ZOE’s GHANA KITCHEN
Zoe Adjonyoh likes to talk about revolution. The author suggests African cuisine is on the cusp of revolutionising the foodie world where people are "longing to try something that is actually new, not just re-spun".
Her mission is to popularise Ghanaian cuisine and to support the burgeoning African food scene in London. Whereas five years ago there were a couple of people selling African street food, "now you can go to African food markets and there are 30 people from all over West Africa selling food".
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen will no doubt feed a growing appetite for Ghanaian cuisine. A bright-orange cover sports a Kente cloth design; the subtitle informs readers the recipes, while traditional, are remixed for the modern kitchen.
Adjonyoh informs readers she is not a trained chef. She has an MA in Creative Writing and weaves her personal story through the recipes she learnt to cook. Born to a Ghanaian father and an Irish mother, she spent her early years in Ghana before moving to the UK.
She recalls watching her father prepare chalé sauce, kenkey and shito, which he would eat with gusto.
She returned to Ghana aged 35, while researching her father’s history for a memoir. By then she had begun to cook at festivals and supper clubs.
So popular were her dishes that she set up Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant in Pop Brixton, a collection of restaurants and boutiques housed in shipping containers.
I meet Adjonyoh in a Soho pub-restaurant, The Sun and 13 Cantons, where she has just begun a six-month residency, testing responses to her menu with a view to opening a Ghana Kitchen in the area.
Sporting a chic, black chef’s jacket and a wide smile, Adjonyoh asks our opinion of her Moringa smoothie as my guest and I are the first customers to try one. She tells us she plans to sweeten it with banana. One of her chefs asks which dishes we enjoyed most. There is no ego here, only a real desire to encourage diners to enjoy an unfamiliar cuisine.
The cookbook provides a very accessible introduction to Ghanaian dishes. Photographs accompany Adjonyoh’s descriptions of fruits, vegetables and exotic-sounding ingredients such as dawadawa (African locust bean), an odorous, fermented ingredient she describes as "not for the faint-hearted".
The dishes contain all manner of exciting spices. Grains of Paradise turns out to be mesewa, a member of the ginger family native to West Africa. Mediaeval spice traders claimed that these peppery seeds grew only in Eden and had to be collected as they floated down the river out of Paradise.
The salad section is introduced by a playlist of 27 songs — Ghanaian High-Life and Afro-beat — that Adjonyoh recommends to listen to while cooking. Later, she shares her Soundtrack to Eat To.
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen focuses on the dishes served in the restaurants; items on the menu have the page numbers alongside so diners can replicate what they have enjoyed.
While I was slightly apprehensive about the liberal use of chillies in some of the recipes, Adjonyoh encourages readers to tone down the heat if they prefer. I ask her whether this compromises the authenticity of her dishes.
"Here’s the thing," she retorts, "authenticity is a word I find a little bit clumsy because who sets the barometer, who measures that?
"Ghanaian food is more than how hot it is, that is not the defining emblem. You just want to share the ingredients and the flavours with people. So some slight modifications are made for that and sometimes it just tastes better like that.
"It’s my cooking, it’s my style of cooking, so I don’t worry too much about whether that’s authentic for anybody else."
Adjonyoh talks enthusiastically about her favourite ingredients and experimenting with new ideas. While aware that some people are "purists" who say "this doesn’t taste like the way my mum cooked it", she wants to make the ingredients sing, "to contemporise them".
Ghanaian food is more than how hot it is, that is not the defining emblem. You just want to share the ingredients and the flavours with people. So some slight modifications are made for that and sometimes it just tastes better like that
"A lot of my dishes are picking ingredients that Ghanaians would not necessarily put together. You wouldn’t get Moringa smoothie [a superfood powder from the leaves of a tree nicknamed "the miracle tree"], you are not going to get Baobab butter, or Jollof fried chicken because I invented those things out of ingredients I want to champion, that are from Ghana," she says.
Jollof Chicken is the star of both lunches I eat in the Brixton and Soho restaurants. Adjonyoh jokes that she should probably not be giving away the secret of her most popular dish.
Chicken strips are marinated in her Jollof spice mix, a heady melange of 10 spices and dried ground prawn powder, dipped in buttermilk, coated in cornflour and deep fried. It is served with a shito hot pepper mayonnaise and is an addictive dish.
Adjonyoh also wants to encourage her customers and readers to eat ingredients less known outside traditional restaurants. She describes the nature of banku, a fermented cassava dough. In Ghana, it would be presented in a "big mound, very dense and quite slimy". She serves it in the form of crisps with tilapia.
One of Adjonyoh’s favourite ingredients is scotch bonnet, a small round chilli. "It has such a textured spice level, it comes to you slowly," she says.
She describes its use in her signature dish, Groundnut Soup. "I just pierce the scotch bonnet and it sits in there and you get all that smoky, deep flavour that permeates. There is a kick, but it is not overpowering."
I taste the dish at her Brixton restaurant, where it is served in a beautiful earthenware bowl called an asanka, which offsets the bright-orange soup containing fufu as well as diced puna yam and plantain. It is utterly delicious.
I eat Tartale – sweet plantain, ginger, scotch bonnet and sweet chilli pancakes. These are simultaneously sweet and savoury.
Red Red Spiced Bean Stew is slow cooked with black-eyed beans, sprinkled with ground cassava and topped with kelewele — fingers of plantain marinated in ginger, cloves and served with crushed peanuts. The food is every bit as flavoursome as the descriptions suggest, with the warmth of the spices giving zing to basic starches.
Interspersed among her recipes, Adjonyoh tells the story of her return to Ghana where she meets her relatives. They are somewhat surprised to discover that she runs a Ghanaian food business in London.
She asks them to teach her some recipes. Her relatives laugh, suggesting that first she cook for them so that they can "see what you serve those people in London!"
I ask Adjonyoh how she rose to this challenge. She tells me she cooked her groundnut soup. Did they enjoy it? She laughs. "Yeah, they liked it, they said it was good."
As Adjonyoh signs a copy of her new book, I pick up a loyalty card — I will be returning for more Jollof Chicken.
The logo reads, It’s Ghana Be Tasty. Whether you eat at Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen or cook from the book in your own kitchen, tasty it will certainly be.