Zoe Adjonyoh: ‘My only access to Ghana was the food’
Zoe Adjonyoh’s dad gave her precisely one cooking lesson, when she was 10 years old. “How do you know when it’s done?” she asked, straining to catch a glimpse of the stove. Zoe liked to hover close to him when he cooked, enthralled by the sights and smells of the Ghanaian ingredient she would bring back from the market to his south-east London home. There was grilled tilapia, fermented corn dough called kenkey, and vats of stew, laced with fiery ginger and Scotch bonnet pepper. As the pan on the hob sputtered, spicy tomato sauce flew up the wall behind the stove. “How do you know when it’s done?” she repeated. He threw an arm out to the oil and sauce spatters peppering the wall: “When it’s up there, it’s done!”
If you are what you eat, then Adjonyoh’s debut cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, is a kind of edible portrait: a celebratory, intelligent, often chaotic rendering of the person she is, and of her heritage. The daughter of a Ghanaian father and Irish mother, Adjonyoh is a woman anchored in two worlds. Both sides of her family have food at the heart of their culture, and that passion for feeding comes through. “Probably 50% of the book is pretty straight-up traditional dishes,” she says. “The other half is my reinterpretation of some of those things.” She bounces from mashed yam and plantain pancakes to a “Ghana-fied Caesar salad”, weaving the recipes together with smart pr ose, thoughtful ingredient glossaries and, most compellingly, the story of how, at nearly 40 years old, she has rediscovered her roots.
This dual heritage hasn’t always played out so smoothly. She was born in Essex in a home for unmarried mothers, but moved to Ghana as a baby, where she lived with her grandmother. “She didn’t want me to come back,” says Adjonyoh between sips of coffee in a cafe around the corner from her south London restaurant. All this went far over her head, though, as she toddled around the Accra suburb of Mamprobi. Revisiting Ghana recently, she was struck by the number of people who came forward with stories about her: “There were about 50 people around me telling me they used to hold me when I was a baby, they used to change my nappies.”
Returning to the UK at around two years old, Adjonyoh lived with her parents in Deptford, in south-east London. She was thrust into a very different life, without the extended family she had grown used to. As she got older, she turned to the “aunties” of Ridley Road market in Dalston for tips, finding a taste of home in London’s Ghanaian community. From her father’s kenkey to hot pepper sauce, food enabled her to connect with the West African side of her heritage.
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