Health, fitness and Food

Ghanaian food in London

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With its spicy stews and robust side dishes, Ghanaian grub is starting to step out of its expat ghetto. Time Out meets the people aiming to make ’going for a Ghanaian‘ part of every food-lover‘s lingo

Ghanaian food in London

Adwoa Hagan-Mensah of Jollof Pot

Does your knowledge of African food start with biltong and end with cous-cous? Then you’ve got a long way to go, challey. And where better to start than with the cuisine of Ghana, a country with some 50,000 expats in London.

Ghanaian food is characterised by its hearty, tasty stews and soups and fondness for chilli peppers (known as pepe), and you can rest assured that you’ll never finish a Ghanaian meal hungry. Stews or soups are usually served with a generous starch accompaniment: either a rice dish like jollof (best described as a West African version of paella); or waakye (rice and black eye peas); or something like gari (dried, grated cassava); fufu (pounded yam, plantain and/or cassava cooked into a thick dough which must be swallowed without chewing); or kenkey (fermented corn and cassava dough wrapped in corn or banana leaves).

Ghanaian restaurants can be found in many West African enclaves – such as Tottenham and Hackney – but in contrast to other immigrant cuisines, they haven’t spread any further. The reasons why African cooking has failed to make the transition from ‘foreign food’ to ‘global cuisine’ are complex. Theories include everything from its old-fashioned cooking and preservation techniques, to insular marketing and customer-service practices, to discrimination among financial institutions.

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Jollof Pot – a fixture at Exmouth Market

But a new breed of young entrepreneurs, tired of seeing their food confined to culinary ghettoes, are plotting a quiet offensive. The African gastronomic revolution is coming to a restaurant, cookbook and possibly TV screen near you soon, and somewhere on the frontline you will find Lloyd Mensah and Adwoa Hagan-Mensah.

The young Romford-based couple run Jollof Pot, a catering company which specialises in modern Ghanaian food. Inspired by West African ‘chop bars’ (street food stalls), they also run three market stalls providing many curious Londoners with their first taste of Africa at Exmouth Market every weekday lunchtime and Portobello Road and Hackney’s Broadway Market at weekends.

‘When we first started,’ says Hagan-Mensah, ‘most people had no concept of what Ghanaian food was, never mind how it tasted. But, slowly, people are becoming aware of it and they like what they’re tasting.’

Jollof Pot, which started life as a Saturday hobby in Lloyd’s mum’s kitchen four years ago, is just the beginning for these ambitious twentysomethings. Buoyed by their recent success on Raymond Blanc’s BBC2 reality show ‘The Restaurant’ (they came fourth), the couple are planning to open Spinach & Agushi – the UK’s first ever mainstream Ghanaian restaurant – later this year.

‘We’re looking for a central London venue where anybody can rock up and have something to eat,’ says Hagan-Mensah. ‘We want to keep it very, very simple; sort of canteen-style; very fresh and very contemporary but still with hints of Ghana.’ The food at Spinach & Agushi (the name comes from a traditional stew made with crushed melon seeds) will be the same Afro-fusion fare that’s already popular with Jollof Pot’s celebrity customers such as Cherie Blair, David Cameron, June Sarpong and director Joe Wright.

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Ghanaian cookery is characterised by its fondness for chilli peppers

The couple admit to ‘toning down’ their food, replacing palm oil – which has a very rich, distinctive flavour – with olive oil, and chopping rather than blending vegetables; but they refute claims that their food isn’t authentic. Mensah says: ‘We want to be as authentic as we can but, at the same time, if we know that using five scotch bonnet peppers will put off 90 per cent of our customers, it doesn’t make sense to do that.’ So while mini jollof balls coated in breadcrumbs and poppy seeds, and roasted banana and nkate cake (Ghanaian peanut brittle) ice-cream may not be what auntie Ama’s would serve on a Sunday, Jollof Pot’s mix-and-blend approach is still utterly Ghanaian. ‘There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to our cooking because we don’t have recipe books,’ Hagan-Mensah asserts. ‘Every family will have their own spin on things, and Jollof Pot is ours.’

And the Gold Coast Bar and Restaurant in South Norwood is William Quagraine’s. Started with his wife Francesca in January 2004, it has become one of London’s most popular African food and drink spots, with Ghanaians and locals alike. ‘I am a very sociable person; I like my parties,’ he explains. ‘But I wanted somewhere with good food, a great atmosphere and high standards as well. So I decided to do it myself.’

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The grill at Jollof Pot

The main restaurant is upstairs, an intimate and vibrant spot serving some of the best Ghanaian food in London. But the real fun is downstairs, a friendly watering hole serving what must be the most exotic bar food in south London (yam balls, kelewele and chichinga, or kebabs) alongside Ghanaian Star and Castle lagers and spirits like apio and mandingo (as lethal as it is bright red).

If you fancy experimenting with Ghanaian cooking at home, you’re as well equipped in London as you would be anywhere outside Africa. West African cookery books exist, but it’s better to look on the internet or, best of all, to ask a Ghanaian for some help. In most inner-London areas you’ll find shops and market stalls selling all the ingredients you need – from fresh corn dough and okra to puna yams, fufu powder, palm oil and tilapia (the Ghanaian fish of choice). You should also try Ghana bread (a sweet-tasting loaf similar to West Indian ‘hardough’ bread), tiger nuts and Ahomka (boiled ginger sweets which can unblock sinuses in a millisecond). Just be warned: Ghanaian is the original slow food. Some stews can take a whole day to prepare, so save it for a Sunday.

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Stews are staples of Ghanaian food

It won’t be any time soon that we’re buying party-sized kelewele at M&S, but African food continues to grow in popularity. Cecilia Obeng-Brobbey, a nurse and cook par excellence with a mean recipe for nkrakra soup, has watched its development. ‘When I first came here in the ’60s, no English person wanted to eat Indian or African food,’ she ays. ‘They thought it tasted or smelled funny. Now, because we all live together, they want to drop their fish and chips! Our food is delicious; people just need to get to know it.’

And, if the people behind Jollof Pot have anything to do with it, there will be a lot more converts. ‘With the restaurant,’ says Lloyd Mensah, ‘ultimately we want it to be an international chain because, as far as we’re concerned, most African food is still untapped. You can travel anywhere in the world and have a Chinese or an Indian or an Italian. But African food is nowhere, which means the growth potential is absolutely massive. Ultimately we want Adwoa to be the black Nigella,’ he says with a mischievous giggle, only half-kidding. ‘But that’s in the long term. First we need to open our restaurant.’

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An authentic Ghanaian dish

Ghanaian restaurants in London

Afro Carib Takeaway

68 Broadway Market, SW17 0RJ (020 8767 9602).

Gold Coast Bar and Restaurant

224 Portland Rd, SE25 4QB (020 8676 1919/www.thegoldcoastbar.com).

Jollof Pot

Unit 11, Westgate Centre, Bocking St, E8 3RU (020 7254 5333/www.jollofpot.co.uk). Stalls at Exmouth Market Mon-Fri 12noon-3pm; Broadway Market Sat 11am-5pm; Portobello Market Sat 11am-6pm.

Manjaro Bar

148 Holloway Rd, N7 8DD (020 7609 2082).

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