Ghanaian cuisine with Zoe Adjonyoh
and her recipe for nkatenkwan

Fishermen in Ghana

Dietmar Temps / Shutterstock.com

Ghana

A rich, silky groundnut soup made with peanut butter and fiery peppers was the starting point for Zoe Adjonyoh’s journey into the cuisine of her Ghanaian heritage. The food of Ghana varies as dramatically as its landscape, yet receives little attention. While Zoe founded her supper club Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen for fun, she soon realised that most people were ignorant of the complexity and diversity of Ghanaian food and the cuisines of West Africa in general. She has since made it her personal mission to educate people in the most delicious way possible.

What food did you grow up eating?
“I grew up in south east London with an Irish mum and Ghanaian father, so it went from my father’s groundnut soup to tilapia to lamb stew to fish and chips. Very varied, really. Growing up I was more in contact with my Irish family. Apart from the time in school, I spent my childhood in Ireland, essentially. We were working class, so we couldn’t afford flights to Ghana and had no Ghanaian family around. I didn’t have a relationship with Ghanaian culture or heritage to understand what that part of me looked like. I had no reference points as to what that culture was about, other than the food that my dad would bring home and cook.

“Originally he was just cooking for himself; it was quite a private thing. I could see that it was important for him and I saw that it was taking him home. That sparked my curiosity, because once I realised there was a connection between the food he was cooking and Ghana, I wanted to find out more about it and have a relationship with it as well.”

And you really have that personal connection now with Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Was it always your goal to share the Ghanaian cuisine with others?
“After being made redundant in 2010 I took the redundancy pay, went travelling and got back broke after a few months. I moved into this warehouse in Hackney Wick (London) where I still live. The area wasn’t as gentrified as it is now, and there weren’t many places where you could eat or have a drink. I started to do this supper club with Ghanaian food at home, which created a lot of questions. People hadn’t heard about the food, people didn’t know where Ghana was. So there was a problem to solve, but it wasn’t one that I intended to find a solution for. I just had a lot of fun bringing people together around that food and having those conversations, sharing information, feeding people and making a bit of money as well.

“The idea of whether or not Ghanaian food was in peoples’ consciousness was not on my mind. I basically did these supper clubs to finance my masters. When I then kept on getting calls for catering events, I determined that there was a huge problem in the visibility of African food and the people who cook it and have knowledge of it. That’s when the mission statement became: bring African food to the masses. It went beyond Ghanaian food, even though that was my entry point.

“Africa is a continent with 54 countries, why didn’t people know about this food? There are a lot of reasons for it, really. Many of the people who were cooking it, were cooking it for their own communities. They weren’t particularly interested in the White gaze, or in any other gaze for that matter. But that also meant that there was a big gap which somebody like me could bridge.”

Ghanaian market

"My biggest surprise was the breadth of fresh ingredients"

Zoe Adjonyoh

What is your favourite Ghanaian ingredient to work with?
“They don’t operate in isolation, so let me name a few. I think irú is one of West Africa’s most interesting ingredients because of its potential extrapolation outside of Ghanaian cuisine. It’s fermented locust bean, and we know that it’s used in lots of other products as kind of a binding agent, but locust bean as an ingredient, traditionally, is used as a flavour enhancer that you put in stocks and stews. It’s very smelly, because it’s fermented, but in the cooking process it has this really deep, savoury, umami quality. It’s good for you like many fermented foods, and it can give you the same depth of flavour as many meat-based products give, so it’s a great substitute in vegetarian or vegan dishes.

“Other than that, my trinity is ginger, onion and scotch bonnet peppers. They’re really accessible ingredients that I use in 90% of all Ghanaian dishes that I cook; and then peanuts, of course. Peanuts grow like wildfire across Ghana and West Africa, so there’s an abundance of them. We make peanut butter from them, kuli-kuli, as you know, peanut brittle… and they’re a garnish on everything. They’re cheap and delicious, and an ingredient that can be manipulated into lots of different ways. Peanuts are at the heart of everyday things that Ghanaians eat, together with avocado and jollof [a West African rice dish made with tomatoes and peppers].

What were the biggest surprises you found when going back to Ghana?
“When I went back for the first time in 2013, my biggest surprise was the breadth of fresh ingredients, and also the abundance of everything from taro leaves to the different parts of the products that you could eat. When my dad cooked, he used tinned tomatoes, tinned sardines, tinned corned beef. So that was a big surprise to see all the fresh plant-based ingredients there. Also all those amazing, beautiful, single origin whole spices like guinea pepper/grains of paradise, which were things my dad hadn’t cooked with. He wasn’t a complicated chef, he made simple food with ingredients that were much harder to find 40 years ago than they are now.

Cacao

Cocoa is Ghana's most important agricultural export

“The abundance of seafood was another surprise. Accra is on the Atlantic coast, and seeing fishermen bring in all those different types of seafood from octopus to prawns to baby barracuda… I was just overwhelmed. I had limited belief of what was possible with Ghanaian food until I was there and saw the richness and the variety of ingredients there was to play with.

“When I went back again - five years later in 2018 - I was surprised, conversely, to see how quickly Accra had changed. It was hard to find all those amazing ingredients that had become my toys. One of the reasons is the growing middle class in Accra dissociating from traditional foods and moving toward Western standards of what a nice restaurant or meal is. They’re developing a relationship with Western cuisine in a way that I wish they had with their own cuisine. I was shocked by how quickly that change happened.

“It was hard to get millet [a cereal grain], hard to get grains of paradise, and that was because of big, White, corporate companies had come to Ghana realising the value of these ingredients, exploiting the lands for their own benefit and out pricing local producers, farmers and exporters. Where does the wealth go? I don’t want that money to be going to Unilever or Monsanto or whoever this terrifying conglomerate is that’s pushing out my small local farmer.

“That’s why I’ve set up processes and building platforms to have transparent supply chains with farms directly, to sell their spices, help them make money, and not crumble under that pressure that is being put on them by the global north, essentially.”

Lake Volta

Lake Volta

What do you think defines Ghanaian cuisine?
“Ghana is a big country with vastly different landscapes. It’s lush and green around Lake Volta [the biggest man-made lake in terms of surface area] and there are fish like perch and tilapia. Coastal Ghana is all green plains and scrub, and then there’s the north, which is really dry and arid, where they have lots of fermented and preserved foods. The landscape changes so dramatically, and so does the food and the ingredients. I don’t consider anything to be a cornerstone, because even kenkey [a dumpling dish common in West Africa] has different weights according to different tribes. And there are more than 70 tribes in Ghana!

“Each tribe considers different foods important. The Ashanti people have a proverb about fufu [a spongy dough often made from boiled cassava or plantain flour] saying that if you haven’t eaten fufu for a day, you haven’t lived. But people in Accra don’t necessarily feel the same way.

“The only way I can generalise - and I hate to generalise - is that it’s essentially food that comes from nourishment and sustenance. There’s a wholesomeness to Ghanaian cuisine.”

Nkatenkwan

© Instagram.com/zoeadjonyoh

The Dish

I think we’ve arrived at your favourite Ghanaian dish: groundnut soup.
“It’s the dish that launched Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and also the dish that all my friends bug me to cook because it was my favourite thing to make. It was known as peanut butter stew when I was growing up, because basically you’re putting three quarters of a jar of peanut butter into the pan. You’d watch it melt and swirl and see these beautiful orange, red and burgundy colours form, creating this amazing flavour. Part of it is the nostalgia it brings when you eat it, but it’s just one of those dishes that is so hearty and balanced with spice, sweetness, savoury and umami… whether you do a vegan version or a meat based version.”

It’s popular throughout West Africa isn’t it?
“It’s rife across this part of the continent. Nigeria, Togo, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone… they all have a version of it. In some countries it’s more common to have it with chicken (which I’m not a big fan of), others use beef but for me it has to be lamb or goat.

“My aunt would get peanuts, grind them and mix them with water to make her own peanut butter paste, whereas others would just boil the peanuts into the soup to make it more like a broth. The one I grew up with was very, very thick and unctuous, and a bit sweeter because of that peanut butter. However you make it, it represents heartiness and nourishment. It’s just so simple, but incredibly delicious. I think that speaks to the essence of most Ghanaian food: mouth-watering yet uncomplicated.”

Is there a vegetarian alternative?
“If you want to replicate the meaty flavour you can substitute with irú that I mentioned earlier. Groundnut soup is often made with meat cuts that won’t really yield much meat anyway, so it’s more about the flavour that comes from the bones – you just need to replace the stock element. If you make a good vegetable stock that you like, add a bit of irú, some grains of selim [a type of seed with a musky flavour] and add some yam or (fried) plantain and you’ve got a delicious vegetarian or vegan version.”

The Ingredients

Chalé sauce
400 g
can tomatoes or 600 g (21 oz) fresh tomatoes
2
roasted bell peppers
2 tbsp
tomato purée
1
small white onion, roughly diced
5 cm
fresh root ginger, grated
1
small red scotch bonnet chilli (use half and de-seed if you have a low heat tolerance)
0.5 tsp
dried chilli flakes
3
garlic cloves (optional)
Nkatenkwan (groundnut soup)
2 kg
mixed bone-in lamb (or mutton) neck and shoulder, cubed
500 ml
water or good-quality vegetable stock
1
onion, finely diced
5 cm
fresh root ginger, grated
1
garlic clove, crushed
8
green kpakpo shito (cherry) chillies, or subtitute 1-2 Scotch Bonnet chillies, pierced, according to desired level of heat
1 tbsp
extra-hot chilli powder
1 tbsp
curry powder
2 tsp
sea salt
1 tsp
freshly ground black pepper
500 ml
uncooked chalé sauce (see above)
100-200 g
organic peanut butter, depending on how thick you want it
1
red scotch bonnet chilli, pierced
3 tbsp
crushed roasted peanuts, to garnish
Fufu
115 g
plantain fufu flour
250 ml
water, very warm or just boiled and slightly cooled
Chalé sauce
14 oz
can tomatoes or 600 g (21 oz) fresh tomatoes
2
roasted bell peppers
2 tbsp
tomato purée
1
small white onion, roughly diced
2 inch
fresh root ginger, grated
1
small red scotch bonnet chilli (use half and de-seed if you have a low heat tolerance)
0.5 tsp
dried chilli flakes
3
garlic cloves (optional)
Nkatenkwan (groundnut soup)
4.5 lbs
mixed bone-in lamb (or mutton) neck and shoulder, cubed
18 fl. oz
water or good-quality vegetable stock
1
onion, finely diced
2 inch
fresh root ginger, grated
1
garlic clove, crushed
8
green kpakpo shito (cherry) chillies, or subtitute 1-2 Scotch Bonnet chillies, pierced, according to desired level of heat
1 tbsp
extra-hot chilli powder
1 tbsp
curry powder
2 tsp
sea salt
1 tsp
freshly ground black pepper
18 fl. oz
uncooked chalé sauce (see above)
3.5/7 oz
organic peanut butter, depending on how thick you want it
1
red scotch bonnet chilli, pierced
3 tbsp
crushed roasted peanuts, to garnish
Fufu
4 oz
plantain fufu flour
9 fl. oz
water, very warm or just boiled and slightly cooled

The Recipe

Total preparation time: approx. 2 hours | Yield: 6 servings | Category: main

Chalé sauce

  1. Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend together until you have a fairly smooth paste.

This is the recipe for uncooked chalé sauce as it's used in the soup. If you want to make the sauce without adding it to the soup: sauté a diced onion, add a teaspoon of both curry powder and extra-hot chilli powder, add the blended tomato mixture and simmer it for 35-40 minutes until the tartness of the tomatoes has cooked out.

Nkatenkwan (groundnut soup)

Zoe: "Nkatenkwan, as this dish is known in Ghana, is most frequently eaten with fufu (pounded green plantain or yam with cassava, see below), but you can also serve it with boiled yams, cassava or even rice. It’s equally good served on its own as a rich winter stew with a sprinkling of gari (fermented, dried and ground cassava) and a side of fried sweet plantain."

  1. Put the lamb into a large, heavy-based saucepan, cover with the measured water or stock and add the onion, ginger, garlic, kpakpo shito chillies, chilli powder, curry powder, sea salt and black pepper. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer over medium heat for 25 minutes until the lamb is cooked through, skimming off any froth that rises to the surface.
  2. Stir in the chalé sauce and then add the peanut butter 1 tablespoon at a time while stirring until it has all dissolved. Add the pierced scotch bonnet and cook for a further 45 minutes–1 hour over a low heat, stirring regularly so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the pan, until the peanut oil has separated and risen to the top, which means that it’s done. You should have a soupy consistency and super-tender meat falling away from the bone.
  3. Serve with your choice of side dish or with crushed roasted peanuts or gari sprinkled on top.

Fufu

Zoe: "The strength and stamina required to make fufu from scratch could put it into an Olympic sporting category! My uncle told me that a university in Accra tried to build a fufu-making machine but to operate it to replicate the pounding action was more hard work than just doing the action manually. If you ever get the chance, I do recommend having a go, but all-hail packet fufu for a simpler life!"

  1. Put the flour in a small saucepan, mix in half of the measured water and stir into a thick paste.
  2. Place the pan over a low heat and slowly add the rest of the water, stirring continuously and smoothing out any lumps with the back of a wooden spoon (the low heat will absorb the last of the moisture).

Zoe's Ghana Kitchen: An Introduction to New African Cuisine - from Ghana with Love by Zoe Adjonyoh is published by Mitchell Beazley, £20.00, www.octopusbooks.co.uk

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