I never miss a chance to eat West African.

I recently had a golden opportunity made possible by Communal Platter, a project that brings together talented home cooks and adventurous eaters, all of whom happen to live here in Denver.

The cook for my recent West African culinary adventure was Kadiatou Dia from the Mopti area of Northern Mali. Dia’s day job is as a teacher’s aide in Denver Public Schools, where her fluency in Bambara, English, French, Fulani and a few other languages comes in handy.  

I, my daughter and a dozen or so others feasted on Dia’s wejoula (a steamed wheat bread) with lamb in herb sauce; fonio (a grain cooked with okra) with tilapia soup; tigadèguèna (peanut stew) with sweet potatoes and beef; giant samosas stuffed with ground beef, potatoes, green beans and carrots marinated in traditional Malian spices; froufrous (rice gallettes) for dessert.

Dia, who is Muslim, did not serve alcohol. But she offered so many other inventive drinks that I don’t think anyone noticed. We had a lassi-like beverage of millet, buttermilk and spices; a hibiscus cordial to start; and herbal tea to finish.

Dia's menu is evidence of a rich, complex culture. We got another taste of Mali through her 12-year-old daughter Anna, who had been charged with doing some research and then making a presentation during dinner. 

Anna spoke with poise to a crowd of strangers gathered for her mother’s cooking. She told us of the immigrants from south and east who have helped make Mali an ethnic tapestry. She spoke of figures like Mansa (which translates as sultan or king) Musa. Musa is famous for his pilgrimage from what is now Mali to Mecca in 1324. He set out for the Muslim holy city with thousands of escorts and spectacular amounts of gold, some of which he distributed, as Islam dictates, as alms to the poor along the way. Musa returned with Arab scholars, among them the architect Ishaq El Teudjin, who designed a grand Timbuktu mosque that still stands.

Anna, with some help from her mother, also touched on the current turmoil in Mali, where religious extremists have been attacking civilians, Malian forces and UN peacekeepers. Mali is gripped by the worst of the growing worldwide trend of pronouncing on who belongs and demanding a mythical cultural purity.  Dia has fled to the United States from al-Qaida, even as Americans are being encouraged to conflate Muslim extremists and all Muslims.

Anna’s presentation led to side conversations about, for example, the bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu who spirited their ancient university town’s collection of rare Islamic manuscripts away from al-Qaida militants who want to destroy anything that does not fit their definition of Islam. 

As I ate, I thought back to my own travels in West Africa. On a Friday morning in Dakar I once watched a group of the faithful sitting in a circle in a mosque courtyard and singing Quranic verses. That sense of shared purpose and respect for one another within Islam was such a contrast to other Fridays elsewhere when I would hear one imam haranguing a silent congregation.

Food is sustenance, certainly. It’s also a way to communicate ideas and traditions. Sanjay Rajan, who created Communal Platter to create evenings like the dinner with Dia, says he wants to bring “people from different backgrounds together over food and culture.” His goal sounds simple. When he gets it right, we get something rich and complex.