In Ghana, a Chef Searching for Her Roots Finds Open Arms—and Open Kitchens

Years after chef Zoe Adjonyoh started her Ghanian restaurant in London, she decided it was time to return to the country where her father was born to learn more about the food—and her long-lost relatives.

In Ghana, a Chef Searching for Her Roots Finds Open Arms—and Open Kitchens

From left: chef Zoe Adjonyoh; her red red stew, so named for two red ingredients, palm oil and tomatoes. Made of black-eyed peas simmered in a spiced tomato sauce, red red stew is often eaten with fried plantain.

Photo by Nassima Rothacker

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My whole relationship with Ghana and food is born from a complicated identity. By that I mean, I have an Irish immigrant mother and a Ghanaian immigrant father. I’m the first English person in my family. Still, I always grew up feeling like an immigrant. I had no reference point for what English was apart from what I saw on the TV.

Ireland was so close that we traveled there often on school holidays. But I just didn’t know what being Ghanaian meant. I didn’t have any Ghanaian family in London around me, and my dad was an inconsistent presence in my childhood. I had no understanding of the culture.

Except, that is, when my dad was cooking food.

During the times that my dad was present, 9 times out of 10, my memories involve food. At home, he would have carrier plastic bags of kenkey, and tilapia, and shito [pepper sauce], and these amazing, diverse, differently textured and scented ingredients. They were vastly different to anything else going on in the kitchen. And I noticed especially that my dad would cook only for himself

Not that he was some extraordinary cook or had some flare. It was a very basic, meditative way of him evoking comfort and the memory of [Ghana] in this new [city] through those ingredients.

But I was a curious kid so I started to pay attention to him cooking. I started to stand by him and get brave enough to ask questions. I learned mostly by osmosis.

I was also a latchkey kid, which meant I cooked for myself a lot. I made school lunches for me and my sister, and that grew into me cooking for my mates. One of the [Ghanian] dishes that became key for me was groundnut soup. It’s a really simple dish that my dad brought into the home and my Irish mum, ironically, eventually taught me how to make. In our house, we call it peanut butter stew.

It’s sweet and spicy and piquant. It has an irresistible smell. Over the years it turned from something I would whip up for my friends after school to my dinner party special. People loved it. Friends would nag me to make it and I didn’t mind. It was my favorite food and still is. And it’s the dish that I started cooking outside my flat during a neighborhood “Open Studios” in 2010. It’s the dish that people lined up down the street for. It’s the dish that inspired my business, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. But with it came a lot of questions.

Like,“Where is it from?” and “Where is Ghana anyway?” It started to make me think, Why don’t people know about this cuisine? Why don’t people know where Ghana is on a map?

Eventually I started to consider the mission statement for my business. That’s when I came up with bringing “African food to the masses.” I wanted to break the stereotypes around the food and get people to have a new relationship with it as a healthy type of cuisine. I wanted to platform it in the same way that any other cuisine has been platformed in the U.K. I busied myself with that for many years. But I realized that I was running out of recipes because my dad had only ever cooked 8 or 9 or 10 different things at home, and they had formed the basis of my menu.

In the background to all this is another story. My parents were very young when they had me and didn’t have any money. So I ended up getting sent back to Ghana as a baby to live with my grandmother. It was supposed to be for a set amount of time. However, that amount of time ended up getting extended, to my mother’s dismay.

When I eventually came back six months later, that created for my mother a reticence to have much to do with Ghana. Throughout my childhood it was a mystery to me.

So I knew that I really needed to go to Ghana on a professional level to expand my knowledge of the food and ingredients. But I also wanted to reconnect with my family and to understand who I was through knowing them.

Adjonyoh’s agbeli kaklo, a Ghanaian snack made from grated cassava.

Adjonyoh’s agbeli kaklo, a Ghanaian snack made from grated cassava.

Photo by Nassima Rothacker

Going to Ghana in my 30s as an outspoken out gay woman, a fiercely independent feminist, and all of the things that traditionally Ghana might not like—it was a challenging proposition, but one I felt I had to make. I didn’t know how I would be received or whether I’d be accepted. I was incredibly excited but also really anxious and nervous.

I remember landing in Accra. The door to the aircraft opened and I looked out and saw the heat steam off the tarmac in the early morning light. Red dust and a wave of humidity cloaked me and I felt immediately at ease. As I walked down the steps, I couldn’t wait to feel the ground beneath me. And when I did, that two-foot square of tarmac felt like home. It felt strange to be so familiar, to be breathing in that air for the first time [as an adult]. In that moment, thousands of my ancestors whispered akwaaba—welcome. Then very quickly I was cattled into the extremely busy arrivals’ lounge.

My uncle Francis was waiting for me. I hadn’t met him in my adult life. We both had massive beaming smiles when we saw each other. When we hugged and greeted each other, it was like I was coming back after being away for a month, not decades. That instant familiarity that you have with family, even when you don’t really know them: There’s some strange magic going on there.

We drove to North Kaneshie, my grandmother’s neighbourhood, and I reveled in watching the city wake, in watching people commuting. It looked so different from London: the heat, the noises, women carrying amazing, incredible things on their heads with ease and grace and swagger. The traffic was insane and the noise—it was a complete sensory overload. I was filming the whole thing with my phone, beaming ear to ear.

Then we got to my grandmother’s compound and there were 20 different people to greet a version of me 30 years older. It was a fuzzy blur. I didn’t really recognize any face. But everyone had a nappy story or toddler moment to reflect back to me as if I could remember. From that point forward, I was ensconced in my grandmother’s house, constantly overfed.

I remember the first breakfast. I call it my big fat Ghanaian breakfast. Actually, it was three breakfasts. It was crazy, crazy hot, a typical July in Ghana. They made me what they thought was an English breakfast: beef sausages, scrambled egg, and an English muffin. And, as soon as I cleared that plate, I got corned beef stew and yam. At this point, I’m sweating so hard, but they wouldn’t let me leave. They just kept putting out plate after plate.

The whole time I was there, it was very much about feeding me. But not necessarily feeding me the food that I wanted, the local food. At first, there was an inclination . . . to want to try and feed me things that they thought I would like from the U.K. If I wanted what I came for, I had to speak up.

I got to spend some time with my grandmother who, at that time, was in her 80s. She used a walking stick but still had the energy to dance into a room behind it. I learned a lot about how chubby my bottom was as a toddler, how greedy I was, how I was curious and a fast learner. Also, more importantly, I learned about my dad and what he was like. We had a lot more in common than I thought. Like me, my dad was very entrepreneurial. And I learned he won the Commonwealth writing prize when he was 12. I learned writing was something we both shared.

But of course, the other part of the trip was discovering recipes. I had actually kept it a secret from my family that my trip had anything to do with food because I didn’t want the pressure. I was on a bit of a secret mission—for as long as I could keep it a secret anyway. I would get my aunt Evelyn to take me to Kaneshie Market, and she would show me her way to cook things.

One day, we went shopping for ingredients for groundnut soup. We came back to cook it together. At that point, I had to tell her about what I did for a living.

Explore the cookbook: Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen

Then she was like, “Oh, OK. You’re going to make the groundnut for us for dinner.” At the market, she had collected giant African land snails and blue shell crabs, all kinds of things that I would never put in my groundnut. Essentially, I had to cook her version of the dish—with those ingredients. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with a giant land snail before, but it’s quite something to pierce it with a skewer, then twist to pull it out. It’s a very brutal hands-on experience.

But everyone approved quite heartily. Most of my family members were unable to hide their surprise. My grandmother responded with the ultimate compliment, “Mm, tasty. Yes, it’s very tasteful.” Then, I told them more about what I did back in London. They found it very funny that I knew what any of the ingredients were or the names of dishes, and that I could get hold of those things in London and that I knew how to cook them. They were also very surprised that there was a non-Ghanaian audience that was willing to pay money to eat [the food I made].

Despite all of that, food became our common language. And I wanted to make sure when I was writing and talking about Ghanaian food back in England, I was getting it right. I didn’t want Ghanaians to feel like I was appropriating their culture or doing it an injustice in any way. I wasn’t sure how much license I had to adapt and extrapolate and play with recipes.

One thing I wasn’t expecting about the food in Ghana was the abundance of fresh ingredients—fresh seafood, fresh greens, and herbs. When my dad had cooked, it was always from a tin.

I also traveled while I was in Ghana. When I visited the coastal town of Jamestown, I cooked up seafood the fishermen had just caught off the line. Mackerel, barracuda, prawns, octopus, scallops, squid—every type of seafood imaginable.

I moved about the country cramped in the back of a tro tro bus. The bus routes were a magnet for streetwalkers with all these various foods and snacks, from gizzards to chin chin [chips] to sweets. And there were roadside eateries called chop bars, shacks on the side of the road with a makeshift kitchen. I would poke my head into the kitchen and say, “Would you mind teaching me how to make those gizzards? What was that you just gave me?” Not everybody said yes, honestly, and there was a bit of resistance at first because people were suspicious. They were suspicious because I was pale-skinned, an oboronyi, or a foreigner.

That was also challenging, being in Ghana as a half-Ghanaian and really desperately wanting to be accepted as one of your own and just to be constantly faced with the fact that you’re not considered one of your own. Even within my own family, that was something that I had to wrestle with a bit.

But eventually, I built trust. If I hadn’t made that trip, I wouldn’t have been able to write my cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. More than half the recipes came from that time.

After six weeks, I came back with this armory of recipes to play with. I felt encouraged by the fact that three different women in my grandmother’s house cooked jollof differently. I didn’t feel so conflicted about adding fresh thyme and garlic to my jollof at home. I came back with a great amount of creative license to be like, “These ingredients exist in Ghana, and there’s no reason why I can’t put them together differently. They will still be Ghanaian because they’re still singing the flavor.”

My biggest regret, I suppose, was that I hadn’t gone back sooner. My grandmother kept saying to me, “Go and come back. Go and come back. Go and come back.” I now have a tattoo on my wrist, the Sankofa symbol for “Go back and fetch it.”

My grandmother has passed away, sadly. But I remember her words as this wisdom, and instruction, and proverb all at the same time. It’s like, “Go where you’re going, but make sure you come back.” It’s almost like, “Come back to yourself. Wherever you go, you are here. This is your home.”

Back home, I felt quite sad that I hadn’t grown up around Ghanaian culture. Weddings, and birth ceremonies, and naming ceremonies, and funerals. I didn’t learn the language as a kid because my dad refused to teach me.

However, the gift of my time there was knowing that Ghana will always be available to me to connect with any time I want to. And one of the ways I can do that almost instantly is through food. Just like my dad would do when he cooked for himself. Going and coming back.

Food can be this tool. It can be a bridge between cultures. Even if it’s food that isn’t connected to our homeland or ancestry, what we eat and how we cook it says a lot about us. It’s very revealing of our souls. I don’t know how I would have otherwise found a relationship with my culture, given my circumstances and tools available to me at the time. And for me, that’s an ongoing process. It’s unfolding. I’m still becoming, as we all are. But I learn more each time I cook. I invite anybody who’s hungry. —as told to Angela Johnston

>>Next: A Filipino American Chef’s Search for a Lost Family Recipe

As a mixed-race, Black lesbian from a working-class immigrant background who works at the intersections of food, culture, identity, and politics, I’m driven to create change in the food landscape.