Having delighted fans with her deliciously imaginative Sierra Leonese cuisine, Maria Bradford has now written a cookbook championing the food of her homeland

Building a successful career in food is one thing, being asked to write a cookery book another – but then having that cookery book recommended on her Instagram feed by no less a culinary national treasure than Nigella Lawson catapults everything into a whole new dimension. Little wonder, then, that Rainham-based Maria Bradford is in buoyant mood when we speak. Mind you, Maria was just as upbeat during our last conversation – and that positivity, teamed with her innovative approach to the flavours of her native Sierra Leone and her passion for ‘changing the narrative’ about her homeland, no doubt goes a long way towards explaining her success.

Sweet Salone is Maria’s first cookery book – its title taken from the Krio (Krio being one of the country’s now most widely-spoken languages) and translating as ‘Sweet Sierra Leone’ – a phrase often applied to the country by those who live there. ‘When the publishers suggested it as a title for the book, it just seemed to sum everything up,’ says Maria.

Great British Life: Maria on location for the book, looking out over Freetown Credit Dave BrownMaria on location for the book, looking out over Freetown Credit Dave Brown

Published earlier this summer, the book comes six years after Maria pivoted from her career in finance at Medway Council and decided to devote herself full time to a career in catering. She had first come to Kent from her home in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown as a teenager to finish her education, staying with a guardian in West Malling. While she went on to study finance at Greenwich University followed by work in the world of business, the food of her homeland stayed central to her life. As the eldest daughter, back home she’d had responsibility for preparing aspects of the family meal from a young age, cooking up rice and sauces. ‘I’d learned all about food from my beloved grandmother, mother and the women of the community – how to prepare dishes such as jollof rice, the grain fonio and peanut-rich dishes and stews.’

In the UK, as well as cooking Sierra Leonean food for family and friends, Maria used to take dishes she’d made into work: ‘colleagues would get very excited,’ she recalls.

‘I then agreed to cater for 60 people at a cousin’s wedding, and on the back of that, catered for the wedding of someone I didn’t know. At that point I realised I was on to something, because the positive feedback wasn’t only from friends and family, but from strangers, too.’

Great British Life: Maria cooking with local women in Sierra Leone Credit Dave Brown Maria cooking with local women in Sierra Leone Credit Dave Brown

She set up her own company, Shwen Shwen – Krio for ‘fancy’, which is a good description of her fine-dining approach – back in 2017. It was a steep learning curve that saw Maria calling on friends and family to help with serving and food preparation under her instruction – and investing, too, in tableware. ‘I’ve never made things easy for myself, because from the first presentation has been such a big thing for me – I wanted everything plated.’ From then on, the visual beauty of her food has been something that her customers appreciate and that adds to the uniqueness of what she offers.

The wedding led to further events and – with Maria posting details of everything on Instagram – she got a call asking her to cater for cocktail hour for 1,000 people, followed by a six-course meal for 350 a few days later at a hotel in Sierra Leone. Back in the UK, she also added to her offering by selling some of her drinks and condiments, such as her chilli sauce, at Kent farmers’ markets. ‘Produced in Kent were so helpful when I started – they put me in touch with people who knew about professional bottle-labelling and food presentation,’ she recalls. ‘I’d had some problems when I started out because things had a very short shelf life. I’m too busy to do farmers’ markets these days, but it’s thanks to Produced in Kent that I’m able to offer a range of ambient food products via mail order.’

You’d think by this stage Maria might have considered herself a fully fledged professional but, for her, there was still a problem: ‘I didn’t like being called chef – I wasn’t one – and it started to feel as if needed to have some actual training, to earn the title.’ She solved the issue by enrolling for a short course at the prestigious Leith’s school of food and wine in London. ‘They couldn’t have been more supportive – they looked at my CV and said, ‘You’re already at the point career-wise that many of our students are still dreaming about.’

Great British Life: Maria stirring the pot on location in Sierra Leona Credit Dave BrownMaria stirring the pot on location in Sierra Leona Credit Dave Brown

Nevertheless, Maria says the course was invaluable in terms of helping her develop her skills in menu planning and food preparation and in improving her confidence. She’s since gone from strength to strength, catering for everything from private dinner parties and corporate events, to weddings and supper clubs. In 2021, literary agent Elise Dillworth spotted her comments and images online and asked her if she’d consider pitching the idea of a cookbook on Sierra Leonese food. ‘I told my husband, Ben, quite casually over dinner that Elise had reached out to me with the idea, and he was far more excited than I was, as at that stage I just didn’t see myself as a cookery writer.’

Maria and Ben met at university and are parents to daughter Charlie, 18 and son Chase, aged nine. ‘Ben reminded me that I’d be writing recipes since he’d first known me. In fact, he went up into the loft and produced a folder of about 20 recipes I’d written back when we first met. Basically, he pointed out that I’d already started the work – putting it into a book would just be a question of finishing it!’

Great British Life: Maria on location for the book Credit Dave BrownMaria on location for the book Credit Dave Brown

Elise pitched Maria’s book and, though other publishers were keen, Maria felt that Quadrille, ‘just got what I was trying to do’ from the beginning. Moreover, they recognised the need to illustrate the book with photos taken back in Sierra Leone. The result was a shoot back on her old turf with photographer Dave Brown, with images that convey not only the food, but the richness of Sierra Leone’s culture. Says Maria in the foreword to her book ‘Returning to my great grandmother’s village in the Bandajuma Bagbo chiefdum was an emotional experience. The tranquility was lovely and I didn’t realise how much I have missed commensality. ‘Commensality’, the act of eating together, is an important human ritual that has benefits that go beyond the biological need for food, as is well established among food studies scholars. There’s something in the process and the sense of community, the shared experience of cooking and eating together, that is really special.’

It’s that ‘commensality’ and its importance that the book so beautifully conveys. Alongside rich accounts of Sierra Leone’s history and culture are recipes covering everything from street food to afro-fusion food, traditional mains, deserts and nibbles. Maria’s love of her homeland, its culture and customs shines through on every page. ‘Yes, I want people to use this as a recipe book – to experiment with new flavours and with new ingredients, many of which, thankfully, are now more widely available here in the UK. From the first my aim was to open people’s eyes to all that Sierra Leone has to offer, to rewrite the narrative in a way that highlights all that’s good about life there. If my book succeeds in doing that, I’m happy.’


Great British Life: Sweet Salone by Maria BradfordSweet Salone by Maria Bradford

Sweet Salone by Maria Bradford is published by Quadrille at £30 - for a taste of what to expect, try these mouth-watering recipes, taken from Maria's book

Great British Life: Maria's Mojito (c) Yuki SugiuraMaria's Mojito (c) Yuki Sugiura

Maria's Mojito

Serves 1

5 lime wedges

5 blackberries

8 mint leaves

40ml (1¼oz) Shwen Purple Haze (lavender and coconut water)

soda water (club soda), to top up

mint sprig, to garnish

Muddle lime wedges, blackberries and mint leaves in a small jug, crushing the mint leaves and berries as you go. Pour into an ice-filled Collins glass and pour over the Purple Haze lavender and coconut water, stirring with a long-handled spoon. Top up with soda water and garnish with mint sprig to serve.

Great British Life: Pepe Chicken (c) Yuki SugiuraPepe Chicken (c) Yuki Sugiura

Pepe Chicken

This is party food. There are 54 beautiful countries in Africa and one thing they all have in common is African culture. We are party people. Our culture encompasses a love of celebrations that combine food, fashion, music and dance. In my view, no party is complete without pepe chicken. Street vendors in Freetown grill this over hot charcoal throughout the night and it is perfect pre- or post-club. My Salone Fire Chilli Sauce, which is available to buy on my website, is a perfect accompaniment in which fire and flavour dance together (or use chilli sauce of your choice).

Serves 6 – 8

10–12 chicken thighs

For the Pepe marinade

2 large onions (about 450g)

20g garlic (about 5 cloves)

25g fresh ginger

50ml lemon juice

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp West African Pepper Blend

(see below)

2 stalks lemongrass

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 tsp ground coriander

2 tsp salt (or to taste)

200g unsalted peanut butter (use one without palm oil)

30g tomato purée

130g fresh tomatoes, chopped (about 1 medium tomato)

1 stock cube (use one without MSG) dissolved in 300ml hot water or 300ml

chicken, beef, fish or vegetable stock

2–3 scotch bonnet chillies, seeds left in, to taste

For the pepe marinade, put all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth and well combined.

Transfer to a saucepan and cook on medium heat for 10–15 minutes, stirring from time to time to prevent sticking, until the marinade has reduced and thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Let the marinade cool.

Put the chicken thighs in a large glass or ceramic bowl, pour over half the marinade (you can freeze the rest or keep it for up to 1 week covered in the  fridge) and massage it well into the chicken. Cover and set aside to marinate in the fridge for 2–3 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200ºC/180ºC fan/400ºF/gas mark 6.

Arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer in a baking tin. Roast for 35–40 minutes, basting occasionally, until cooked through (they are ready when the juices run clear when pierced in the thickest part of the thigh with a skewer).

Note: In the warmer months, the thighs can be cooked on the barbecue. Baste them regularly and turn them frequently until they are cooked through, as above.

Great British Life: Maria on location for the book Credit Dave BrownMaria on location for the book Credit Dave Brown

West African Pepper Blend

This aromatic and spicy blend is at the heart of many of my dishes.

2½ tsp grains of paradise

2 tbsp black peppercorns

2 tbsp white peppercorns

1 tbsp cubeb pepper

3 tbsp allspice berries

Toast all the peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat

until fragrant. Allow to cool then grind in a spice grinder

or pestle and mortar. Store in an airtight jar. It will stay

fresh for up to 3 months.

Great British Life: Fish Ball Stew (c) Yuki SugiuraFish Ball Stew (c) Yuki Sugiura

Fish Ball Stew

I’m frequently fascinated by how resourceful we Sierra Leoneans are. When I was a child, I loved eating fish balls. Cooking fish balls was actually part of my mother’s strategy to make ends meet. Women in Sierra Leone are very resourceful, and when things are tight and a household is under stress, they employ certain strategies to mitigate the situation. This may be the consumption of less-expensive ingredients and dishes. My mother’s fish balls made a little go a long way, using inexpensive fish, onions, herbs, peanut butter and spices.

Coping strategies like this are often employed by families in Sierra Leone.

The memories and techniques have stayed with me, and I have re-created my mum’s dish here. 

SERVES 6 – 8

For the Fish Balls

500g (1lb 2oz) haddock fillet or any firm white fish, cut into chunks

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 scotch bonnet chilli, chopped

½ thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

4 tsp sugar-free, no-salt smooth peanut butter (use one made without palm oil) 

1 fish or chicken stock cube (use one without MSG), crumbled

oil, for deep frying


For the stew

120ml (4fl oz/½ cup) cold-pressed

coconut oil

500g (1lb 2oz) onions (about 2 large), finely chopped

2–3 tsp Salone Fire Chilli Sauce (or chilli sauce of your choice), or to taste

200g (7oz) fresh tomatoes, chopped 

1–2 tsp tomato purée (paste)

1 thyme sprig

1 bay leaf

For the fish balls, put all the ingredients, except the oil, in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely minced.

Take a walnut-size piece of the mixture and form it into a ball. Using a slotted spoon, drop it carefully into the hot oil and cook until golden brown. Remove using a slotted spoon, leave to cool, then taste for seasoning. Add salt as needed to the fish ball mixture and mix well. Using a teaspoon, form the mixture into walnut-size balls. Put the balls on a tray ready to fry.

Heat the oil in a large, deep, heavy-based pan no more than half full. Test it’s hot enough by dropping a piece of onion into the oil. If it sizzles, rises to the surface and browns in 30–40 seconds, then the oil is ready.

Carefully fry the balls in batches, ensuring each batch is cooked through and brown (cut one open from each batch to test). Remove from the oil using a slotted spoon and set aside.

For the stew, heat the coconut oil in a clean pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cover with a crumpled piece if damp baking paper, ensuring it sits right on the surface of the onions. Cook over gentle heat, checking from time to time, until the onions are well softened and turning golden brown. This process can take up to 1 hour and cannot be rushed as it is the gentle cooking of the onions and the caramelization that gives this stew its rich and slightly sweet taste.

When the onions are cooked, add the Salone Fire Chilli Sauce, chopped tomatoes, tomato purée (paste), thyme and bay leaf. Cook, stirring, for 1–2 minutes then add the fried fish balls. It’s very important that no liquid is added to the stew.

Stir and simmer for about 5 minutes, then taste the sauce and season as needed.

Serve with rice, boiled cassava or fonio.