Storytelling, Authenticity & Tradition In My West African Cooking

Recipes shared in home kitchens and passed between generations inform the way we eat just as much as the recipes we follow online. To celebrate this, we're interviewing the chefs, home cooks and food writers we love, where we'll be talking about how the food we make intermingles with ideas of tradition and cultural heritage.
This week, we speak with Zoe Adjonyoh, the chef behind Zoe's Ghana Kitchen and Sankofa Test Kitchen.
I've been cooking West African food professionally for 10 years and have been a writer for pretty much the same amount of time. I think the most important thing about me is that I'm a storyteller. Part of that comes from my heritage of being Irish and African – both of those cultures have storytelling inherently built into the fabric of their cultures so it's unavoidable. I'd like to consider myself a sherpa, a guide into West African cooking and ingredients.
I learned very quickly that tradition is different in every household. It's not ever possible to speak truly to what mainly white press want to discuss as 'traditional' authenticity. I have always been more concerned with the new story around African food, or West African food in particular.
I have this experience all the time where people ask me for a recipe and they just want a list of instructions. But when I write about food I think of it as creative nonfiction. I'm trying to tell a story to get people interested in what the food is about, what it represents and what it can represent. But there's this need to take the story out of the food so then it becomes a functional list of rules and instructions. That isn't really what I'm interested in as a chef.
I believe that the best way to get people to engage with learning about food and how to cook is to encourage them to use their own intuition and creativity. If I'm in my grandmother's house, there's no measurements there, it's by smell, taste, instincts and interaction with the thing on the stove. To me, the whole model around cookbooks and recipe writing and that whole structure that exists is inherently racist because it excludes our gaze, it excludes our way of cooking and excludes our storytelling. It just wants to perform our culture in a way that's palatable for white people to receive it.
I think there's a lot of work for people who edit recipes [to do] when it comes to other cuisines. There's always one type of end user for them. In a recent piece, I’d written a sentence talking about the army of African chefs, whether they're in Africa or in the diaspora, who are forging this new African gastronomy which we are calling New African cuisine. I'd written one sentence to signpost that and she'd reduced it to 'cook'. I sent it back to her and said, "Why have you changed 'chefs' to 'cooks'?" And her literal words were, "I assumed you don't mean professional chefs". Why the fuck did you assume that? Because that is exactly who I mean. There's plenty of us around the world – just because you don't know they exist doesn't mean they're not there. What [recipe editors] should be doing is getting their audience to be less lazy, and make further investigation. You can find all the ingredients online. There's no reason to substitute them.
My advice to anybody who's interested in West African food is to get my cookbook, play with it. Get The Groundnut Cookbook, play with it. Then explore Senegal by Pierre Thiam or Ethiopia, or My Moroccan Food. If you really are interested, go to the second or third page of Google instead of those top eight results. That's really all it takes: don't wait to be fed by the mainstream press.

I want people to realise that there is no such thing as Ghanaian food. There's food that you can eat in Ghana because that is what grows there.

No two cookbooks will be the same, even if they have the same recipes, because there is no real benchmark for what is considered 'tradition'. We can only really think about tradition on the ground of the country where it comes from: what are the most 'traditional' methods perhaps? What are some of the more 'traditional' ingredients? Think of cultures where those recipes were passed down orally or visually for thousands of years but very rarely in a written form. That's why they vary so much from household to household but they will all taste good and they will all taste similar. Every single person writing about food brings their own story, brings their own tradition, brings their own authenticity to it.
I don't want to punish people for feeling that they need rules and instructions because that's what society generally tells us. But for me you should step into your own power and think, Okay, there's an opportunity to use my imagination and be creative here. This is how I approach recipes. I'll look at the ingredients, I'll skim the methodology and I'll look at the finished dish. And then I'll play with it to achieve a dish that I'm happy to eat, because it suits my tastes. And it isn't because I want people to bastardise Ghanaian food, it's because I want people to realise that there is no such thing as Ghanaian food. There's food that you can eat in Ghana because that is what grows there.
The fundamental thing is about getting people to have a relationship with West African ingredients and then bringing wealth back to those nations. If you get people to use those ingredients in ways that they are comfortable with, then it's the farms and co-ops in West Africa that will benefit. The more people that interact with the ingredients and use them in their everyday cooking, not just to cook West African food! They need to see these ingredients are transferable in the same way that harissa is, or Cajun spice is: things that people now consider larder staples that 20 years ago just weren't. That also helps to keep recipes alive: the more that you're innovating with ingredients, spices and flavours, the more you're keeping the conversation alive around what is tradition.
Zoe is currently running a crowdfunder to feed her local community during the pandemic. They have extended a stretch goal to continue to feed Akwaaba UK, an at-risk migrant group, and Hackney Migrant Centre.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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