In our new cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Like many great ventures, Zoe Adjonyoh’s restaurant began with an idea to make some quick cash. In 2010, an arts festival was held in the then undeveloped area of East London where Adjonyoh's partner lived. Spotting a potential business opportunity among the hungry festival-goers in an unfamiliar part of town, Adjonyoh got creative. “I made this big pot of the groundnut sauce, and the smell was wafting through Hackney Wick,” she tells me. “I guess it was like a little street food stall outside my front door, but it created this little party vibe.”
The following year, Adjonyoh did it again. The stall evolved into the “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen” supper club, then a pop-up at Brixton market, a cookbook, and finally, as of March of this year, a kitchen residency at The Institute of Light cinema in East London. Eight years on from her first street food experiment, Adjonyoh is still selling peanut stew to the hungry masses.
“I didn't really think I was going to turn that into a business,” she admits. “But I took email addresses, and said, ‘If I do it again, I'll let you know.’ And that's what happened. I did it again, and just very organically, it became more regular.”
When we meet at the Institute of Light, I get the impression that Adjonyoh is an extremely creative business person trying to manage a million brilliant ideas at once. She hasn’t quite opened up yet, but can you blame her for being a bit disorganised? Next week, she’ll be in New York cooking at the James Beard Foundation. She just got back from filming with CNN. She wants to do another cookbook.
“Let me just have my morning coffee, do you want one?” she asks, rolling a cigarette as a breakfast accompaniment.
I’m here to taste Adjonyoh’s beef chichingas: skewers of beef covered in a suma spice mix, then grilled and served with peanuts and chilies. Along with okra fries, crispy suya halloumi, and jollof shakshuka, the skewers are one of her many inventive reinterpretations of traditional Ghanaian dishes from the Volta and coastal regions.
“We're staying true, conceptually, to what the ingredients are about, but trying to enhance them, and to show people the different ways of using those ingredients,” explains Adjonyoh. “[It’s] not just for people who haven't eaten Ghanaian food before, but for Ghanian people and West Africans in general.”
She laughs. “There's more than one way to cook a garden egg, you know? You don't always have to boil it to death. There's more than one way to eat okra. These are great ingredients. Let's explore.”
I ask what she thinks first drew diners to her reimagined Ghanaian dishes. “I was really lucky when I started, in that I had this niche market for four or five years,” she says. “Now, especially in London and across the UK, there's been an explosion.”
Adjonyoh lists other West African spots that have opened recently in London, including fine dining restaurant Ikoye. While these establishments serve food from a similar region, their differences show the possibilities available within a cuisine that, four or five years ago, was hard to access in Britain.
“My food's always been about celebrating the ingredients and flavours of West Africa in a way that's accessible for as many people as possible,” Adjonyoh continues. "For me, it's about an introduction to a culture.”
Speaking of introductions, how would Adjonyoh explain “Ghanaian food,” or at least, the Ghanaian food she cooks, to someone ill-versed in the cuisine?
“There isn't an easy way to define what Ghanaian food is,” she explains. “What I would say about it though is that it's a great example of food that is very natural, mostly unprocessed, very fresh. It's wholesome.”
Once Adjonyoh has finished her necessary morning coffee, we head inside to the kitchen. With all the ingredients laid out on the counter, and a warm breeze coming from the garden outside, she starts to construct the beef chichingas. First is the suya spice, made by mixing ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, paprika, cloves, pepper, and garlic. Adjonyoh then tosses small chunks of beef in the spices, skewers the meat, and places it on a hot grill. Once cooked, the chichingas are covered with peanuts and chilies for a salty and spicy garnish, and served with her signature peanut sauce.
This is how barbecue food should be. Adjonyoh has handed us the keys to a future free of plastic cheese and the remains of a crusty sausage you have to plier off the grill. The chichingas are flavoursome, tender, and a million times better than some soggy coleslaw in a stale burger bun.
Of all of Adjonyoh’s frantic ideas, this might be the best.