West African people and their descendants have lived in Britain for decades, but the food of their native region remains relatively unknown. Happily, thanks to a growing West African diaspora community and increased visibility in mainstream music and culture, this looks set to change. And about time too. If tikka masala, teriyaki, and dim sum can make their way into Britain’s culinary lexicon, then why not kenkey, fufu, suya, and chin chin?
British West African food can be traced back to the early twentieth century. In the 1950s, small grocers and stalls in places like East London’s Ridley Road Market and Electric Avenue in the south of the city began selling native foodstuffs to arrivals from countries including Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone—many of whom came to the UK to fulfil post-War labour requirements in hospitals and transportation. The customers to these stalls were mainly home cooks, but also a burgeoning network of “aunties” and small catering companies that provided traditional foods for weddings, cultural festivals, church gatherings, and other special events.
In the late 1980s, various social and political upheavals across West Africa lead to an explosion of migration to Europe and the UK. And with these new arrivals came more culinary influence from Africa’s western regions. At this time, Britain’s growing West African community tended to share food within home, rather than dining out. Emmanuel James, director of the family-run Nigerian restaurant chain 805 Restaurants, explains that when the business started in the early 2000s, the opinion of the Nigerian and wider West African community was: “why would I pay for something I could get at home?”
Due to this, early West African food businesses in Britain were often bars that also happened to serve food, rather than straight-up restaurants. Mainly catering to the community, they stayed open into the early hours of the morning and replicated the culture found back at home, rather than fitting to the standard hours of dining in Britain.
At the Nigerian Eko Wine Bar and Restaurant in Hackney, revellers pour in nonstop on Friday nights, snacking on beef suya kebab sticks, snail soups (a hearty stew that bares little resemblance to Western soups), and steamy pounded yam, while Naija Funk cover bands play late into the night. It’s a similar story at the Ghanaian Gold Coast Bar and Restaurant in Croydon, South London—except guests here dance to Hi-Life and waiters traverse the dancing crowds with plates of nyama choma, (grilled meat), kelewele (seasoned plantain and peanuts), and grilled fish platters served with the cassava-based kenkey.
Across Britain, places like these have become social hubs for the West African community, with patrons finding comfort in a familiar culture and having somewhere to sip Fanta, malt drinks, and stouts with friends. Long term intra-African tribal grievances are left at the door as grudges held by older generations are forgotten by the younger diaspora.
Nigerian food outlets in Britain tend to be dominated by the Yoruba and Igbo tribes, but Abdullahi Mai Kano’s South London Alhaji Suya restaurant proudly represents Northern Nigeria’s Muslim Hausa contingent, and is a remarkable example of how food can be used to break down cultural barriers. Kano’s television shows music and news from his home state, inspiring discussion with other British Nigerians who may not have travelled here—and anyone else interested in finding out more about the many different facets of Nigerian culture.
Other members of Britain’s sprawling African diaspora also use food to introduce others to the culture of their home country. Deluxe Manna, a Congolese restaurant in North London, serves broader Afro-Caribbean food as a kind of icebreaker, luring diners in with more recognisable dishes before sharing authentic Congolese cuisine. Owner Detcho explains: “We use the likes of jollof and the Caribbean platter to get people in the door but once they're in, we put them on to our food, especially the steamed panga fish and they always love it.”
Outside of these earlier generation restaurants, West African food is well represented in street food and fine dining, with many younger chefs combining their heritage with a diaspora upbringing. The Michelin-starred Ikoyi, casual restaurant I GO CHOP, and the roving “Nigerian tapas” dinner series Chuku’s offer very different kinds of food, but demonstrate the complex flavours and flexibility of West African ingredients.
Of course, Britain’s West African community extends beyond London too. In Essex and Kent as well as the capital, the Tasty African Food restaurant and takeaway has 14 branches, building up a loyal fan base with its affordable and authentic African dishes since opening in 2000. Manchester’s Roots and Jollof Café have become beacons for students missing a taste of home, as well as other locals looking for family-style African dining. Palms Bar in Coventry is another favourite. Its owners tell me that due to the lack of Nigerian food options in the city, they are always introducing their food to new customers.
James suggests that the growing popularity of West African food in Britain has been inspired by the recent mainstream interest in African culture, particularly contemporary Nigerian pop music. Indeed musicians like Wizkid and Tiwa Savage have introduced the glamour of Ikoyi and Victoria Island, Lagos to a whole new audience in Britain. Similarly, social media posts and UK press coverage of the Dak’Art contemporary art exhibition in Senegal, Lagos Fashion Week, and Ghana’s Chale Wote Art Festival reveal the vibrancy of West African culture. Insights like these challenge previously held conceptions of Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana and with it, the food culture.
This newfound interest in West African culture has inspired innovation, especially among younger chefs. The Groundnut, a pan-African food collective, and Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, a West African pop-up founded by Zoe Adjonyoh have held supper clubs and street food events across London. Nimatu Owino founded the Nim’s Dim supper club to display her Sierra Leonean and Liberian heritage, and now sells her own “Cham Cham” hot pepper sauce. Khadim Mbama’s Little Baobab Senegalese pop-up experiments with with new dishes, as well as classics from his home country, including the fish and peanut oil-based thieboudienne.
Cameroonian Evagle Francklin, owner of the vegetarian and vegan KataKata and Maloko cafes in South London, wants to promote the plant-based side of African cooking. “Where I’m from is a rainforest region so we always had a mainly plant-based diet,” she tells me. “There wasn’t any meat unless we caught it or raised and when we did, it was for special occasions.” Chef and entrepreneur Lerato Umah-Shaylor also hopes to present African food in new ways, teaching African cooking classes and partnering with Waitrose for supper clubs. “It’s up to us to keep on about our food and lead the way otherwise someone else will do it,” she says
Many of these newer West African food businesses and influencers reach people via social media. For Gambian food shop Smiling Coast Store in East London, Facebook in particular has helped promote products beyond the local community. Owner Robert Sarkis tells me: “We opened the shop but things really took off when we got on Facebook. We started getting orders from across the whole country.” The Smiling Coast team now deliver baobab fruit, millet, and kinkeliba tea leaves across the UK.
Food crazes don’t happen overnight. They are the result of generations of unnoticed work from home cooks, restaurateurs, grocery stall owners, and pioneering entrepreneurs. It’s vital to collect these people’s stories and explore the role they play in the past and future of British West African food. For many, their goals go beyond pedalling food—they want to contribute to changing the image of Africa and celebrate their heritage.
Riaz Phillips is author of Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, published by Tezeta Press and available to buy now. He is currently crowdfunding for Tezeta Press’ second book, West African Food in the UK, a celebration of West African food culture in the diaspora, co-authored by Zezi Ifore. Find out more about the book and donate to the Kickstarter campaign here.