London’s African Chefs Are Mixing Yorkshire Puddings and Ugali
From Jamie Oliver’s “Jollofgate” to groundnut stew supper clubs, African cuisine is gaining popularity among British diners. “The thing is,” explains chef Folayemi Brown, “it’s not ‘African food.’ We can’t represent the whole continent.”
Photo courtesy The Groundnut.
"African food will be the new black, the new burger. It's the next big thing," declares Zoe Adjonyoh.
She is sitting on a bench covered in brightly patterned batik fabric in front of a kitchen set up in an old shipping container. But this isn't West Africa. It's Brixton, London. Trains rattle past, sirens wail, and BBC radio plays over the speakers.
Zoe's Ghana Kitchen, Adjonyoh's former pop-up that takes on a more permanent form in Pop Brixton's shipping container complex began life five years ago when she made a big pot of peanut stew to sell at an East London arts festival outside her flat.
"I knew nobody else would be selling it, and my friends loved it," explains Adjonyoh. "It drew crowds every weekend, sold out every day, and created a fun party vibe outside the flat."
Groundnut stew is one of the key dishes of West African cuisine.
"It's like my childhood comfort food," she says. "It's the best food in the world because it's really easy to make and really tasty. You slow cook lamb on the bone so you get the nice marrow in there, and there's spicy scotch bonnet-y sauce behind it which you can have thick or thin. It's a people pleaser dish. It's my signature dish."
The only problem for Adjonyoh is that she can no longer say she's the only one serving West African food. As she predicted, the cuisine is having something of a moment.
In another part of South London, friends Duval Timothy, Folayemi "Yemi" Brown, and Jacob Fodio Todd have also been bringing the food they grew up with to a wider audience. They started with the groundnut stew too, taking it as their centrepiece dish and borrowing the name for both their supper club and cookbook, .
"The thing is, it's not 'African food,'" says Brown. "We're talking about a huge area and we can't represent the whole continent."
Timothy's family are from Ghana and Nigeria, Brown's parents are both Nigerian, and Todd spent his childhood moving around several countries in east Africa.
"We've focused on the food of our families, so West African food, and food from Mozambique, Kenya, and Tanzania," Brown continues. "Africa is a continent of really diverse foods so we're really aware of not trying to speak for the whole place."
It would be an epic task to complete but in Berlin, Tuleka Prah is attempting it as she documents the dishes of Africa for a self-funded project called My African Food Map.
"I wanted to look up online the 'official' recipe for a dish my dad used to make, but it was really disappointing," she explains. "I decided to start an archive that would be like a Wikipedia for African food."
Going country by country, Prah is capturing recipes and the stories of the people who make them on film.
"I want to highlight each country's unique contribution to the culinary map, and also to show how connected they are to each other," she says.
Pahr cites the example of ugali, a maize meal staple that is eaten with stews in Kenya: "It's also eaten in Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Lesotho—exactly the same thing, but they all have different names."
The fierceness of discussion about the "right" way to serve a dish cannot be underestimated. Last year, Jamie Oliver posted a recipe for his version of jollof rice on his website, prompting a deluge of criticism about how wrong he'd got it.
"Pretty much every West African is going to have an opinion on what jollof rice is and how they like it to be made," says Timothy.
"'Jollofgate' is what they called it" adds Prah. "It was a litmus test. But, I mean, if Jamie Oliver is bothering to try, that means that attention is being paid to the African continent's food."
However you make your jollof or your groundnut stew, and whatever you call your ugali, there is one thing that links food across the continent, as Tom Perkins discovered cycling from Cairo to Cape Town for his book Spices and Spandex.
"From Sudan to South Africa, to really enjoy and get on board with whatever the food is, you have to slow down and share," says the amateur chef (and cyclist). "As much as we've not discovered some of the amazing ingredients and dishes from African countries, we've also not bought into the way of eating that they do on large parts of the continent. Eating is always around a communal pot."
Adjonyoh agrees that this sharing element unites almost all African cuisine.
"Sharing this food is about accessibility. What I've been trying to do is make a space to bring everyone together, so it doesn't matter if you're Ghanaian, Nigerian, British, or Irish. This is a space that's safe to explore a twist on that food," she says. "There's a second and third generation of Ghanaians like me, who are foodies and are used to going to fine dining places or to street food markets. They love it when they can see that I've turned a dish that their mother or grandmother used to make and contemporised it. It's not dumbing it down, it's not Anglicising it, it's making it right for the environment you're in."
To facilitate this, Adjonyoh explains the Ghanaian terms on her menus and ensures diners know that she doesn't cook in litres of oil (the temperature and access to refrigeration in the UK means its preservative qualities aren't needed). Similarly, at The Groundnut, you'll not just find stews and flatbreads, but Yorkshire pudding with mango curd on the menu.
"We want to embrace our context," says Brown. "We've all got English heritage too and Yorkshire puddings are a great thing that we love. So why not?"