The first thing that hits you is the smell. The pea-sized néré pods from the néré tree may be small but they pack a powerful olfactory punch. Once transformed into mouth watering soumbala, they’re a crucial addition to a host of traditional meals eaten all across West Africa.
For this episode of the Star Ingredient, we’re travelling to Burkina Faso, the landlocked west African nation of 22 million people, to meet Burkinabé chef and restaurant manager, Franceline Tranagda.
She is one of Burkina Faso’s most fiercely committed advocates of her native country’s traditional dishes and has devoted much of her life to promoting a food culture that she describes in french as “bon, propre et juste”. Good, clean and fair.
But there is one ingredient that has loomed large over all others in her culinary imagination.
From her girlhood days making sauce with her mother to producing food products with fellow Burkinabé women in her community restaurant, Delwende, the incontournable, the ‘must have’ ingredient, has always been Soumbala.
This fermented seed condiment is made from the seeds of the néré tree which is grown widely across West Africa. Usually prepared over the course of several days, it often comes in the form of soumbala balls that are used to flavour everything from meat and stews to soups and rice.
“The smell is similar to camembert. Yeah, I always say it’s like camembert or African mustard,” says Franceline.
“It has a strong smell. But when you don’t add the soumbala, you can sense that there is some flavour missing”.
Franceline grew up in Burkina Faso’s thrumming capital of Ouagadougou.
Like many of the chefs we’ve encountered over the course of this series, Franceline’s passion for food was cultivated and nurtured at home.
She picked up her culinary skills by watching her mother, her grandmother and her neighbours prepare traditional Burkinabé food as a young girl.
Born into a modest family, Franceline credits the fact that both her parents were school teachers who valued education with giving her a head start in life. As an adult, she has endeavoured to share her good fortune with others.
In 1999, Franceline founded Femmes de l’avenir, Women of the future, an association to aid marginalised Burkinabé women access small loans and generate their own incomes.
But it wasn’t until Franceline became involved with the global Slow Food movement that she decided to mount a project that could marry her twin passions: Helping Burkinabé women bolster their independence and promoting local, traditional dishes.
The result was the restaurant Delwende.
“This restaurant has a really important mission because long term, I want to open a training centre for preparing local dishes where I train young women and housewives who don’t know how to cook our traditional meals,” Franceline explains.
At Delwende, Franceline works with local women, preparing dishes for the community, inviting them to share in a variety of traditional Burkinabé fare like gonré, zamné, boal boala, babenda and of course, soumbala rice.
The philosophy behind the project is simple. “It's really to consume what we produce…We need to have this maturity, this culture of being able to consume what we produce and consume local ingredients, ones that are available in our country that we can use and value,” says Franceline.
But protecting culinary heritage only partly explains the urgency of Franceline's mission.
According to the World Food Programme, in 2022, 3.5 million people faced acute food insecurity in Burkina Faso. Political instability and conflict, driven by an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the north and east of the country, have created an increasingly volatile food-security situation.
Today, events beyond the country’s borders, like the Russia-Ukraine war, are also making the country even more vulnerable to food supply shocks and soaring prices.
At the heart of Franceline’s mission is a desire to promote food sovereignty in Burkina Faso by championing the changing Burkinabé attitudes to their own traditional foods.
And as you’ll hear in this podcast, for her, the best place to start is within her own community.
Franceline’s Boal Boala recipe
For the soup
Soumbala, made from boiled néré seeds
- Meat of your choosing (chicken, mutton or beef)
For the dough balls
- Millet flour
- Fry the onions and tomatoes in oil for a few minutes, then add to water in a pot.
- Add your meat and soumbala to the pot and bring the water to the boil. Then let it simmer.
- Knead the millet flour and water together to make small balls of dough.
- Add the dough balls to the soup.
- Let the soup simmer for another few minutes until the meat is cooked and the flavours come together. Then serve.
If you’re hungry for more recipes and stories around indigenous African ingredients, listen to the previous episodes of our series.
The podcast The Star Ingredient was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.