Trend Watch: West African Cuisine

04 April 2023, 16:27 PM
  • Add wowza to your menus with plantain chips, jollof rice and chicken peanut soup says Sally-Jayne Wright
Trend Watch: West African Cuisine

African cooking is our latest obsession, with West African cuisine, the dishes of Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, especially fashionable. Tap ‘jollof rice’ into TikTok or Google and you won’t want for results. Google Trends data showed searches for Nigerian foods alone were up 250% between 2021 and 2022.

“Delicious Nigerian tapas” commented a couple on Tripadvisor after visiting Chuku’s north London bar in January. “The jollof quinoa, suya (peanut-, ginger- and chilli-coated) meatballs and sweet okra were real standouts.”

Intrigued by flavours experienced at street markets and restaurants such as Ikoyi, keen cooks are inspired to have a go at home. To help, there’s Africana by Lerato Umah-Shaylor, voted by Delicious magazine one of its cookbooks of 2022.

How does this apply to our farm shop or deli?
Modern foodies want world flavours. If you can use African spice combinations to showcase British seasonal farm produce, you’re onto a winner. You’ll inspire your chefs, delight regulars and refresh your café menu. Vegan and veggie customers particularly will welcome variety; there are only so many butternut squash risottos they can face.

What’s behind the African trend?
The Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement put African cooking under the spotlight. Publishers moved away from African cookbooks by Europeans, preferring, for authenticity, cookery writers of African descent. Chefs and restaurateurs such as Zoe Adjonyoh, author of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and Aji Akakomi of Akoko in London’s Fitzrovia, fed appetites for food adventure, with their spicy, peanut-heavy, meat- and plant-based dishes. Did you know peanut butter now outsells jam?

What is Jollof rice?
West Africa’s iconic dish. It is spicy and vibrantly red from tomato paste, curry powder, paprika, carrots, red peppers, red palm oil and onions. Every family has a recipe. So contested are the ingredients and origins that West Africans refer to as the Jollof Wars.

Isn’t there also a famous groundnut (peanut) stew?
There are soups and stews galore which is great news because soups are our most popular plant-based meal. There’s societal pressure to eat less meat and many flexitarians choose world cuisines on their meat-free occasions (Kantar). A peanut stew or soup works for omnivores and vegans alike if you use separate stocks.

Why are west African-inspired recipes so suitable for free-from customers?
Many dishes are naturally gluten-, dairy- and meat-free. Yes, you’ll find meat, poultry and fish but also recipes based on legumes, seeds and beans. Think colourful palaver stews made with melon seeds for protein; black-eyed bean cakes with chilli sauce; red cabbage and coconut salads. Typical ingredients include ginger, peanuts, tomato paste, plantains, fish, Scotch bonnet peppers and red palm oil.

Hmm, not sure about palm oil.
Unrefined, red oil is used widely across Africa and gives a distinctive aroma, flavour and red colour. Yes, it is palm oil and saturated, but don’t confuse it with the bleached, odourless derivative ubiquitous in processed foods. Red palm oil contains Vitamin A and tends to be used for scratch cooking alongside fresh ingredients. Feel free to use a different oil, adding paprika for colour if you like.

With so many British Africans, what’s stopped us exploring this sort of food more?
Hospitality’s fear of peanut allergies plus home cooks’ fear of Scotch bonnet peppers and unfamiliar veg. We need hand-holding in the form of cook-in sauces, seasoning mixes, meal kits, ready meals and cooking pastes.

Is anyone making West African ready meals?
Based in Birmingham, Oyetty Meals have over 20 authentically Nigerian frozen dishes, including Smokey Jollof Rice, for delivery nationwide.

What about an African ‘pesto’?
At September’s Speciality & Fine Food Fair, we were very impressed with the fresh zingy flavour of Shirley’s Jollof Paste one jar solution. Making the real thing can be very time-consuming says CEO Shirley Boateng. It will please the 39% of world cuisine eaters interested in products that work for both meat and meat-free dishes (according to Empire Bespoke Foods).

And what about snacks?
Ocado appear to be trialling Chika’s plantain chips. London-born founder, Chika Russell, is of Nigerian descent and sends 2% of her profits to help educate girls in Nigeria. Her range includes roasted peanuts, sweet potato thins and plantain chips.

How do you make plantain chips? I’ve heard plantain is gluten-free and full of fibre.
Use the greenest fruits and slice finely with a mandolin, fry and salt. For a sweeter treat, use yellow-black plantains. Peel and steam, or slit the skins before baking or microwaving.

How else can we make the most of the trend?
What about: gift bundles of Zoe Alakija’s Afro-Vegan cookbook with jars of Shirley’s Jollof paste; instead of butternut squash risotto, try suya roasted cauliflower with spiced peanut puree or Red-Red (bean stew). Call your dishes African fusion or West African-style. Tie in with local African festivals and tell followers.

Will the trend last?
Zoe Adjonyoh declares on her website, “I want to see Jollof as readily accessible as curry at supermarkets.” If the success of hummus, shakshouka and tagine is anything to go by, Zoe will get her way. We can buy West African ingredients but we need more kitchen confidence. Food entrepreneurs, look this way.

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