During Black History Month – and always, for that matter – it's important that we take time to reflect on the stories of members of the Black community, and celebrate the vast contributions the community has made. In this piece, writer and cook Zoe Adjonyoh of Zoe's Ghana Kitchen explores the relationship between food and identity, as well as the importance of food for migrant communities.
Since 2010, I have helped forge a path for other West African food entrepreneurs in the UK. That wasn’t necessarily my intention when I first cooked a vat of Peanut Butter Stew outside my front door to capitalise on an influx of hungry people during the Hackney Wicked Arts Festival in 2010.
My journey with and exploration of Ghanaian cuisine has been led by a very personal desire to make a connection with an aspect of my ancestry – a people and a culture that were largely distant in my upbringing – and it has been supplemented by the joy of bringing folk together over food.
Though I spent my early years in Accra, being weaned on 'Tom Brown' (toasted cornmeal) and cocoyam pottage, gurgling in baby Fante talk, it was a long time before I returned to Ghana in 2013.
But food was my guiding point, leading me to be reunited with those people who first informed my palate.
My mum is Irish and my dad’s Ghanaian. That makes me first generation British in my family. A third culture child. While I was born to a Ghanaian father, I spent the majority of my childhood holidays in Ireland with my mother’s family – all of our summer and Easter vacations were spent building tree houses in rural West Cork, digging potatoes in my grandfather’s small field, and collecting mussels from the beach at Bantry Bay, which was idyllic in many ways.
Back at home in South East London, my dad often brought home ingredients I had never been formally introduced to. Often he bought them to cook for himself, and he didn’t seem to understand why I would be interested to know what they were, so I would have to quiz and bother him to gather as much information as I could. I remember standing next to him as he unwrapped kenkey (fermented corn dough) from its maize leaf casing and released that heady fermented odour, enquiring with an upturned nose, ‘What is it, Dad?’ I enviously watched him devouring the kenkey with tilapia and lashings of shito (hot pepper sauce) and wanted in.
This is what started my food journey – connecting with my dad, connecting with my Ghanaian heritage. It was my curiosity rather than his encouragement that instilled my cravings for the food and culture. We didn’t have any Ghanaian family in London and we couldn’t afford trips to Ghana, so that aspect of my identity was missing. Cooking Ghanaian food became the way for me to connect with my cultural heritage.
My first (and only) cookery lesson was when Dad was cooking his chalé (spicy tomato) sauce. He had unceremoniously thrown into a pan his not-very-finely-chopped onions and his customary chilli and curry powder, and the smell and sizzle was fascinating. Next, his tomato mixture was sploshed in as I stood guard, and about 20 minutes later, the splashback was splattered with hot tomato sauce. Concerned, I asked, ‘How do you know when it’s done, Dad?’ He casually walked over to the hob, looked at the splashback and explained, laughing: ‘When it’s up there, it’s done!’ That’s why food became important. I could watch my dad cook and I could cook with him, and then cook for him, and that was my only access point to what Ghana was about: the food.
I learned from a very young age the relationship between food and identity. As my parents were both immigrants, arriving in the UK to posters everywhere announcing 'No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs' it was a tool for them to go home. It was nostalgia; it was comfort. As a third culture child with a heritage spanning two continents, it can be difficult to feel like you truly have the right to own any part of the cultures that spawned you. How could I be Ghanaian growing up outside of that community?
The feeling of being a stranger, a foreigner in my own land was usurped at the moment of stepping onto the runway at Kokorito Airport. Smelling the air, inhaling the heat and smoke of morning commuter traffic – in reality, it was not romantic, yet I felt like I’d thirstily drunk in 30 missed years of culture and immediately felt ‘at home’.
It was the stories graciously bestowed upon me by my extended family rather than from my childhood that sustained and filled that gap. How far can a story take you? At the time of my return to Ghana, I had already started a well-received supper club and pop-up called Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, so the purpose of my trip was research, both for my portfolio and for my burgeoning food business. Prior to this, I had relied on the handful of dishes that my dad had cooked while I was growing up, and my mum’s interpretations in his absences, to sate my craving, and then on the kindness of my ‘aunties’, the Ridley Road Market Ghanaian grocery store owners, who were incredulous (me being light skinned) that I was anything to do with Ghana and bemused by my inquisitiveness about the ingredients they sold and what they used them for.
I became a frequent flyer with these ladies, as they transported me to their various home towns in the Volta region, or Kumasi in the Ashanti region, to describe what their local dishes and delicacies were. In this way, food is the bridge that unites and I would argue can be the first point at which a cultural exchange can occur.
The migrant story is often best and first told through food – it is around food and food culture that migrants form community and create refuge. The story of our food is what connects us to home and can transport anyone who eats such food to the place and people from which it's from. For many people, their first exposure to the changes that come with migration is through the foods immigrants bring with them. British food has never been more interesting as a result.
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