Ghana knocks hard on door of London’s foodie scene
Traditional Ghanaian cuisine includes kelewele, which is spiced ripe plantain served with peanuts as an appetiser or with ice cream as a dessert

Ghana knocks hard on door of London’s foodie scene

Liz O’Keefe
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Sweet Handz Ghanaian restaurant jollof
Jollof – spicy rice cooked dry in a tomato sauce – is another Ghanaian favourite

A new wave in African cuisine is slowly but surely manoeuvring itself into London’s foodie scene. From street food to restaurants, Ghanaian food is here and it’s about to make its mark. Produce Business UK talks to the key people behind the movement to discover what the cuisine will bring to the UK foodservice sector

Relatively unknown to a lot of consumers, Ghanaian food has long been an undiscovered entity. It has largely been lumped into the same bracket as Moroccan, Kenyan or South African food. The unsurprising truth is that throughout the 11 million square miles that the African continent spans there are so many different types of food to discover, with Ghana arguably being one of the most untapped.

From jollof – spicy rice cooked dry in a tomato sauce – and fufu – a large dumpling served in a peanut or palm oil soup – to many variations of plantain dishes, Ghanaian food offers a wealth of unique flavour experiences developed through the generations and ready to be discovered.

A quiet food revolution

The integration of Ghanaian food into London’s food culture has been slow. Only a few restaurants advertise their wares and locations are mostly confined to areas with large numbers of Ghanaian residents, like Tottenham. Even researching this article was hard – not a lot seems to be written about Ghanaian food or culture, and recipes are scarce.

“You’ll struggle to find a Ghanaian cookery book,” confirms caterer Adwoa Hagan-Mensah, who gave Ghanaian food a push in the right direction when she and husband Lloyd appeared on Raymond Blanc’s reality TV show The Restaurant in 2008.

“I have one book of recipes that has been typed up from handwritten recipes from family and family friends. Cooking is done at home in Ghana and traditionally eating out has been considered a waste of money. There is not a huge restaurant scene in Ghana and foreign food is mostly seen as more superior.”

Hagan-Mensah was born in Ghana and grew up in East Africa. Although she was one of five sisters, she was always the one who her mother liked to have around in the kitchen. After completing a business degree and doing a stint in recruitment, she started running a street food stall with her now-husband and business partner Lloyd Mensah in 2004.

Starting off part time, with weekend stalls at Exmouth Market, Broadway Market and Portobello Road, the husband-and-wife team were asked to cater a wedding a year into their business. Now working more than full time, they operate two businesses; their street food arm, Spinach and Agushi, and event catering company, Eat Jollof London. The duo also runs a successful pop-up restaurant in Covent Garden for six months of the year.

“We loved entertaining and sharing our food,” explains Hagan-Mensah, who now runs a Ghanaian supper club from her home in Tunbridge Wells as well. “And we felt it was time to educate people about the different types of food you can find in Africa. A lot of the restaurants and cafés available are old fashioned, and aren’t as welcoming to people who aren’t Ghanaian as they should be. It is very traditional and food is not necessarily being tailored to modern palates.”

Preparing the way

Hidden away on Holloway Road, Ghanaian restaurant Sweet Handz has been open for years, but only in the last two years has the outfit experienced an uptake in non-Ghanaian customers. The restaurant strictly serves traditional Ghanaian food, like kelewele, which is spiced ripe plantain served with peanuts as an appetiser or with ice cream for a dessert; or palava (spinach) sauce – heartily recommended – and fried yam or plantain. “Fried plantain is a luxury, whether it’s ripe and soft or unripe and fluffy,” explains Elizabeth Mireku, who has worked at the family-run restaurant, serving more than 60 people a night at the weekend, for two years. “Fufu is very popular with non-Ghanaians and we are getting more and more people coming in for dinner, while large groups rent out the whole floor. No one is really interested in jollof; they want the more unusual dishes.”

It seems the advent of street food and pop-up restaurants has given the general public a taste for something different, and pushed Ghanaian food, albeit reluctantly, into the limelight. “It’s not so much been hidden as underexposed,” says Zoe Adjonyoh, creator of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, who’s a street food vendor, pop-up restaurant owner and at the forefront of a new wave of Ghanaian food in London. “There have been great Ghanaian restaurants, caterers and street food in London for many years. It’s just that they perhaps haven’t been so accessible for people outside of the Ghanaian and West African community.

“Our aim is to make those great ingredients and flavours as widely available as possible and put good-quality West African food on the high street, where it rightly belongs alongside Mexican, Italian and so on.”

Adjonyoh has been hosting Ghanaian food pop-ups since 2011 and this May she opened a new fixed restaurant in Brixton at Pop Brixton. She’ll also be taking her food out of London to the Camp Bestival, Bestival and the Manchester Food and Drink Festival. She serves fusion dishes, such as griddled lamb cutlets with spicy peanut sauce, jollof spiced fried chicken and her own take on kelewele.

“My food is full of wholesome, hearty and unusual flavours, so it offers something completely striking from the usual street food offering,” says Adjonyoh. “From a practical perspective, a lot of the traditional stew-based meals, such as red spiced bean stew and spinach and agushi can be easy and quick to serve up, while any meats are usually grilled, so that gives it the flexibility for a street food set-up.”

The next stage

Hagan-Mensah says it’s not hard to source the main ingredients needed for Ghanaian cuisine since a lot of its stews and cooking follows the Asian philosophy of onions, chillies, garlic and tomatoes. However, it becomes a little more specialised when it comes to yam, coco yam and plantain.

“We use local suppliers as much as possible for the essentials, then a specialist fruit and veg wholesaler at New Spitalfields Market and a dried goods supplier,” shares the caterer, who has would also like to open a traditional Ghanaian restaurant in London. “We have stuck with the suppliers we’ve got for the last 10 years, but it isn’t easy when there are certain restrictions on agusti (melon seeds), for example. We don’t get samples from wholesalers, but I wish we did. We seem to have to have what’s there. But, in fairness, we have not been proactive with these relationships either.”

Adjonyoh, on the other hand, has been mostly sourcing outside of wholesale markets. “Plantain, okra and yams and coco yams are pretty widely available now in most markets, as people’s palates have become experimental,” she says. “The more difficult ingredients are garden eggs, taro leaves, waakye leaves and kpakpo shito peppers, as well as specific spices such as Guinea peppers, which I usually have to find on Ridley Road Market. I need an understanding of the provenance of where the supply originates and flexibility from my suppliers.”

“We believe that African food is the next food revolution,” adds Hagan-Mensah, who makes it clear she supports mainstream chefs like Jamie Oliver who are trying to make Ghanaian food more accessible, despite backlash from the general community. “Cookery shows are so mainstream, but it is a waiting game for African food. We just need mainstream media to take a gamble.”

Another new food vendor on the street

Chalé! Let’s Eat was founded by young caterer Alicia Ama, who had tired of the nine-to-five daily grind. She now cooks Ghanaian-, Togolese- and Guyanese-influenced food on Chatsworth Road every week; offering flavours and dishes unique to Ghana like coconut and peanut flavours, or woody spices such as cloves and fennel…

What made you start up a Ghanaian food pop-up?

Alicia Ama (AA): I wanted to do something that represented who I am. I’ve always been in the kitchen (usually unhelpfully), so it felt natural. Ghanaian food works with the street food scene too because it’s not well-known to non-Africans and street food attracts people who are looking for something new.

What ingredients couldn’t you do without?

AA: Tomatoes – I can’t think of a Ghanaian main dish that doesn’t contain tomatoes.

Which fruits and veggies do you mainly use?

AA: Plantain, pineapples, mangoes, oranges, limes, melons, papayas, spinach, yams and cassava.

Are you working on any new dishes?

AA: I am working on more vegan options, as they tend to be very popular. My coco beans, which is aduki beans topped with plantain, toasted cassava and crunchy onions, has gone down well.

What’s next for Ghanaian food in London?

AA: ‘Next’ is already happening. Restaurants, cookbooks and supper clubs seem to be popping up everywhere.

A typical menu at Chalé! Let’s Eat:

Coconut beans

Papaya sorbet

Fried tilapia

Cassava chips

Chilli bean fritters

Melon-seed smoked chicken

Okra fries

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