Lopè Ariyo, Zoe Adjonyoh and Tokunbo Koiki
Lopè Ariyo, Zoe Adjonyoh and Tokunbo Koiki are part of a new wave of West African restaurateurs

West African food is at the helm of a restaurant revolution. And women are leading it

For years, food from Africa has been overlooked in Britain. But, thanks to a handful of women, the UK is finally waking up to what we’ve always known

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By Yomi Adegoke on

For me, like many others, food remains integral in rooting us to our country of origin. Mine: Nigeria. I don’t speak Yoruba, the language both my parents speak, and haven’t set foot on Nigerian soil since 2012. Bar my name, music taste and diet, my links to the country feel increasingly tenuous. But, still, Nigerian food takes me home, in both senses. My very un-British ability to sweat through the spiciest of stews, gifted to me by my dad, reminds me of how much hotter (and, subsequently, better) the suya – a spicy-meat skewer – is in Lagos. During my time at university, where shops that stocked Maggi were few and far between, my mum's monthly drop-off of jollof was the only thing that could cure my homesickness. And when I hadn’t been home in a while, my friends and I would crowd the kitchen, blaring Afrobeats as we cooked stew, rice and plantain. The smell would fill the halls and the requests for a helping came thick and fast.  

Growing up a second-generation immigrant in Britain was once an experience blighted by constant internal conflict. At times, it meant feeling quiet embarrassment about the very things that made you, from names to cultural practices. Sometimes, it even meant some of our favourite things were surrounded by shame, such as foods from our country of origin. Africans in particular may recall being teased for “funny-smelling” packed lunches and cuisine that was often characterised as both savage and strange. Curry remains the country’s favourite dish, as easily weaponised to insult Asians as it is devoured. Fufu, however (a popular dish in Western and Central Africa), was only ever a source of mockery.

Fast forward some years, and now food experts and chefs are predicting West African food will be one of the top food trends in 2018. Global food-trend consultancy firm thefoodpeople estimates dishes from countries like Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria will be the next big thing and remain the “last great untapped cuisine". Britain has finally cottoned on to the virtues of African food, thanks to a new generation of diasporic foodies.

The jollof wars waged between Ghanaians and Nigerians raged very much among ourselves when I was growing up – now, they’re plastered all over established food magazines

“A lot of second- or third-generation immigrants are reclaiming what it means to be African,” says Lopè Ariyo, author of Nigerian cookbook Hibiscus. “Before, you had our parents, who were too busy working, trying to make sure we had better lives. When the news is reporting Africa as the ‘dark continent’, where all sorts of diseases happen, you have people who hung on to that narrative. Because that narrative is changing, people are also becoming more open and accepting of the different foods that people in West Africa eat.”

This restaurant revolution is, like so many movements currently taking place within the black community, spearheaded primarily by black women. Women like the author of The Longthroat Memoirs, Yemisi Aribisala, and Alicia Ama of Ghanaian food stall Chalé! Let’s Eat (and many, many others), who are doing more than bringing great food to the masses. Whether it’s through cookbooks, stalls or snacks, they're shattering age-old stigma around food beloved by Africans in the UK, who, as children, sometimes saw their diets as a source of shame.

One, perhaps overlooked, reason for the West African food boom is African identity finally being incorporated into black British identity. For many years, black British culture was synonymous with Caribbean culture. Jerk chicken, oxtail, rice and peas have been embraced as part and parcel of life, in London especially, savoured by revellers at the Notting Hill Carnival and, in recent years, any and every festival. After school, we’d pile into Caribbean takeaways for patties and dumplings – it’s a cuisine enjoyed by many, the pride of both Caribbeans and Brits alike (when it suits).

African food, on the other hand, was always synonymous with poverty and strange smells. Cow heads and fish eyes and chicken feet – all of which are enjoyed in other cultures, but within the African context may as well have been ingredients for a type of ritual.

Photo: Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
 

The rise of our food is comparable to that of Afrobeats, which did much for a generation of young British-born Africans. The genre – essentially African pop music – not only made us feel immensely proud of our heritage, but launched the hybrid “afro-bashment” sound currently dominating British charts, as British-born musicians adopted the intonation, slang and beats music originating from their parents homelands. It is no different with food, where this generation are unafraid to fuse the best bits from the Western world with West Africa. Chuku’s, a Nigerian tapas restaurant in east London, offers plantain waffles as well as jollof quinoa.

Not everyone is in favour of these new takes on traditional African foods, seeing it as both the bastardisation and gentrification of our much-loved cuisine. Lopè couldn’t disagree more.

“For me, when I see people do that, I see it as them experimenting with the different uses of African food,” she argues.

“I made an egusi (seeds, which after being dried and ground are used as an ingredient in a stew) cake. A lot people say to me, ‘I never thought of the idea of using egusi in a cake,’ and it’s like, well, if you can use almonds in a cake, then why can’t you use egusi? It’s the same sort of thing.

Photo: Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
 

“We have such rich ingredients so it’s almost an injustice to just use it in one way and not use it in another way. You’re not hurting anyone so I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, when people say it’s not authentic. Look at stockfish – the fish a lot of Igbo people use in their seasoning. That doesn’t come from Nigeria – it comes from Norway. So, how is that authentic? I think things become authentic when a very big group of people accept it as their culture and the way this is sort of going eventually it will become what is know as ‘authentic’ in some sense.”

The lead-up to a time where African food is as coveted as cuisine from other continents has been slow but sure, she says. “If we look at the generations of immigration, African communities are amongst the newest.

“And if you look back at the Chinese, for example, when their food became popular was when they changed the ‘authenticity’ of it. A lot of my friends who have been have said that the food they have in China is nothing like the food they serve over here. West African food is quite spicy; Chinese people, Indian people – they love their spice. So, everything has to be kind of toned down.”

Not everyone is in favour of these new takes on traditional African foods, seeing it as the both the bastardisation and gentrification of our much-loved cuisine

Tokunbo Koiki, of street-food service Tokunbo’s Kitchen, adds that aside from being the last group to adapt our food to the Western palate, most West African restaurants in the UK were more about catering to ourselves, as opposed to attracting customers outside of our demographic. “They would open in close-knit communities and they didn’t attempt to appeal to people in other groups. The blinds may even be closed, so if you’re not a Nigerian or Ghanaian or African you may not know it was a restaurant. We would cook the food how we do back home, with a lot of spice or different cuts of meat a lot of people don’t eat, like intestines.”

She also adds that, alongside the rise of superfoods (which are liberally used in West African cuisine), the rise of pop-ups and African-themed residencies is partly why wider society is taking note.

“From doing street food, I got into doing supper clubs and pop-ups. I then realised some of my peers were also doing residencies – Chalé! Let’s Eat did one close to my house. I was offered a residency at a wine bar in Tooting for six weeks and then was contacted by the manager here.”

Photo: Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
 

Koiki’s current residency is at the Green Rooms Hotel in Wood Green, a trendy hotel in a converted Art Deco showroom. She’s a north London native, living in Tottenham for most of her life. In the increasingly gentrified area, hipsters’ want of all things new allows her and other African caterers to stay put in areas that are eroding much of the black population through gentrification. Zoe Adjonyoh, the founder of restaurant Zoe's Ghana Kitchen and author of the cookbook by the same name, has also taken up a residency at the Institute of Light in Hackney. She, too, is relishing the opportunity to have her food sold in her hometown.

“I was familiar with the space and thought it would be an amazing venue for us,” she says. “A cultural centre back in Hackney where I started and still live – we could expand and explore our menu and build an atmosphere around the food that tied in with the space and its facilities. When I met the architect and owner behind it, Jo Hagan, who happens to be Ghanaian, we quickly struck up a rapport and he immediately understood my vision.”

However, residencies and pop-ups are popular but ephemeral. Koiki hopes to one day own a space that will allow her and her culture to remain rooted in her area, of which over a quarter of the population is black.

“It’s up to us, whether you’re first/second/third generation, to create that space and ensure we leave a legacy in England as black Brits. In some years' time, when they ask what Tottenham was like, I want them to be able to see our legacy.”

Whether it’s through cookbooks, stalls or snacks, these women are shattering age-old stigma around food beloved by Africans in the UK, who, as children, sometimes saw their diets as a source of shame

Some pop-ups have had a more permanent effect. Yewande Ojo used to make cookies and cakes for family and church members, until her friend (founder of Pop Up Africa, an Africa-inspired pop-up events company) asked her to sell her treats at their inaugural event. Seeing its theme, she opted for the popular Nigerian snack, chin chin, and promptly sold out. A few years later, she launched her now-thriving food company, YOJO’s. She says finding common culinary ground with those unfamiliar with African foods helped bring it to a mass market:

“Once you give them options of how they can eat it, they’re willing to try it out. For example, we tell people you can sprinkle our coffee flavoured chin chin on ice cream. And the chilli flavour – who is to say you can’t put that in salad as croutons? Because of that, you start seeing people's attitudes change.”

Lopè also speaks of marketing West African food to non-Africans through comparison to existing foods they may already recognise.

“When I describe pounded yam or Ẹbà to someone I talk about polenta, because that’s the most similar thing they can see. Ẹbà, for example, when people on the shoot for my cookbook tasted it, they said, ‘Oh my gosh! This really tastes like sourdough!’ It’s about making it relatable in terms of description, presentation or familiarity of ingredients.”

Photo: Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
 

It’s never been a secret to West Africans that our food is world-leading. The jollof wars waged between Ghanaians and Nigerians raged very much among ourselves when I was growing up – now, they’re plastered all over established food magazines. So many have been deprived of Moin moin (a steamed-bean pudding), Dodo (plantain), Fufu or other foods – “so nice, they named them twice”, as the saying goes. Tokunbo simply hopes that the new-found enthusiasm for African food doesn’t stop at the western part of the continent, specifically at the borders of Ghana and Nigeria.

“On any given weekend, unlike before, you can now find three, maybe even four or five pop-ups going on offering West African food,” she says. “I went to Senegal to 2015 and it was the first time I tasted Senegalese cuisine and I was absolutely blown away. I want to see more people doing Senegalese pop-ups. I want to eat food from Ivory Coast, Cameroon – from all over Africa.”

Tokunbo and I share the very same hope – variety is the spice of life, after all. And British high streets can only be bettered by the seasons and spices that continue to delight the tastebuds of Africans around the globe.

@yomiadegoke

Lopè Ariyo, Zoe Adjonyoh and Tokunbo Koiki are part of a new wave of West African restaurateurs
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