Zoe Adjonyoh

24th April 2017

Interview: Rebecca May Johnson
Photographs: Dan Dennison

24th April 2017

Interview: Rebecca May Johnson
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Talking about Ghanaian food with Zoe Adjonyoh is complicated. While the supper club-turned-restaurant she started in this scuffed former peanut factory in Hackney Wick has introduced Ghana’s fiery flavours to many happy diners, she is wary of being dubbed an “expert”. Growing up in Woolwich in the late 1980s without a Ghanaian family around her, microwave chips were more the order of the day. However, watching her father cook his small repertoire of Ghanaian dishes during the precious moments that he had at home made a big impression. Those dishes were clues to family connections, flavours and kitchen wisdom that Zoe subsequently explored for herself – and now generously shares at her restaurant at Pop Brixton.

Zoe’s new book is out now and we have signed copies… Buy from

As food from most countries in Africa has been largely invisible in the UK until very recently, Zoe feels the pressure to represent it in the right way. Having dual Irish-Ghanaian heritage, she initially felt herself something of an outsider to Ghanaian culinary culture when she set about learning its nuances. She worked hard to be accepted by the Ghanaian grocers on Ridley Road Market, who were initially sceptical of her culinary credentials. But Zoe won them over, and what’s more, she was not afraid to modify dishes she cooked with her relatives on her trip to Ghana when she saw room for improvement. Authenticity is a tricky idea, especially when it comes to food, but Zoe’s curious, respectful and challenging celebration of Ghana’s cooking is surely a lesson in how to get things right.

On a brisk, sunny morning early in 2017, Zoe hosts us at the former peanut factory which she has transformed into a home and filled with a hodgepodge of second hand furniture, cooking pots and souvenirs from her extensive travels. It’s a long, joyful occasion and conversation wends every which way as she chops, fries and simmers a warmly spiced lunch of Moroccan chicken with salad and lemon yoghurt dressing.

Continued below...

How did Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen begin?

It started here, in 2011 outside the flat during Hackney Wick arts festival. There was a community group that organised open studios when the majority of residents here were practising artists. This flat was a white shell, there wasn’t even a kitchen and my girlfriend wanted to use it as a gallery. I didn’t have anything to do and so on the morning of the festival I saw it was heaving and I thought, “Oh my god I’m going to sell something, make a peanut butter stew, make a sign”. The sign is still here up on the wall.

What’s peanut butter stew?

The real name is groundnut soup – you make a spicy broth – we did with lamb neck or mutton – with loads of onions, a bit of ginger, a bit of scotch bonnet and some smoky spices and let that meat cook as long as possible. Then you add this base sauce: a combination of tomatoes, more onions and a little bit more chilli: different nuances of heat. When that’s cooking it smells amazing. When the tomatoes have reduced a little bit you add about 3/4 of a jar of peanut butter. It’s amazing, insanely good. Originally it was a lighter broth, but then people started making a paste with the nuts and it became richer. I borrowed a table and we had a peanut party. And it was funny because this place is called the Peanut Factory, so people thought that was why we were doing it.

How did people respond to the food?

Everything I had sold out! Then the following year on the same weekend, we did it again and we thought it could be fun to turn our house in a restaurant. We made flyers calling it ‘The Best African restaurant in Hackney Wick’ and it was so rammed. On the Sunday I thought I’d collect some email addresses because it could be fun to do again, the mailing list grew and people told other people. That’s how the supper clubs started. I had the extent of my dad’s repertoire which was kenkey and fish – kenkey is a fermented maize dough dumpling that goes exceptionally well with spicy fish – groundnut soup with Shito, which is a hot sauce made with fermented crayfish, very traditional stuff. Then Jollof and red red, a slow cooked vegan bean stew, just three or four things.

They thought I couldn’t cook because I’m not black enough, or something. They were all a bit cagey with me, a bit like, “What’s your purpose here pale woman?” It took a while to break them down

How did you build on your supper club?

As it got more popular, I had to start looking at ways to enhance the menu and that’s when I started going more frequently to Ridley Road [market in Dalston, east London] and talking to the grocery women there. With Kingsland Road behind you, if you walk just over halfway down, it’s generally the case that on the left you’ve got the Nigerians and on the right you’ve got the Ghanaians. I tend to stick with the Ghanians. My favourite stall is called The Vintage Grocery Store, selling African and Ghanaian groceries. I became quite a regular there and the woman thought it was hilarious that I was asking about the ingredients, cooking them and buying them – she thought it was insane. It was because I was really pale. There’s a culture in Ghana around the word Abruni – it’s for foreigner and all white people and fair-skinned – so basically they thought I couldn’t cook because I’m not black enough, or something. They were all a bit cagey with me, a bit like, “What’s your purpose here pale woman?” It took a while to break them down.

Weren’t you already familiar with Ghanaian ingredients from your dad?

I grew up in Woolwich, and there were quite a lot of Africans there, there used to be Nigerians, now it’s more east Africans, Eritreans and Somalians. I grew up with some of those ingredients around me, but I was only used to buying things that my dad was cooking – yams, plantains, he didn’t go out of a small zone of interest. I hadn’t either. Anyway, I broke the shopkeepers down eventually – I worked my mum’s Irish charm on the Ghanaian ladies! And that’s how I got to start experimenting with other things, finding out what they did with them and then researching. I’d be like “What’s this? Can you explain what this is? How do you cook it?”

My dad wasn’t an amazing cook, but the flavours were so different from what I ate the rest of the time – there was a strange intimacy going on with that food. Intimacy, my past, an exploration of my heritage

When did you get into cooking?

I always loved cooking, I cooked from a young age. I used to help my mum cook – when we were in Ireland, we had a big Irish family, all the women were supposed to be in the kitchen and everybody had a job – even if I wanted to be out in the fields digging up potatoes and carrots with the men (which I did). Eventually there was a factory food process happening in the kitchen. I made my sister’s packed lunches; I used to cook for my dad when my mum wasn’t around, invite my friends round from school. Cooking was my favourite childhood thing.

Did you parents like to cook?

My mum didn’t have a passion for cooking, but there are dishes when this extra thing happens: when people cook with a sense of home in mind, some magic. When my mum cooks anything Irish, it tastes amazing, but she wasn’t really a keen cook: we had lots of microwave chips, which I hate now. The reason I turned to Ghanaian food rather than Irish food was that my dad wasn’t around much when I was a kid; when he was around, stolen time with him would be watching him cook or cooking for him. We didn’t have any Ghanaian family in London, so food was my only route into my Ghanaian ancestry and culture. For me it’s been a personal journey, learning more about Ghanaian food and cooking it, leading other people down that route as well. I am frightened of the word “expert”, I don’t think anyone’s an expert in food. My dad wasn’t an amazing cook, but the flavours were so different from what I ate the rest of the time – there was a strange intimacy going on with that food. Intimacy, my past, an exploration of my heritage

Have you visited Ghana?

Yes, when I eventually broke free from the shackles of what my dad wanted me to do as a career… I did a creative writing MA at Goldsmiths, and I paid for it with Ghana Kitchen. It was creative non-fiction and that forced my hand to do a trip to Ghana, because it was a trip I’d been putting off. The issues around Ghana and my dad were the elephants in the room that my tutors encouraged me to explore. When I went there I got a sense of relief: I’d had doubt as to whether or not I was entitled to cook Ghanaian food, I wondered whether I was appropriating something I wasn’t allowed to appropriate… I know that sounds crazy because I’m black, but there was a weirdness to it. I realised that in Ghana, everyone has their own version of dishes. There’s a problem with that word – authenticity – because it implies there’s only one way of doing something right.

This recipe is incredibly simple to execute despite the long list of ingredients, making it easy to chat and cook at the same time. It uses many of those smoky aromas and rich flavours associated with Northern Africa
Zoe’s recipe for Moroccan chicken with lemon yoghurt dip

Who introduced you to the food when you where there?

In Ghana people found it really weird that I wanted to know about food. I asked my aunt Evelyn to take me to Kaneshie market, which is a huge, colourful, loud market that really stinks of all sorts, but mostly of this thing called “Willy”, which is cow hide just drying in the heat. So I did this market trip and then I watched her making peanut butter stew: I was her kitchen assistant. It made me laugh; she had long processes for things I cooked all the time. Instead of letting the peanut butter melt into an already hot stock, she would spend half an hour watering down fresh peanut butter in a bowl separately, just to thin it out – weird things like that, adding unnecessary processes. They thought I wouldn’t be able to take any of the heat whatsoever so everything they fed me was so, so mild and I had to pretend it was hot! Having said that, Ghanaian people love showing off their food, even out of the house at roadside chop bars, shack restaurants.

What’s a typical chop bar dish?

It’s mainly lots of fish. Grilled fish – like tilapia – is really popular with a big ball of Banku, which is fermented cassava dough. Cooking in Ghana is all about extending the life of the thing because there’s not refrigeration, so fermenting them perpetuates the life. Plantain, for example, gets cooked differently depending on how old it is: each stage from green to black has a different flavour. You’d have a sauce called paap ko shito with that, which is like a really zingy spicy, ramped up salsa verde.

Formerly it was: get up smoke two cups of coffee… for years that was my morning. But recently I’ve been taking care of myself. So now it’s all about protein in the morning – avocado and eggs, and occasionally salmon, and if not that definitely a crumpet…

I’ve heard there can be strong views on how to cook Jollof rice. Could you tell me about that?

In my grandmother’s house, which is tiny, there are loads of people. My frail old grandmother, my aunt Evelyn and Mercy, who helps look after my grandmother. I asked all three of them how to cook Jollof as it’s such a controversial thing and they all told me a different method, as they’re from different parts of Ghana. Evelyn is Ewe [a West African ethnic group], and my grandmother’s from Elmina, so she’s fancy, and Mercy is Ashanti, even further up. My grandmother’s way most closely resembles how I make it: cook the stew into the rice and then a layer of stew on top of the rice; Evelyn mixes the rice up with the stew before cooking it and Mercy baked hers in the oven. But what my research tells me now is that Jollof comes originally from Senegal and there, they bake it – but somehow Ghana and Nigeria got hold of it and said, “No we’re doing it best!” You can cook meat into it or not, or vegetables but you don’t have to – it’s basically like paella, it’s whatever’s around, as long as you’re cooking it in a fragrant spiced tomato sauce. There are also arguments about whether to use long grain or basmati.

What’s your role as a cook and writer making Ghanaian food?

I’ve tried to understand what’s particular and special about Ghana and doing my own versions of those recipes for accessibility purposes. I started doing this six years ago. It’s only now that the mainstream press is like, “Oh, it’s a thing.” I’ve had to wait quite a long time. People say, “Why haven’t you done this or opened that?” But it’s all very good to know something’s a thing yourself, but other people have to be there with you. If you’re the only person in the spotlight and it’s not a success then it’s not good for everyone else who might want to do it.

On The Menu

Lunch with Zoe Adjonyoh
London, 19 January 2017

To eat:
Moroccan chicken with a lemon yoghurt dip and salad with a punchy dressing »
Cous cous

To drink:
A cup of tea
A glass of red wine from a bottle Zoe had in the house

What does it feel like now your food is becoming more widely known in the UK?

Ruby Tandoh, who’s also half-Ghanaian, spoke to me the other day and was saying she’d heard people saying Ghanaians are worried that – and this is ridiculous I think – African food will be just appropriated in this mass consumer way and people will think that that’s all it is. But my argument is: if that’s what you’re worried about, find a black business to support – don’t sit around moaning about it! Support people who you think will represent Ghanaian food in the right way. Is it cultural appropriation or is it cultural exchange? There are some cuisines where people think you have to be able to see the person of the culture in the kitchen to think of the food as authentic. I have a white chef – my kitchen manager is Hungarian, and she’s an amazing chef and cooks to my recipes – but there are times when a Ghanaian couple might come in and see a white chef and walk straight out again. They can’t conceive of her being able to cook a dish that’s for black people, somehow. But there are so many restaurants when the people aren’t from there, but they can create good food. It can be as good if the same amount of love is there. It’s very complicated, really.

What’s your own food routine?

It’s a good time to ask as I’ve been improving my diet. Formerly it was: get up smoke two cups of coffee… ha! No that is literally what I did, have two cups of coffee and two fags, for years that was my morning. But recently I’ve been taking care of myself. So now it’s all about protein in the morning – avocado and eggs, and occasionally salmon, and if not that definitely a crumpet. I work a lot and what I realised is that I haven’t been taking care of myself. I think when you reach a certain age you have to give yourself an MOT. During the day I am busy, moving around, thinking about feeding people in the restaurant or catering a wedding, paying the wages. I love food but I eat when I have time. I’m often moving around, so I eat whatever’s available at lunch. My priority meals are breakfast and dinner. I always have a massive dinner. I’ve started cooking a big batch of something like a huge tomato sauce that I can turn into a lasagne or a bolognese, or a soup, curries… I’ve got loads of Tupperware.

Zoe’s new book is out now and we have signed copies! Buy from

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is at Pop Brixton, 49 Brixton Station Road, London SW9 8PQ; www.zoesghanakitchen.co.uk

Follow Zoe: Instagram  | Twitter

Posted 24th April 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Rebecca May Johnson
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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