When I to moved to London in 2009 one of the spots I began frequenting was Broadway Market, just south of London Fields. Every Saturday the area erupts with a mix of fruit and veg sellers, fish mongers and butchers, florists and espresso brewers. But the standout for me, week after week, was Spinach & Agushi – a street food stall selling classic Ghanian dishes such as peanut butter chicken curry, stewed red beans, jollof rice and fried plantains. Their signature curry is made with dark, earthy spinach and crushed melon seeds ("agushi") that add a creamy depth; a bit like tossing nuts into a pesto.
Adwoa Hagan-Mensah and her husband Lloyd are the team behind the business. When I met up with Adwoa at her office in Dagenham, east London, I was impressed to learn she now runs a second business called Eat Jollof, an event-catering company specialising in high-end west African and fusion food. Adowa is a serious creative force with an ambitious goal: to marry the bold flavours of west Africa with fine dining, and she's got the menu to back it up (her canapés include "ostrich in rich tomato red sauce served in an edible cone" and "fried ripe plantain, grilled mackerel, shito & dill"). She is also a charming and charismatic host, who plied me a with a killer slice of homemade carrot cake as soon as I walked in.
"I THINK THERE IS AN AFRICAN FOOD REVOLUTION ABOUT TO HAPPEN"
I am one of five girls. I was born in Ghana and moved to east Africa when I was really young. Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda; we moved around a lot. My father worked for a large international charity and I was sent to a boarding school in the UK when I was about seven or eight.
Out of the five of us, my mom insisted I was the one in the kitchen. Of course when you’re young you don’t want to be cooking – you want to be playing hopscotch outside. She must have seen something I couldn’t see at the time.
It was at university that I realised I could make money out of this. I needed to earn, so I printed out this little menu that was half English dishes and half Ghanian dishes. I used to put it underneath other students’ doors. People would pre-order their food for the week and I would cook and deliver it. My customers were mainly guys who couldn't cook for themselves.
Did I always want to start a food business? No. I knew I wanted to start a business but didn't really know what. When I met husband Lloyd, a first-generation Ghanian in London, he was working as a software engineer. I always said I was gonna marry someone like my dad, and that’s exactly Lloyd: reliable, sensible, ambitious. We used to have a lot of dinner parties for our English friends, and they were like, “wow, this is amazing!” We realised we had a joint passion for food. I thought there was this huge gap in the London market – African restaurants were in the African areas and other people didn’t have a clue how to access them. That’s how the idea of the market stall came about.
It’s important to remember that west African food is not really tailored to the western pallet. For instance, palm oil is the preferred cooking oil in Ghana, but we don’t use that because it’s not sustainable or healthy. You might have a dish, such as a spinach stew with “meat”, that contains not only lamb or beef but also snails and cow foot. Vegetarian dishes are pretty much non-existent. So we had to think about our core customer and adapt. But we didn’t have any reason to think people wouldn’t love it.
I think there is an African food revolution about to happen. I think Indian food has had its day. We’ve been doing this near on 15 years and back then we were the only ones. I remember being on the stall and Africans would come up and say, “what, do white people buy this?” And I was like, “yeah! Why, are you surprised? Our food is delicious!” They would just walk away mystified; they thought it was just too much too soon. But people in London are up for trying anything, and we thought the more unusual the better. I have noticed the food that is really up and coming is west African; you don’t really hear much about east African. It’s important for us to let people know they are having Ghanian food – I don’t want them to go away thinking this is what’s served across Africa because of course there are similarities and differences.
"My parents would have preferred if I had a more traditional job. I mean, if your daughter came along and said, 'I’m going to start a street food stall,' you’d be like, 'are you having a laugh?'"
What really gets me excited as a cook is elevating and reinventing traditional dishes. At the moment I’m working on new variations of jollof rice, which is rice cooked in tomatoes, garlic, spices and fennel seeds. I’m doing one with fish, a prawn one, a guinea fowl one. On our catering menu at Eat Jollof we’re serving things like antelope, kelewele – a Ghanian street food made of diced plantains fried in ginger, garlic, cloves and chilies – served on a stick, and peanut soup shots. Things like lobster and clam are considered peasant food in Ghana, so I’m trying to find ways of incorporate them into our menu. Any west African caterer will do a buffet really well, but what I’m doing in terms of fine dining and well-plated Ghanian dishes, you won’t find that anywhere else. I see us as trailblazers. I want to be doing the MOBOs. If African heads of state come to Downing Street, I wanna be there! You know what I mean?
The funny thing is, I was an underachiever at school. I haven’t told you the whole story. I left boarding school with bad grades and I went to university because in African households that’s what is expected of you. I found out that I was dyslexic. I’ve always had this sense of guilt that I haven’t achieved. So that’s one of the things I strive for … not just money but success. I wanted to prove to my parents that I could run a business. They would have preferred if I had a more traditional job, a doctor or a lawyer or something. I mean if your daughter came along and said, “I’m going to start a street food stall” you’d be like, “are you having a laugh? Get yourself a proper job!” But they eventually came to see my vision.
Since having my own kids, that feeling has changed slightly. Now it’s more about wanting them to see me get up every day and go to work. I want to instill in them a sense that whatever they want to do, do it well.
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All photos by Krisztian Shippy Sipos, courtesy of Eat Jollof.