Malaika: An Interview with Grammy-Award Winner Angélique Kidjo

Anyone who meets Angélique Kidjo quickly get a sense of this Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter’s tremendous journey, one that transported her from her native Benin and around the globe in a flurry of amazing music and inspiring activism. Although in the midst of recording a new album and writing her first book, Angélique was gracious enough to take the time to speak to us here at about her incredible story and even greater love of food and cooking.

Jeannette Park: Music and food are obviously two very important factors in your life. What do you see as the intersection between the two?

Angélique Kidjo: Both for me are quite the same. With food, when you have good ingredients you can take it wherever your want. The same is with song; if you have inspiration, you can take it wherever you want. It comes down to balance. It can’t be too salty, too spicy; it all has to have balance. You have to balance everything in life.

JP: What inspired you to start writing this book?

AK: Everything started with the death of my father in 2008. I did not want to lose the memory of the good times I spent with my father and everything he had allowed us to achieve through education and an open mind. I wanted to write my memories of being an African little girl raised in a poor family in a poor country, then eventually coming to New York. If you’re dreams are not big enough, then it's not worth talking about it.

JP: What were you’re dreams when you were younger?

AK: As a little girl, my dream was just to be happy. I grew up in a family of ten siblings, we didn’t have much but there was always singing, music, laughter, good food, sports, story telling. There’s this vision of poverty, but one may not have money, but is still rich spiritually and culturally. My mother always said you might not have food in your house, but you don’t have to go out and yell it to the world. Deal what your issues yourself. Hardship lets you engage with the world in an incredibly real way.

JP: There are a lot of recipes in your book, but what recipe or dish holds the most meaning for you?

AK: All recipes are meaningful for me. Why do I write an up-tempo beat, why do I write slow? I can’t tell you. I can’t just choose one recipe or food because each day is different and each day I am changing.  

JP: If you don’t have a favorite, do you have a broader philosophy on cooking and eating that you follow?

AK: In Benin vegetables are wonderful, but when I went you Europe they tasted so bland, like plastic or paper. I didn’t like that. Everything has to be a pleasure, for the eyes, for its taste, as a smell. Eating is about all your senses. The way you present your food stimulates your appetite. A good meal gives you the strength to continue the day; it’s a balance between body and mind. When I’m on tour, eating is difficult and stressful, so when I get home all I want to do is cook; I make sure I always have my vegetables.

JP: What are some of the typical dishes from Benin that you think more people should know about?

AK: I am from the southern part of Benin, which is next to the sea and there are lots of lakes and rivers. My ancestors are fishermen and so I eat a lot of fish. Also there is a lot of chicken. In Benin we called it bicycle chicken, because the skin is really firm; it just needs a little salt and pepper and it has a delicious taste.

I also eat lots of spinach; there are 11 different kinds of spinach back home. There are healing spinaches that you can also find in Cameroon that are used in hospitals to help people who can’t eat solid foods. They are bitter, but have a good balance; they clean the moth and clean the throat.

I also eat a lot of grilled foods. Near my house [in Benin], there are lots of Tuareg, who are nomads, and they bring their cows with them. There’s this dish that’s skewer of beef, with dry hot pepper, mixed with salt and pepper, and grilled. It’s lean and it’s absolutely wonderful.

JP: You’ve already lodged some complaints about European foods, but did you have a favorite dish from the time you spent living in Paris?

AK: I love crepes, because you can mix things, put things together. I also really liked the cakes; I really like sweet.

JP: You performed at some incredible venues and with some incredible musicians [multiple Nobel Peace Prize concerts and at the World Cup in South Africa to name a few]. Is there a performance that is most memorable or meaningful for you?

AK: There are so many of them. The most memorable one was when my mom pushed me on stage when I was six years old. I had the feeling that my heart was falling on my feet. The whole place started laughing so I started singing so I could get out of there. Everyone got really silent when I when singing and then there was a standing ovation. I just ran off stage when it was over. My mom said to go back and bow, but I didn’t want to go back.

JP: From the time you’ve spent living in New York, do you have a favorite restaurant here?

AK: My restaurant is my house. [laughs] I really like spicy food. I really like Thai food because you can mix it all up. My mother used to get mad at me for that. I always wanted to just say, “You cook, I eat and the way I eat is my interest.” There’s a Thai restaurant by my house in Park Slope called Watana that I always order from if I get back too late from touring. But I always try to cook as much as I can. Food is storytelling, it brings me back to my own story and my own travels and I really love that.  

JP: We’re coming to the end, so we thought a question about your last supper would be fitting. What would be your last meal and who would you share it with?

AK: That’s a good question. I would spend my last meal with my family and my best friends. I would have my mom cook; she’s the one who taught me how to cook and once I started learning I got hooked. With ten children she really knew how to make ingredients go far and everything was always delicious.

We would like to give a big thank you to Angélique Kidjo for taking the time out to talk to us. The talented singer-songwriter will soon be heading out on tour in Australia as part of Sing the Truth, a series of performances honoring female singer songwriters from the 20th century.