Zoe's Ghana Kitchen's Zoe Adjonyoh on African food in London
African food has too long been ignored by modern London restaurants. We meet Zoe Adjonyoh, the chef who is opening up eyes – and stomachs – to a whole continent
My favourite Ghanaian ingredient is kpakpo shito, a little green, round pepper. It's very deceptive – it looks really cute, but it's intensely fiery," says Zoe Adjonyoh, founder of Zoe's Ghana Kitchen, where you'll find this pepper – and other traditional Ghanaian ingredients – on the menu. The restaurant, which is now in residency at the Institute of Light, used to occupy one of the units in Pop Brixton, the community project and event space made out of shipping containers that's also home to Donostia Social Club and London's first community fridge.
The business grew out of a pop-up and supper club (that both still run) that Adjonyoh started in 2011, having used cooking as a way of learning more about her heritage. She took the dishes that had been introduced to her by her Ghanaian father and began to modernise them, making them lighter and healthier.
And this, Adjonyoh says, is what was needed: "Until recently, African food wasn't really being made for people who weren't African… It needed to be given a more contemporary feel." And this is what she does, serving up dishes like her hugely popular groundnut stew, a peanut butter soup, and the paella-like jollof, made with rice, scotch bonnets and dried ground seafood powder.
Adjonyoh has a point: in a city where the dining scene's appetite for new cuisines is limitless, African cooking hasn't had the most exciting reputation. Until now, with a raft of other chefs and restaurants presenting us with new ingredients like the shito pepper, or the fermented corn dough known as kenkey.
Yet, as Adjonyoh points out, none of these things are really new to London at all: "When I first learned about Ghanaian food, I was asking store owners at east Dalston's Ridley Road Market about their ingredients and how to cook with them." Proof, then, that African food has always been here, but it was just waiting to be discovered.
Aside from her Ridley Road Market education, Adjonyoh also went on a research trip around Ghana, a journey which introduced her to the country's flourishing culture and led to her becoming a passionate ambassador for not only Ghanaian food, but African food in general. "What I find so interesting about it is that there's a whole continent to unlock," she says.
Until recently, African food wasn't being made for people who weren't African
The result is a restaurant that evokes the roadside chop bars of Ghana, and that's about more than just the food: it's an insight into modern Africa. "Along the way I've learned so much about African fashion, music and art, and I wanted to share that with people through the environment that you build around food," says Adjonyoh.
Here, Adjonyoh fills us in on the all the flavours of Ghanaian food, why its time is now, and where to find it – and other examples of African cooking – near you.
How did you start to learn about Ghanaian cuisine?
My dad's Ghanaian and when I was a child he would bring home interesting and strange ingredients that I didn't see very often. I was curious to see what they were, and I also wanted to build a relationship with my dad and my Ghanaian heritage. We didn't have much family from Ghana here – I grew up in south-east London after a period as a toddler in Accra, the Ghanaian capital – so I was aware that there was a side of my heritage that I wasn't getting access to. The entry point was always going to be food because that was what I knew.
Where to eat it
Liberia and Sierra Leone
Nim started out with blog celebrating her love of food, but went on to host supper clubs showcasing Sierra Leonean and Liberian food, raising money for the ebola crisis in the process. @NimsDin
The Groundnut is a South London-based partnership exploring the African and European heritage of founders Folayemi Brown, Duval Timothy and Jacob Fodio Todd. They’ve brought out two popular cookbooks, too. @TheGroundnut
Chalé! Let’s Eat
You’ll find this street-food favourite popping up at markets across London, serving dishes like okra fries, chilli bean fritters and papaya sorbet, inspired by the founders’ Ghanaian, Guyanese and Togolese backgrounds. @ChaleLetsEat
Catch Lem Lem Kitchen at Netil Market every weekend, recreating the Italian-influenced dishes of founder Makda’s hometown of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The menu features reimagined favourites, like afro-tacos and shiro fries, too. @lemlemkitchen
I got my first education beyond my father from going to markets in Ridley Road – I live in Hackney – so when I started doing supper clubs I had quite a small menu that recreated my childhood dishes. When I wanted to expand the menu, I'd have conversations with the stallholders on Ridley Road and ask about the ingredients, what they did with them and what their names A bit later on, I did a research trip to Ghana. I went back for two reasons – one was because I was writing my MA about my dad – and I treated it as a recipe-hunting mission, and was able to travel around the country. I spent time in the kitchens of various people I met on the way, and I learned a lot in a very short amount of time.
Why is there now a new-found interest in African cuisine?
Africa has a new place in the conversation when it comes to fashion, music and other cultural things; it has a new voice behind it. People in the diaspora are proud of their culture and their heritage – they want to highlight what they think is great about Africa and they're doing that through food, and the easiest way to do that is celebrating food from the particular region they're from.
Why has it taken so long for African food to become more prominent?
I found that my experiences of eating African food were in places that Africans ate in. There wasn't really a notion of extending it to a wider community, or space for people who weren't used to eating it. That was the first problem. Next came getting the exposure so people knew that it was available. Part of that is reimagining the dishes so that they feel more contemporary.
Does your cooking adapt traditional Ghanaian cuisine?
I haven't had to adapt anything because I don't put 'traditional' before Ghana; I've always been cooking the way I like to cook. I haven't modified recipes to suit Londoners' palates – what I've done is reimagine traditional dishes, sometimes using slightly healthier ingredients or methods. I can put a bowl of jollof rice down in front of a Ghanaian, or a non-Ghanaian, and sometimes the Ghanaian will say it's not hot enough, or that it's too hot, and then the same will happen the other way round.
The point of Ghana Kitchen is to take people on a food journey where they can try ingredients and flavours they've never tasted before. There's that sense of adventure and I'm trying to guide people with that – I'm not trying to represent anything that I cook as traditional Ghanaian food as there are plenty of people doing that already.
What are the key ingredients in Ghanaian cooking?
The spices, like guinea peppers and alligator peppers, which are more aromatic than hot. There are also interesting chillies like paprika chillies, and staples like yams, fufu [a dish made by pounding together cassava and unripe plantain with water], kenkey and banku [a paste made using fermented maize and cassava]. Rather than highlighting the differences between Ghanaian food and all the other food categories, there are actually a lot of similarities in terms of the ingredients, it's more how they process them.
More African food
Jason’s Little Kitchen
This supper club uses organic, locally sourced ingredients to put a slightly posher spin on Ghanaian cuisine. It was set up by Jason, who wanted to share his mum’s traditional West African cooking, and has gone from strength to strength ever since. @Jslittlekitchen
The Bantu Chef
Based in South Norwood, chef Ray focuses on South and southern African food, highlighting countries including Botswana. You’ll find everything from Afrikaans classics like boerewors, a dried lamb and beef sausage, to a smoky goat burger. @BantuChef
Having gone from one site in Woolwich to branches all over London, Tasty’s is a super authentic restaurant showcasing traditional African dishes like grilled croaka fish, fresh tilapia pepper soup and a fish and yam pepper soup, alongside hearty plates like Nigerian jollof. tastyafricanfood.com
Putting a modern twist on African favourites, this pop up dishes up Nigerian tapas. This means you’ll be able to sample the likes of jollof quinoa, honey-glazed prawns and caramel kuli kuli chicken – mouth-watering wings tossed in a sticky caramel, ground peanut and spice mix. @chukusLDN
These ingredients are actually very similar to a lot of other cuisines from around the world. I've had some customers who have come in and said the shito is similar to Malaysian sambal, or the kenkey is like a Mexican ground maize dish… What I find interesting is how there are the same ingredients around the world, but people are eating them in different ways.
What is it that makes Ghanaian cuisine so distinctive?
Each country has its own particular relationship with its food culture. For example, while Nigeria and Ghana are relatively close and share a lot of the same ingredients, how they treat the food is very different. That's to do with basics like the way things grow, or the tools you have to cook with, or the climate. If you're talking about the flavours, Ghanaian food has a real wholesomeness to it. It's largely unprocessed, and it's all fresh and dried pulses and herbs and peppers – flavours that are indigenous to Ghana that you don't find elsewhere.
Then comes the personality. There's a lot of symbolism in Ghanaian culture – eggs are very important as they're very symbolic of fertility and growth, and are used for so many things, like the coming of age ceremony. The Ashanti people have a whole set of proverbs around fufu, it's a very important food to them. Other groups might care more about the kenkey. I'm not trying to teach lessons about tribal culture, but when people ask me about it, there's usually a story behind it.
How did you get into cooking?
My career as a cook and a chef has grown organically. I did law as my first degree, and creative writing as my second, and had jobs in PR, marketing, journalism, music promotion and management. The whole Ghana Kitchen project came from a sense of fun and adventure and wanting to share something with people – wouldn't it be wonderful if, in ten years, people were making dishes like red red and jollof at home, the same way that everybody makes a curry on a Friday night? Why shouldn't that happen?
Find out more at zoesghanakitchen.co.uk. 'Zoe's Ghana Kitchen: Traditional Recipes Mixed for the Modern Kitchen' is out now