In 2010, Zoe Adjonyoh—a home cook with no professional training—accidentally started a restaurant from her home in East London. Local arts festival Hackney WickED was taking place near her studio, and she set up a stall selling peanut butter stew to hungry artists and festival-goers. People loved the Scotch bonnet-studded Ghanaian stew enough to demand that Adjonyoh make it again. And so she did, evolving her makeshift soup stand into Zoe's Ghana Kitchen, a supper club serving West African-inspired goat curries, cassava cakes, and even more stew.
Seven years later and Adjonyoh is at the forefront of a recent brigade of London chefs showcasing food from African countries. Her supper club has evolved again into a shipping container restaurant at Pop Brixton, and she recently announced a kitchen residency at Soho pub The Sun and 13 Cantons. Last month, Adjonyoh released her first cookbook, Zoe's Ghana Kitchen—a collection of "traditional Ghanaian recipes re-mixed for the modern kitchen."
Today, I'm in Adjonyoh's own kitchen. A huge, light-sodden warehouse flat in Hackney, it's filled with books, plants, and brightly coloured prints. A portable heater sits on a dark wooden coffee table and Ebo Taylor spins in the background. By Adjonyoh's own admission, it isn't the most modern-looking space.
"When I moved in five years ago, it was a white shell," she says. "We built everything and since then, it's somehow getting more and more 70s!"
But on this grey morning, the homely retro decor is a welcome sight. As are the ingredients Adjonyoh has neatly laid out in preparation to cook waakye, a mixed meat stew served alongside rice infused with leaves of the sorghum plant. It's one of her favourites from the new book.
In Ghana, waakye is often served as a breakfast dish to-go, shown off in clear polythene bags by people on their way to work. Adjonyoh has already seasoned the lamb and now rubs it with an autumnal palette of spices—turmeric, cornflour, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, and a little brown sugar—before setting it to sizzle in a pan as we talk.
RECIPE: Zoe Adjonyoh's Cassava Dumplings
She starts by telling me that the motivation behind the Zoe's Ghana Kitchen cookbook is similar to that of the Ghanaian commuters proudly clutching their breakfast bags: to show off Ghanaian food.
"Most of the book is very personal. I'm saying, 'Here's what I've learned, I'm sharing it with you—join in!' Half of it is fairly solid Ghanaian dishes and the other half is then new things that I've done with those ingredients," Adjonyoh explains. "The point is to share amazing flavours and also to highlight what's amazing about contemporary food from African countries."
Adjonyoh was born in Essex to an Irish mother and Ghanaian father. She lived in Ghana as a baby, but returned to the UK aged two and grew up in Deptford, South London. Learning about the food of West Africa became a way for her to connect with her dad's heritage. When writing the book, she took a trip back to Ghana and spent time in her grandmother's kitchen in Accra, eating fufu and butter bread with her extended family.
RECIPE: Zoe Adjonyoh's Pan-Roasted Cod
Combining the story of this personal journey with approachable recipes for mango salads, agushi curries, and okra soup, Adjonyoh hopes that Zoe's Ghana Kitchen will inspire readers to experiment with West African ingredients—even those who may have felt intimidated by cassava in the past.
"Even Tesco and Sainsbury's have [West African ingredients] now in their world food aisles. I mean, don't go there, it's overpriced, but people just walk by those ingredients all the time, not knowing what they are and what to do with them," she says. "That's where the need for education comes in."
The book begins by explaining that the base of most Ghanaian dishes is simple: ginger, onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, and plenty of tomatoes. Adjonyoh calls this mixture chale sauce after the Ghanaian slang for "friend."
"It's all super flexible," she promises. "Peanut lamb stew is my 'heart' dish and what people cook from the book—but even with that one, there's different versions in there of how to cook it, like one-pot mutton, or a vegetarian version. You can even just use the sauce."
The recipes use tropically grown ingredients like okra, yam, plantain, garden eggs (a type of aubergine), and agushi melon seeds, but Adjonyoh includes easy prep and cooking guides for each one. When it comes to plantain, for example, she talks readers through the different flavours the vegetable takes on depending on how old it is, before leading into a simple recipe for spicy plantain pancakes. The scratchy skinned yam is helpfully differentiated from a sweet potato, and charmed into golden mash and herbed chips.
With the waakye stew now bubbling away, my attention turns to Adjonyoh's spice shelf. Each spice- or herb-filled jar has been carefully branded with a clearly printed label.
"Oh yeah, I call that my smug spice rack," she laughs. "It wasn't me that did that though!"
I believe her. From her start holding living room supper clubs to dishes like the "Ghana-fied Caesar Salad" featured in her new book, Adjonyoh's approach to cooking is too fluid to be constrained by neat labels.
She agrees: "Jollof fried chicken—that's a recipe that's in the book and a good example of how it's been. When I started out doing street food, I was doing the most elaborate things: kenkey (a fermented maize dough and tilapia fish), groundnut lamb stew, jollof rice … When people tasted it, they bloody loved it. But most people would just go to the burger stalls because they didn't get it."
Instead of giving up, Adjonyoh improvised; marinating chicken strips in jollof sauce and buttermilk to make a Ghanaian version of fried chicken.
"Everyone went, 'Oh my god, your chicken is amazing.' And I was like, 'I know! Now try this.'"
As the waakye stew comes off the stove and is topped with a panting-hot boiled egg, I certainly don't any encouragement to try Adjonyoh's ever-evolving Ghanaian food.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.