At a time when many (including our own Mayor) are boycotting the Hackney Picturehouse over its failure to pay staff the London Living Wage, it’s heartening to see the Institute of Light, London Fields’ independent cinema and venue, doing well.
The posters are crisp and new, there’s a charming exhibition of Tokyo jazz photography by Philip Arneill, and new, long-term pop-up Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (the brainchild of chef, author and Hackney Wick resident Zoe Adjonyoh) are set-up and in business.
Headed “traditional Ghanaian recipes remixed for the modern kitchen”, the ZGK generous menu is chain restaurant-ready, should that be their goal. It’s clear, decently priced (snacks – which can be taken into the cinema – are mostly around 3 – 5 quid; the tapas-style main plates range from £3 to £9), and includes a funny riff on Big Shaq’s modern classic ‘Man’s Not Hot’ and spice levels. These run from ‘mans not hot’, through ‘mans in a vest’, all the way to ‘mans naked’.
After we’ve ordered, I get a chance to flick through Adjonyoh’s own cookbook, a good way to get excited for the fruits of her Ghanaian know-how (fleshed out on a trip to visit extended family in 2013). She explains that ‘holy trinity’ of Ghanaian cuisine consists of onion, fresh root ginger, and chili added to tomatoes (which seems more like four ingredients to me, but it’s all good).
Our informative maître d’, Natalie, suggests that we “get a platter kinda thing going on”, and we don’t need to be told twice. Aside from jollof rice, I’ve not really had any of this stuff before…
The quest into the unknown starts with the garden egg salad, accompanied by okra and spinach. (Garden eggs are a kind of tiny, teardrop-shaped aubergine.) This really sings – pleasant bitterness (the kind one used to find all the time with aubergines but that seems to have been eradicated) with crisp fresh okra and a satisfying balance of textures.
If you’re in the mood for something a little less healthy, the creamy, turmeric-y fried yam balls (which come with a peanut sauce that goes with everything else we order) and the koose fritters (essentially fried bean cakes) are both excellent.
Perhaps a happy medium between the two is the grilled plantain – sweet, caramelised, substantial perfection, rounded out with a touch more chili. At £4 it’s an absolute steal, and you get two halves of the charred fruit – making it easy to split, even as its deliciousness makes sharing almost impossible.
Tilapia is a fish that I have a chequered history with – when I lived in a 60+ person cooperative house (please note: I am not a hippy) its cheapness made it a regular feature in our mass meals, to very mixed results.
But the ZGK edition is divine, with a chili heat that seems magically to be coming from inside the fish, and a host of taste-bombing roasted veg on the side, served with shito (pepper sauce) made from Pettie Belle chilis at the ‘mans in a vest’ level of spiciness. There’s also a helping of banku, a white fermented paste made from corn and cassava, a comforting staple of all Ghanaian tribes just as starchy and moreish as its cousin, fufu.
Speaking of spiciness, the ‘Ghanaian Guacamole’ is the perfect way to soothe the tongue. It makes me and my partner want to add peanuts on guac now every time, as it works as such a surprising treat here.
Meat fans: the suya free range beef chichinga skewers are great, with its sour, almost soupy spice rub and not-tough-but-definitely-’there’ meaty presence. However the chicken strips are next level. The puffy batter mixed with jollof spices is an eye-waterer, and taken as a whole they knock Hackney’s many other fried chicken options into a cocked hat. They really are worth the stop any time you’re by London Fields, and an accessible way in to an cuisine unfamiliar to many.
Our meal concludes with an amazing pudding, albeit one that’s a touch more gourmet than the wholesome and simple majority of the menu. It combines ice cream, with a searing hit of scotch bonnet, and a crazy complex mix of sharp, fresh hibiscus.
It’s still zinging the senses as we make our exit, newly armed with knowledge of how memorable West African cuisine can be. Even if it’s just for a snack as you enjoy the latest blockbuster, a visit to Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen is an education in flavour.