Zoe Adjonyoh: ‘My only access to Ghana was the food’

The Brixton-based chef behind Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen rediscovered her heritage through cooking. Here she talks family, food and identity – and shares two recipes from her new cookbook

There’s a growing community of African food entrepreneurs’: Zoe Adjonyoh. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Zoe Adjonyoh’s dad gave her precisely one cooking lesson, when she was 10 years old. “How do you know when it’s done?” she asked, straining to catch a glimpse of the stove. Zoe liked to hover close to him when he cooked, enthralled by the sights and smells of the Ghanaian ingredients he would bring back from the market to his south-east London home. There was grilled tilapia, fermented corn dough called kenkey, and vats of stew, laced with fiery ginger and Scotch bonnet pepper. As the pan on the hob sputtered, spicy tomato sauce flew up the wall behind the stove. “How do you know when it’s done?” she repeated. He threw an arm out to the oil and sauce spatters peppering the wall: “When it’s up there, it’s done!”

If you are what you eat, then Adjonyoh’s debut cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, is a kind of edible portrait: a celebratory, intelligent, often chaotic rendering of the person she is, and of her heritage. The daughter of a Ghanaian father and Irish mother, Adjonyoh is a woman anchored in two worlds. Both sides of her family have food at the heart of their culture, and that passion for feeding comes through. “Probably 50% of the book is pretty straight-up traditional dishes,” she says. “The other half is my reinterpretation of some of those things.” She bounces from mashed yam and plantain pancakes to a “Ghana-fied Caesar salad”, weaving the recipes together with smart pr ose, thoughtful ingredient glossaries and, most compellingly, the story of how, at nearly 40 years old, she has rediscovered her roots.

This dual heritage hasn’t always played out so smoothly. She was born in Essex in a home for unmarried mothers, but moved to Ghana as a baby, where she lived with her grandmother. “She didn’t want me to come back,” says Adjonyoh between sips of coffee in a cafe around the corner from her south London restaurant. All this went far over her head, though, as she toddled around the Accra suburb of Mamprobi. Revisiting Ghana recently, she was struck by the number of people who came forward with stories about her: “There were about 50 people around me telling me they used to hold me when I was a baby, they used to change my nappies.”

Returning to the UK at around two years old, Adjonyoh lived with her parents in Deptford, in south-east London. She was thrust into a very different life, without the extended family she had grown used to. As she got older, she turned to the “aunties” of Ridley Road market in Dalston for tips, finding a taste of home in London’s Ghanaian community. From her father’s kenkey to hot pepper sauce, food enabled her to connect with the West African side of her heritage.

Food was at the heart of both her parents’ cultures: Zoe with her mother Elizabeth.

Returning to the UK at around two years old, Adjonyoh lived with her parents in Deptford, in south-east London. She was thrust into a very different life, without the extended family she had grown used to. As she got older, she turned to the “aunties” of Ridley Road market in Dalston for tips, finding a taste of home in London’s Ghanaian community. From her father’s kenkey to hot pepper sauce, food enabled her to connect with the West African side of her heritage.

I tell her how jealous I am that she was able to experience a little of Ghanaian culture and cooking first hand. My grandad, Ransford, was from Ghana, but I never heard him talk about his homeland. When my family visited, we would eat roast beef, joints of lamb, pork with potatoes. My grandmother is from London’s East End, and it was all-English meat-and-two-veg cooking that took root in their house. Ransford would sometimes make himself rice, but he would always eat it alone. Move forward a generation and my dad wrote his Ghanaian middle name – Kwame – out of his personal history, flinching whenever my siblings and I would ask about it. It’s only since Ransford’s death that my family has begun to turn back to our Ghanaian roots, and start talking about that part of our history.

“This is what my dad was like!” Adjonyoh leans in, planting her elbows square on the table. “I wanted to learn Fante – I would hear him on the phone and I’d ask, ‘What’s that?’ He’d say, ‘Why do you want to know?’ And I’d say, ‘Why wouldn’t I want to know?’”

This intergenerational butting of heads isn’t anything new. Young entrepreneurs from across the diaspora such as Adjonyoh are reaching back into their past for an anchor, while their first generation immigrant parents travel in the other direction, pushing towards a new life in the UK. Somewhere in the middle, between pride, curiosity and ambition, these visions clash. It’s frustrating for Adjonyoh, but it has also given her an inventiveness that helps her sidestep cultural and generational barriers. “That’s why food became important. I could watch my dad cook and I could cook with him, and then cook for him, and that was my only access point to what Ghana was about: the food.”

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is just around the corner from where we’re sat, in a cluster of cafes and shops called Pop Brixton. It could only ever really exist in a city such as London: a place so full of contradictions that a Ghanaian restaurant in a stack of shipping containers south of the river seems run of the mill. The restaurant is tiny – a couple of bench tables, a narrow bar counter and the kitchen at the end of the room. Dishes appear on the tables faster than you can eat them – everything from okra fries to red red (a hearty bean stew) and jollof fried chicken. It’s a place that wears its DIY ethos on its sleeve. The cutlery holders are painted in the green, yellow and red stripes of the Ghanaian flag; the slogan “It’s Ghana be tasty!” is emblazoned across the outside.

It’s taken years for Adjonyoh to collect and adapt the dishes she sells now. A keen home cook, it wasn’t until 2011 that she began to delve into Ghanaian food in earnest, selling nkatsenkwan, or groundnut soup, out of her home during the Hackney WickED arts festival, as a way to fund her MA in creative writing. It was her MA tutor who suggested that perhaps focusing on Ghana Kitchen might be a way for her to better connect with her past, and eventually write the memoir she’d dreamed of. The soup stall soon became supper clubs, which in turn have led to pop-ups, residencies and an established restaurant. Now, food has taken her back to writing, to a cookbook as much about life, travel and family as it is about cooking.

‘I could watch my dad cook, then cook for him’: Zoe’s father Charles.

The food industry hasn’t always been receptive. “Certain pop-up venues would say: ‘We don’t know what Ghanaian food even is, so we’re not sure that other people would go for it.’ I need to have 10 times more press than anyone else before they would take a risk on this kind of food.”

By pushing on regardless, Adjonyoh has helped forge a path for other West African food entrepreneurs in the UK. Look at fellow south Londoners the Groundnut supper club and at Lopè Ariyo, a British Nigerian whose debut cookbook, Hibiscus, is out in June. Adjonyoh is also a fan of Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs, which recently won an Andre Simon award for food writing. “A community of African food entrepreneurs is growing,” she says. “That network will have to support each other, given how white and middle class the industry is.”

It’s fitting that Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen should begin to blossom now, at the crest of this wave, and on the 60th anniversary of Ghanaian independence from British rule. Ghanaian food remains a stubbornly foreign concept, despite the fact that until 1957 the Gold Coast, as it was then known, was a British colony. We explored the Mediterranean in the 60s with the help of Elizabeth David, saw the curry house boom of the 70s and today take a taste of Korean, Vietnamese and Hawaiian cuisine. We’re more curious than ever, and yet in spite of our changing tastes, African food has struggled to find a place on our increasingly diverse plates.

Half of the problem is, Adjonyoh thinks, the very concept of “African food”: “I hate saying ‘African food’ because we know it’s not one country, it’s a continent.”

Look at, on the one hand, the specificity with which we talk about, for example, New York-style bagels or Cornish seafood; compare to that the vast, vague idea of an “African” way of cooking – something that supposedly encompasses everything from the spice-heavy food of Morocco to sour Ethiopian injera breads and the fiery ginger warmth of Ghanaian groundnut soup. The trouble with waiting for an African food revolution is that there is no such thing. “Each country has its own distinct way of cooking,” says Adjonyoh, “and they’re very proud about it.”

Depending on where you are from in Ghana, you might be used to millet, or gari (dried, fermented and coarsely ground cassava), or a staple crop called sorghum. Adjonyoh writes about this diversity in her cookbook but has sometimes found herself in the crosshairs of traditionalists. She describes the food orthodoxy of some Ghanaians in the UK: “There’s one dish which is basically mini mashed yam balls, and I put gari around it for a coating. I remember on Facebook someone said, ‘That’s not Ghanaian!’ and I was, like, ‘Actually, it is.’ Just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s not a thing.”

I get the sense that Adjonyoh’s mixed heritage plays into her nervousness about getting things right. When she went back to Ghana in 2014, she found herself labelled “obroni”, which means foreigner. “It’s used mostly about white people,” she says. “So when people are calling me obroni – when in London I’m black – it’s really like …” Her voice trails off, and she grasps for words. “I was really offended.”

When your heritage spans two continents, it can be difficult to feel like you truly have the right to own any part of the cultures that spawned you. I tell Adjonyoh I’m excited to see Ghanaian food really take off, and for African food in general to get the attention it deserves. She lays her hands firmly on the table in front of her and leans in conspiratorially. “Don’t worry, it will.” She smiles. “I’ve got plans.”

These include a six-month residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons gastropub in Soho, and Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen going on the road for the summer festival circuit, too, setting up camp at Secret Garden Party and Bestival. She’s proud to be at the helm of a burgeoning movement, but there’s no missing her nervousness about the pressure it entails. Does it up the ante when so much of your identity is woven into the business you run?

“When I called this Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, I knew it was risky. What’s scary is when the criticism comes, it’s personal.” She pauses. “But that’s my problem. Save that for the therapist, right?” Putting her life front and centre in her cooking might have made her more vulnerable to criticism, but it has also been at the heart of her success. It’s a radical openness: the sense that when you cook and eat Adjonyoh’s recipes, you’re tasting not just a cheffy concoction, but a part of her life.

Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen: the recipes

Ghana salad

Ghana salad. Photograph: Nassima Rothacker

This is basically the mother of all salads with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in – a hugely substantial feast of colour, texture and flavour. I’ve come up with a recipe that focuses on fresh ingredients rather than the canned ones commonly used for this salad (canned baked varieties are a favourite in Ghana!), while sticking to the original formula.

Serves 4 as a main or 6 as a side
whole fresh sardines 200g, scaled, gutted and washed, or substitute canned sardines
fresh tuna steak 200g, or substitute canned tuna
round iceberg lettuce 1, shredded
tomatoes 4, deseeded and sliced
red onions 2, finely sliced
green beans 175g, topped and tailed, sliced and steamed, then chilled
fresh garden peas 100g, lightly blanched, then drained and chilled
good-quality canned organic cannellini beans 200g, drained, chilled
smoked salmon 150g, cut into strips, or substitute flaked canned salmon
sea salt 1 tsp
coarsely ground black pepper 1 tsp
eggs 4-6 large, soft-boiled, shelled and quartered
salad cream or mayonnaise to taste

Preheat the grill to medium. Place the sardines and tuna steak on the grill rack and grill for 10–15 minutes, turning halfway through the cooking time. Leave to cool, then chill in the fridge before adding to the salad.

Place the lettuce, tomatoes and onions in a large bowl, then add the green beans, peas, cannellini beans and smoked salmon.

Flake the grilled tuna and add to the salad, season with the sea salt and black pepper and mix together carefully. Add the grilled sardines and garnish with the soft-boiled egg quarters.

Cover and chill before serving. When ready to serve, dress with salad cream or mayonnaise to taste and serve with warm toasted baguette, ciabatta or hard dough bread.

I used to drown my Ghana salad in salad cream – guilty pleasures – but if you want a healthier option, make a vinaigrette of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part balsamic vinegar and season with sea salt and black pepper, then add to the salad before serving. Hard dough bread (also known as “butter bread”) is a white loaf that is slightly sweet. It can be bought sliced or unsliced.

Jollof fried chicken

Jollof fried chicken. Photograph: Nassima Rothacker

By far the most popular dish on both our street-food and restaurant menus is this super-crispy and succulent fried chicken recipe – I really shouldn’t be giving away the secret!

Serves 4
jollof dry spice mix 2 tbsp (see recipe below)
crushed sea salt ½ tsp
coarsely ground black pepper ½ tsp
rapeseed oil 1 tbsp
chicken breasts 4, boneless, skinless, cut into strips
buttermilk 250ml
vegetable oil 500ml-1 litre, for deep-frying

For the coating
cornflour 150-200g
coarsely ground black pepper ½ tsp
crushed sea salt ½ tsp
ground nutmeg 1 tsp

For the jollof dry spice mix (makes about 190g)
ground ginger 25g
garlic powder 25g
dried chilli flakes 20g
dried thyme 35g
ground cinnamon 25g
ground ginger 20g

Mix the jollof dry spice mix, sea salt and black pepper with the rapeseed oil in a large bowl. Add the chicken strips and buttermilk and turn to coat them all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 1–2 hours, but preferably overnight.

Heat the vegetable oil in a deep-fat fryer (which is the safest option) or heavy-based, deep saucepan filled to just under half the depth of the pan to 180–190C or until a cube of bread browns in 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, put the cornflour in a separate bowl with the seasoning and nutmeg and mix well.

Dip each chicken strip into the seasoned cornflour to coat evenly – try to do 4 or 5 pieces in quick succession, as you need to drop them into the hot oil straight away.

Fry the chicken, in batches, for no more than 3–4 minutes to keep them succulent and juicy yet cooked through, and golden and crispy but not burnt. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper, keeping the cooked chicken hot while you fry the rest.

It’s that easy – the best fried chicken you’re ever going to eat!

Source: TheGuardian