled from one coast to another, and the experience was impactful and memorable.
Visiting the Bay has been one of my most enjoyable beach experiences. Staying in a beach loft, I was spoilt by waking up to the sea right in front of me. Now this is all I’ll ever want from a beach holiday! I cannot wait to be back.”
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She has too many favourite recipes to name…
“Africana contains over 100 of my favourite recipes from across Africa, many traditional, some inspired, and others inventive. I have many favourites for different reasons.
Egusi reminds me of my mother; my three variations of Senegalese Yassa – a dish with caramelised onion, Dijon and citrus that is pure sunshine on a plate; plantain and prawn cakes, because I remember how excited I was when I first tested the recipe and couldn’t believe just how delicious it was; my smoky jollof that surprises me every time I cook it, it’s so rich in flavour, and I especially love it because I’ve taught jollof to thousands of people, and know the many pitfalls and reservations cooks have with it.
I’m really excited about people trying the fragrant fish in banana leaves, a spice blend of ginger and makrut lime leaves. The sticky apricot ‘Malva’ pudding is seriously indulgent, and a true taste of South Africa. The Berber buns stuffed with aromatic lamb and spices… I could go on and on!”
She’s preparing to host her first cooking holiday in Ghana…
“I’ll be taking guests from the bustling city of Accra to the coast, to enjoy a relaxing and enriching holiday, cooking together, visiting historical spots, and creating lasting memories in our off-grid ocean paradise.
We’ll also be supporting and empowering as many locals as possible; bringing back my early passion for contributing to economic and social development in Africa through the power of food.”
Discover more Lerato
Buy the book
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