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How a peanut butter stew decolonised diets

Zoe Adjonyoh serves up spicy consciousness

Zoe Adjonyoh Hero TOPIA
Image by TOPIA

Zoe Adjonyoh is bringing West African food to the masses. Meet the founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen as part of BEYOND THE STALE – a regular series that celebrates the indie tastemakers fixing media. And don your sunglasses, because Zoe isn’t going to dim her light for anyone

Both my parents used food as a tool to connect to home.

Whether searching for an authentic cultural experience thanks to fermented kenkey or sampling a fusion-inspired chocolate gyoza, eating is inherently a political act. And that’s what Zoe Adjonyoh wants to get us talking about.

Disarmingly charming with her humour, honesty and sense of self, Adjonyoh is a chef-powerhouse who has more plates spinning than many of us have in our cupboards. 

The founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen – a former wildly popular supper club, restaurant and catering business now decolonising the food industry by bringing African spices to the masses – is also an author of the cookbook by the same name. In 2020 she created Black Book, a support network and visibility platform for Black and non-white chefs, cooks and food writers within the industry. And she is also host of the podcast Cooking Up Consciousness, in which guests like to discuss ingredients in the pursuit of purpose and higher vibrations.

Step onto your local high street and you’re sure to find anything you want to eat, from spicy masala dosa to fresh seafood paella. In Serving Up (which is currently seeking crowdfunding through Unbound Publishing), Zoe has compiled an anthology that brings together prominent and emerging voices in food writing today.

Pledge your support to make this book happen

Thought pieces cover the distinction between cultural appropriation and culture appreciation, the evolution of contemporary food culture, and why we all have a responsibility to actively decolonise our diets. 

TOPIA reached out to the food media pioneer to ask her about Ghanaian ingredients and food that transgresses borders

Hi Zoe. First off, where are you right now?

I’m in my East London home, probably for the last time in a very long time, maybe the last time before moving to the US, looking at my dining room table with two sets of roses, both bought for me by my wife. There’s an Asanka (Ghanaian clay grinding pot) with plantain at various stages of ripeness which I’ll be explaining to my guests tonight at my supper club – all the different ways you can cook plantain at various stages of ripeness. There’s also an African print runner. The table is half set and contains lots of bowls of single origin West African spices, so I can explain to my guests some of the ingredients in their dinner.

How did a “home cook with no professional training” accidentally start a restaurant?

I live in Hackney Wick and have for the last 15 years. In 2010 it was like walking into Brooklyn 25 years ago, it was not a desirable place to be. No one could understand why you were here, as there’s barely any transport links. It’s an industrial complex where creatives live in very cheap warehouses. During the Hackney WickED arts festival, the apartment was essentially used as a gallery. So I borrowed some equipment and made a big pot of my favourite childhood dish – peanut butter stew – a derivative of groundnut stew which is a ubiquitous dish across West Africa. My friend made a sign that said, ‘Zoe’s famous peanut butter stew’ (obviously famous only to us). There was a queue around the block for this stuff. 

And that stew evolved into your first traditional Ghanaian cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen ?

The spicy stew presented a lot of questions that at the time it didn’t feel like it was my remit to answer. There were a lot of weird stereotypes around cuisine. A lot of people didn’t know where Ghana was on a map. Supper clubs were very new at that time. I ran Ghana Kitchen supper club out of my house and that financed me through my MA in writing at Goldsmiths. Then I decided to move to Berlin to fulfill my dream as a writer (still waiting to fulfill this dream by the way) and ended up running a supper club there. There was a review in Time Out Berlin. And that was it, the German media descended upon me and it all at once exploded and I was still coming back to London every two weeks to do catering. It was ridiculous. The universe was obviously sending me this thing to do! 

For me, Ghana Kitchen was always a tool to get to the politics of the situation – using food to help close the gap between cultures and to lift the skirt a little bit on Ghanaian culture and wider African culture. Also, to break down stereotypes of what is good food. The broader idea was about decolonising the food industry, but this was a lexicon that nobody could have handled at the time, so it was more about bringing African food to the masses. It went on to become a restaurant in Brixton which was difficult and then I wrote Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. The cookbook is now on its fourth edition.

 

How did a synchronistic moment in the pandemic spur the online spice store?

I was already reimagining what Ghana Kitchen should be pre-pandemic. I was getting burnt out and had drifted somewhat from the reason I had set it up. So there was a synchronistic moment: my catering business was crushed, I didn’t get any government assistance and I wanted to get back to decolonising the food industry. So we decided to fast forward the plan and open up as an online single origin spice store so that I could continue to evangelise about these ingredients and flavours. But wouldn’t have the limits placed upon me of the white lens of food media – and the constant battle for substitutions. 

Ghana Kitchen was always a tool to get to the politics of the situation – using food to help close the gap between cultures and to lift the skirt a little bit on Ghanaian culture and wider African culture.

So you wanted to give your customers a place to find the ingredients you were telling them about? 

I knew that if they were buying from me, it was a short, transparent supply chain and there’s no excuse that you can’t find these ingredients and I know that the people who are growing these ingredients are making money and they’re African owned. 

And why food at all? How was it an important part of your childhood?

Both my parents used food as a tool to connect to home. I am the first-generation English person in my family, born to Irish and Ghanaian immigrants – my mother is Irish, my dad is Ghanaian. They arrived in the UK in the 70s at a time of ‘no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. They were very young and coming from unwealthy circumstances and I was born into this context. That’s at the core of who I am and underpins everything I do and say because I’m conscious of the racist environment I was born into and the limitations of my parents then. My mother would get care packages from her mother in Ireland. It was very exciting for my sister and I, but more importantly my mum.

My dad was an intermittent character in my childhood. When he was there, nine times out of ten, my memory of him involves food and the food of Africa. He would cook and bring home these insane ingredients – fermented maize called ‘kenkey’, a hot pepper condiment called ‘shito’, or smoked fishes. So there was this variance of flavours and textures and tastes and I became fascinated with it. I had a very strong relationship with my Irishness because we went there consistently, and I had a good understanding of the culture and what Irishness was within me, but I had this huge vacuum about Ghana. Food was a tool that started to fill the vacuum, and in watching my dad cook it, I learned to cook through observation. 

How did your more recent experiences with chefs of colour in the US lead to the Black Book platform?

I’ve been living between the UK and the US as my wife is American. In the UK I was working in a silo, not having been a part of the food world or industry until the release of my cookbook. I was one of the token Black people given access to the food world and while I was grateful for the opportunity, I was always aware and mindful of it. I was having to code switch all the time and be judged. I have a really good BS-omiter and know when people are underestimating me or limiting me because of their own shit. And I got sick and tired of that. 

I have a really good BS-ometer.

In the US, I was invited to cook for the James Beard Foundation and Culinary institute of America and was exposed to a whole new culinary world. There was this huge amount of appreciation for Black food talent and there’s a really amazing network of chefs of colour within the industry. I decided I wanted to bring that visibility of Black food talent to the UK. I’m beginning to build an advisory group with the focus being on food media and food brands – working with people of colour.

As more and more projects highlight different perspectives in food culture, growing momentum at some pace, where do you see this movement going?

Whether it’s For the Culture or Whetstone or High On The Hog, there are many of us working to build versions of that in a culture where we are ready to support each other rather than fight for the scraps that white culture leaves on the table for us. And long may that continue. There is more chance that our work is valued this way and share our experiences this way and fight and truly represent ourselves whether it’s the queer experience or the queer black experience. The non-white experience is much more intersectional than the white experience so there are many layers to unpick and experiences to unpick. Serving Up – the book I am crowdfunding at the moment – is trying to do that.

What’s the next challenge?

Our only challenge now is to cut through and to collaborate effectively and to make sure we’re filling all the gaps and to move past the mindset of scarcity. The trend is moving away from needing the white gaze to be a comfort blanket, and towards building our own networks, media outlets and platforms to raise each other up. That’s the gift we have now with the Internet and access to information. 

The trend is moving away from needing the white gaze to be a comfort blanket.

How can we create real systemic unshakable change? 

It requires real systemic unshakable change at the very tops of the industry – not the editors but the bankers, the investors. It takes time to unwind 500 years of colonialism. Do we, in parallel, build our own shit or do we burn down existing versions of it? The people who have benefited aren’t about to give up their seat of power anytime soon. Until that changes, everything else is tokenistic. We don’t have to burn it down, but we don’t have to worry about being excluded from it. It’s about taking back control and taking back power in a really basic sense.

What is one totally unexpected outcome you’ve seen as a result of your work?

I am somehow surprised by the pleasure of being able to inspire and empower other people. It’s no small feat to have your business collapse and to try and pivot it and recenter it to make it not just about you but about something bigger, which for me is decolonising the food industry: the power of that and the ripple effect has surprised me the most. 

What have you learned along the way about yourself, personally?

I have realised I am tired of not being myself. Having to dim your own light so you’re not ‘too much’ for other people: too intense, too passionate, too outspoken – that is very wearing on a person. When you can get to a place where you’re like ‘Fuck it, I’m going to turn my light all the way up.’ People will either like it or get some sunglasses. My greatest surprise is that telling other people to “wear sunglasses” has been received so well. Whenever I have been able to make myself vulnerable, I don’t have any shame.

What simple ritual brings you joy daily?

Daily – I’m obsessed with the Chani app – I read my horoscope every day. And I meditate. My most grounding routine is meditation, absolutely, every day. And a gratitude meditation. If I go even just a few days without it, I know I need to return to it and be reminded of what I’m grateful for.

What food would you eat daily if you could?

My wife Sara makes great tacos. I’m interested in exploring flavours, and you can vary what’s in the tacos with garnishes etc. So yeah, I could have Taco Tuesday every day.

And lastly, what’s the last song you’d want to hear during your time here on earth?

Prince comes to mind straight away. Purple Rain. Prince symbolises a creative life well lived – really exploring aspects of himself, vulnerably and creatively and putting out great work as a result of it. I hope by the time I died I could justify playing that song because I had lived a life worthy of it.

Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our world of good.

What’s so good about this?

BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing media for the better – whether in food, science or sex – by addressing its blind spots. Thanks to honest blogs, rich podcasts and the rise of the newsletter, these rock ‘n’ roll raconteurs, many of whom have yet to see their identities reflected within wider media, are building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives.

Zoe Adjonyoh is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives. Support her new anthology, Serving Up

Meet the writer

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.

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