San Toro

18 Nov 2005

Aminata Traoré, former minister for Culture and Tourism in Mali, as well as an African voice for the promotion of an alternative world, is passionately committed to the idea of fundamental changes for Africa.

Aminata is an ardent supporter of African solutions in the fields of food, textiles and construction and, ten years ago, she created San Toro, a restaurant cum art gallery in the Hippodrome quarter on the Koulikoro road in Bamako.

This initiative permitted not only the creation of job opportunities but has also ensured commercial outlets for local artisans exhibiting their work at San Toro.

The building (painted, sculpted and welded) is extremely elegant and totally Malian whilst in the great courtyard shielded from the dusty road, two musicians entertain the guests by playing the balafon, an African xylophone, and the cora, the famous mandingue instrument of the Griots, the musician-storytellers who are guardians of traditional art and culture.

Mali is a mosaic of ethnicities but, at San Toro, the gastronomic traditions are those of the main ethnic group – the Bambara – though the dishes are cleverly put together by the Dogon chefs hidden in the kitchens. A very self-effacing ethnic group, the Dogon live in the Falaise de Bandiagara, in the mid-Niger region. In this lunar landscape they are famous for their ability to construct the small stone dams indispensable for irrigation and cultivating shallots in terraces among the rocks.

The menu is based on fish from the River Niger (capitaine, (Lates niloticus), on long wrought-iron skewers ) or meat (‘bicycle chickens’ – little chickens that run around the city streets, mutton and beef). The accompanying vegetables are typical of this African sub-region: aloco, or fried plantains, salad of niébé, the tasty native black beans, rice or millet couscous, attiéké, or manioc semolina, or couscous of fonio, the symbolic African cereal that is very tasty but also very difficult to make. Fonio is considered the oldest of western African cereals and in Dogon cosmogony the fonio grain (called po) signifies the ‘seed of the world’.

Sauces that add a touch of color to these very refined dishes are made with coconut, groundnuts, baobab leaves and dates, which remind us that a large area of Mali is desert.

The drinks also follow this philosophy of ‘everything African’ – there are no globalized cans on the table – and meals are accompanied by wonderfully scented fruit juices of tamarind, bissap (hibiscus), ginger, mango and so on.

In the collective imagination and for most food critics, African cooking is still seen as a collection of very large and heavy meals of sameish cereals such as rice, millet, maize and so on, combined with an excess of fats – meals made for people working in the fields. However, habits change and follow the rhythms of a continent in flux. African gastronomy does exist and San Toro is a place where it can be best appreciated.

Though you can often find more westerners than Malians at the tables of San Toro, the cleverly revisited typical dishes that are a statement of the wealth of culture and resources available are an enticing expression of the ‘other’ Africa for which Aminata is a spokeswoman.

Sévérine Petit works for the Slow Food International Office

Translation by Nicola Rudge-Iannelli

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