Walk into the hectic common room of SOAS—London's School of Oriental and African Studies—on a Wednesday lunchtime, and you'll find the familiar sight of Maame Oforiwaa and her friend wheeling plates of fresh roasted carrot or beetroot dip under the nostrils of hungry students. An edible foam finger stands nearby to direct people their way.
Aside from the rare occasions on which their spot is usurped, Oforiwaa's food stall stands in the common room every week with a colourful parade of vegetable-based dishes. She piles paper plates high with food, often dressed in outfits as bright and varied as the vegetable creations. Each hearty vegan meal costs just £4.
It's affordable vegan food, but also creative and home-cooked—something of a rarity in this part of London, which teams with expensive organic grocers and raw cafes.
Selling 40 to 60 meals each time she sets up at SOAS, Oforiwaa counts most of her customers, including myself, as regulars. Caitlin is another one, and visits the stall most Wednesdays.
"It is so good," she says. "And Maame is super kind and always remembers people."
Victoria, another student as well as a fan of cooking, is keen to praise the way Oforiwaa "uses delicious Ghanaian flavours to undermine the typical view that vegan food is boring." Oforiwaa herself seems to thrive on the community she has formed at SOAS, welcoming the feedback students give on her recipes.
Of course, SOAS is all about connections with other parts of the world (the university has probably the only student bar in London serving Japanese beer on draught), and being a uni in Central London, there is an exceptionally high number of vegans. Oforiwaa's plant-based, West African-inspired food was an instant hit, then, when she started out with a one-off stall at an event here two years ago. Students pressed her to come back on a regular basis and she now pitches up every week, serving a different menu each time.
Ghanaian dishes often feature, like red-red (a type of bean stew), tangy jollof rice, yam and tomato stew, and fried plantain. The stall also serves fritters made from fresh cauliflower and sweet corn, adding a satisfyingly crispy bite to a plate of stew.
Though her glowing skin makes her an advert for veganism, Oforiwaa doesn't cook in order to convert people to a plant-based diet. When I meet her one morning outside of the Wednesday rush to talk about the food, it becomes clear that the unpredictability of vegetables—in all their seasonal and sprouting glory—is what drives her. She part-plans her recipes at home, starting out by imagining the colours of vegetables that would make an appealing plate.
"I might write a recipe and then I go down to the market and I change the recipe because I've seen lovely Swiss chard or something exciting like that," she tells me.
For the students of SOAS, this can mean warm palm-oil based pumpkin soup in winter. Or in the summer, peas popped from the pod served with green beans and mixed with garlic, herbs, and a healthy slick of coconut oil.
Growing up in Ghana, Oforiwaa learned to cook from family at a young age. She tells me that the variety of imported and local ingredients in London means that she doesn't have to change many of her original recipes—although she is quick to point out that what she sells can't be defined as "West African food."
"As I've grown up, my tastes have changed a lot. I've picked up lots of ideas from other recipes, like Eastern European, Iranian food, Malaysian," she explains. "In London, I have friends from all over the world. When you invite them for a meal and cook food from their countries they think, Wow!"
At the moment, tomatoes are under Oforiwaa's spotlight.
"Tomatoes are lovely but you want to give them an 'oomph' so that people enjoy," she says.
This "oomph" might mean intricate dressings made by pan-frying dessicated coconut and mixing with finely chopped spring onions and chilies. Another involves freshly grated ginger with a splash of dark soya sauce.
"You can make every vegetable more exciting," Oforiwaa reasons. "It's just about looking at how you do it."
When she's not at SOAS, Oforiwaa works part-time and prepares for her Wednesday lunchtime slot days in advance, buying ingredeints from the Oval Farmers' Market in Lambeth and cooking everything from fresh in her modest home kitchen. Beans have to be soaked a day before cooking, sweet potatoes peeled, and if she's doing a vegetable tart, a trial one must be made first.
When Wednesday morning comes around, Oforiwaa enlists a friend to help load everything into Tupperware containers and transport it to SOAS.
With an obvious aptitude for the demands of a professional kitchen, I ask Oforiwaa if she has ever considered cooking as a career. She tells me she has been offered posts in restaurants but isn't enticed by the atmosphere, or the way that shortcuts ober food might be taken to make profit.
According to Oforiwaa, her cooking is simply a "hobby." Happily for SOAS students, it's one she's very good at.
All photos by Lara Maysa.