Big-bellied pots bubble in the midday heat, the smells of slow-cooked meat, onions, garlic and ginger mingle in the humid sweat of the outdoor kitchens at Peace Chop Bar. Sitting at a plastic table in this roadside kitchen in Osu, a commercial district in central Accra, the capital of Ghana, Zoe Adjonyoh picks up her bowl and drains it.
“This is the best light soup in the city,” she says. Backstreet kitchens, or chop bars, are a mainstay of eating here, doling out everyday dishes: clear, subtle broths known as “light soup”, and thicker, spicier soups and stews made with fish or goat, groundnut or okra and eaten with kokonte and banku – doughy dollops of pounded cassava, or boiled and mashed yam.
These are the tastes that peppered Adjonyoh’s childhood, though she spent it half a world away. She is the daughter of Irish and Ghanaian immigrants who met in north London in the 1970s “at a time when it was ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’,” she says. Adjonyoh grew up with a strong sense of her Irishness and came to her west-African heritage later. “I didn’t have any connection with my Ghanaian culture. I didn’t have family in London, and the very few times members of my father’s family visited, they only came for money.”
Instead, her early experience of Ghana was lived through the nutty fragrance of nkatenkwan, the groundnut soup her father used to make. “My dad used to bring home bags of weird and wonderful things like kenkey [a maize dumpling] and banku; different flavours and textures to cook with,” she says. “My dad is a very quiet man. I guess I got to know him through watching him eat and cook. I realised that this was him going home, in the food.”
It was many years later, in 2011, that Adjonyoh started making groundnut soup to fund a masters degree in creative writing. The food that she cooked, Accra chop-bar-style, for friends sold out: “People were curious about where the food came from. I added other dishes I’d learnt from my dad: grilled tilapia and red red, a bean stew made with red palm oil and tomato paste.”
Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen took off in a series of pop-ups, teaching people that there was more to west-African food than jollof rice. In 2013 she visited Ghana and found herself taking meticulous notes about the food. Through the recipes, she discovered her Ghanaian side and, almost by accident, that her vocation was in cooking its food.
She watched her grandma make red red: “I had learned to cook the beans in palm oil with garri (powdered cassava) mixed in – but she didn’t add any garri,” she says as we arrive at a red red stall in Osu. “This woman makes it differently again. I cook mine in palm oil to infuse the flavour; she stirs the oil in afterwards.” Seeing that everyone had their own way of doing things liberated Adjonyoh.
In the bustle of Kaneshie Market in northern Accra we find trestle tables loaded with yams, cassava and chillies, and women carrying bags of peppers and tomatoes to be mushed into shito, a tomato, onion and chilli salsa. Street preachers rail into loudspeakers over a soundtrack of Afrobeats and the clamour of beeping horns in stationary traffic.
Yams, cassava and maize thrive in Ghana’s tropical heat and form the base of most meals. They’re eaten boiled and pounded with stews that incorporate whatever ingredients are at hand: game farther inland, fish in the coastal areas. Slow cooking means that tougher cuts of meat can be used. Cutting through the richness is the heat from chillies and peppers, which also grow abundantly.
Accra is gentrifying fast, attracting investment from all quarters as oil-rich Ghana grows. The country’s burgeoning middle class has an appetite for foreign flavours. In some places this has resulted in a fusion: the Republic Bar in Osu features Asian-style fried rice on the menu rather than jollof. At lunchtime, in the city centre, the queue of suited office workers waiting for red red is matched by those, 100 metres away, lining up outside a four-storey KFC.
At the Accra Food Festival, foodies are out in force: signs advertise raw, vegan and farm-to-plate. At a stall called Mukase Chic, Jay Gyebi makes classic dishes with a twist: deep-fried balls of jollof rice stuffed with cheese and beef, and cinnamon kelewele – plantain chips, crispy on the outside and soft in the middle.
“In the UK I was the only person who was vocal about the absence of this kind of food from the high street,” Adjonyoh says. After closing her Brixton restaurant, she’s taken inspiration from both sides of her family, running Sankofa, a supper club serving British and African fusion food. Scooping a big forkful of kelewele into her mouth, she beams. “This is what I’ve been waiting for.”•