My life in food: Idris Elba on African cuisine and cooking with his mum

The actor discusses African cuisine, personal chefs and learning to cook with his mum.

By Aleesha Hansel
Published 27 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT
Idris Elba.

Idris Elba.

Photograph by Alex Piper

Food from Sierra Leone, where my dad’s from, has been a big part of my life. Sweet potato leaf stew is something my mum would cook all the time, it was my absolute favourite. Coming home after school to those home-cooked meals is a fond memory.

I can cook. I love to make groundnut stew with chicken and I’ve been told it’s good. It’s my mum’s recipe, she taught me to how cook it in the kitchen of my childhood home in London. She would talk me through all the ingredients and the importance of the cooking sequence 
— that’s the key.

When I started making my own breakfast as a kid, that was a big deal. Although it was pretty much just cereal and using the toaster, it gave me a huge sense of pride. Maybe this is why cooking breakfast is still so important to me 
— I love whipping up breakfast. I was always big on food presentation, too, from a young age.

Giving up red meat has changed my relationship with food. It’s made me think about alternatives a lot more. I have to get creative in the kitchen and think innovatively, because red meat was such a big part of my diet before. 

The most memorable meal of my life was in Rwanda. I was making Sometimes in April in the capital city, Kigali, back in 2003, and we had an intense and tight seven-week shooting schedule. When you’re in that situation with the same people all day every day, your downtime becomes incredibly important. One night I decided to walk around — I like veering off the tourist track to find what’s good — and came across this local place doing the most amazing freshwater fish. I ordered the tilapia — it was whole and huge. It had just been steamed and stuffed with onions, garlic, herbs and hot peppers. I can still remember the whole experience of being there.

I love African cooking but Jamaica is my favourite country for food. It has so much spice and flavour. I love escovitch fish [spiced, fried fish with veg and a vinaigrette], curry chicken, festivals [sweet fried dough] and fried dumplings. I went over earlier this year to record music, and have shot two films there, so I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know the island.

I’ve eaten grilled crocodile. I’ll try anything once, but that’s the most unusual and adventurous thing I’ve had. I tried it while filming in Australia, and it was interesting on the palate because it had a chicken-like texture but tasted more like fish.

I’d order any fish dish at Pitanga. It’s a small Nigerian restaurant run by Nky Iweka, close to where I live, in Fulham. Me and my wife love to visit — it’s my favourite restaurant in London. 

I met my personal chef at my wedding. King was brought in to cater for a particular part of the celebrations in Morocco and I loved his food immediately. We started hiring him for other special events and that soon turned into him working for me full-time. His style is an equal mix of African fusion and much-needed home comfort.

I was blown away by the beauty of the Champagne region. When me and my wife, Sabrina, visited, we went to a champagne house called Sanger. It was a sunny day and we started with an aperitif on the hillside, looking out to a horse ploughing the vineyard. We went back to the winery and I couldn’t believe how many underground cellars there were. I also had a try at disgorging a bottle of champagne. It all felt 
so traditional.

Details of Idris Elba’s wine brand, Porte Noire, and Porte Noire Restaurant and Wine Bar in London can be found at portenoire.co.uk.

Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022/23) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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