Day 86: Groundnut Chicken Stew with Jollof Rice

Day 86: Groundnut Chicken Stew with Jollof Rice

inspired by Spinach & Agushi

The murder of George Floyd by an American police officer has sparked outrage and protests across the globe. The Black Lives Matter campaign, conversations on social media and news articles has brought white privilege into sharp focus. For many, including myself, owning up to our privilege is long overdue.

As a White, British, Straight, Middle Class woman my privilege is more than most. I’ve always thought of myself as incredibly fortunate. But I’ve thought that due to to my situation in life (supportive family, good education, a job I love, the home I own). I had never fully realised how the colour of my skin had made me so fortunate.

I’ve watched the news, talked to friends, read articles and listened to podcasts. Like so many white people across the world right now I am starting to wake up to the fact that I am part of the problem.

I wouldn’t call myself racist. I hope I treat everyone I meet with the same levels of kindness, compassion and respect. I don’t think about the colour of someone’s skin. It doesn’t matter to me.

But it does matter. This general acceptance, this inaction, this feeling that I’m not part the problem, means that although I am not racist, I’m not anti racist either.

I’ve been in a comfortable bubble of privilege. I have done nothing about it. And that is the problem.

I first started thinking about writing this post on #BlackoutTuesday as my instagram feed filled up with black squares.

Started by the music industry as a way of protesting against the death of Goerge Floyd, it quickly spread across social media.

By the end of day it felt like everyone I followed had posted a square, saying they were off social media for the day, in order to make room for black voices. To allow messages from the black community to shine through.

So you are on social media? Telling everyone that you are not on social media?

The reality was scrolling through black squares, and not a lot else for hours on end.

It felt like a really strong message of protest.

It also felt like a missed opportunity.

Rather than going quiet (ie posting nothing at all) and seeing how empty my social media feed would have been without white voices, it felt like this mark of protest was becoming some sort of validation process. A trending declaration of how supportive the white social media community was.

I didn’t post black squares. I didn’t post anything.

But it did make me own up to the fact that most of the people I follow – influencers, food bloggers, home cooks, chefs, restauranteurs…. are all white.

Which made me think. How many of the restaurants I’ve written about so far are owned or run by white people. How many represented people of colour?

So, over the past couple of weeks I have gone through every restaurant I have written about. All 85 businesses. I’ve researched how each one started, and tried to find out who is behind all these restaurants that I champion.

Some were easier than others. A small independent restaurant owned by the chef is simple. Lots of restaurants are opened and run by more than one partner. Some are larger chains and restaurant groups, leading me down rabbit holes into different limited companies and directorships.

I’ve looked at websites, industry articles, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Companies House. I reckon I’ve built up a pretty good picture of who is behind all these places I have eaten, or would like to eat at.

Here’s something I never thought I would say on a food blog.

Have a look at these pie charts.

I could say I’m shocked. But I would be lying. I knew that a lack of diversity in the owners and leaders of food businesses was a problem. Just not how big of a problem it was.

Seeing as I was doing the research I documented how poorly women are represented in the industry too.

I should clarify that these are just the people who started the businesses. The people who had the idea. Whether that be a chef, a family or a group of entrepreneurs. It doesn’t account for silent partners. It doesn’t reflect who is currently heading up the kitchen and front of house teams. Plus I cannot be sure if there are people I have missed, or that it is completely without error.

But even taking all of the above into account, I reckon the data still sends a pretty clear message.

As expected, the vast majority of restaurants are owned by white men.

It seems if you are a woman you are a lot more likely to open a restaurant with a man than on your own. There is not a single example of a woman of colour running a food business I have talked about, without a male business partner.

But you want to know the worst statistic of all? One that isn’t even on the pie charts.

None of the chefs, restaurateurs and business owners I have found have been Black. Not one. Zero.

That makes me angry.

I’m angry that an industry that on one level is so diverse, can simultaneously be so elitist. When you think of chefs and kitchen porters, waiters and bar staff, cleaners and delivery drivers, there is a huge range of diversity.

I’ve worked in hospitality for years. Any kitchen I have gone into would have (OK yes still mainly men) but people from all over the world working there. So why is it that people owning these restaurants, and the people in charge of these restaurants do not represent this?

I’m angry that media channels and food publicity means that I don’t know enough about the black food businesses that are out there. That most of our restaurant criticism, recipe writers and social media food bloggers are white.

As a cuisine I know very little about African food. Practically nothing about Caribbean food. Why is it that food from other countries has been embraced and accepted, but food representing black culture is so absent?

But most of all I’m angry at myself. I did this. I picked the restaurants. No one asked me to promote a certain business, gifted me products or gave sponsorship. I could write about whatever I wanted. So there’s no excuse.

Therefore it is my responsibility to change this.

So here is what I am going to do from now on.

Social Media

Before we had social media almost all of what we read, saw and listened to was (and still is) controlled by a small group of mainly white, mainly male voices. Now we have Instagram and Twitter this doesn’t have to be the case. I’ve been seeking out new chefs, cooks and food bloggers to follow, making sure there are more black and ethnic minority voices, ideas and influences on my news feed.

It’s a simple start. Check who you follow. Examine what you see. Get out of your bubble.

Educating Myself through Cooking

As I’ve already said I know nothing about most African cuisines or Caribbean food. So far on this blog I’ve cooked dishes originating from Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, Mexico, Israel…. this list goes on. So why am I not cooking a dish from Nigeria? Or Jamaica?

Why is it that specifically Black food culture has not become part of our British food consciousness in the same way other world foods have?

I open my fridge. I have Thai red curry paste, Chipotle paste, fish sauce, tahini, mango chutney, miso….. Ask any white person who enjoys cooking to open their fridge or their cupboards and I bet you will find a similar array of ingredients.

I live in an incredibly diverse city. South East London is full of Afro Caribbean food shops, markets and street traders. Why have I never been in these shops? Why have I never stopped at the fruit and veg market and really looked at what is for sale?

I’ve been in many Asian supermarkets for ingredients before. I once spent an afternoon trawling Depftord High Street trying to find fresh curry leaves.

This has to stop. If I want to carry on cooking food from different parts of the world I need to make sure that it truly represents the world, everyone in it, and more importantly everyone that also calls London their home. We all talk about the amazing diversity of our city. Now is the time to properly embrace it. All of it.

This is going to be fun! I can learn about new foods, new ingredients, and find new restaurants and food businesses to seek inspiration from.

Who’s recipes am I following?

OK sure half the time I’m not even following a recipe. I’m just making it up as I go along. But that tends to be when I’m cooking food I’m familiar with. I don’t need to follow an exact recipe for something I feel comfortable cooking, which is mainly European style food.

But when I am cooking food from further afield chances are I am following a recipe. But who is writing them?

My Sri Lankan fish curry was a Jamie Oliver recipe. When I made a Thai style stir fry last week I ended up reading a recipe from a white food blogger based in Texas. Why?

Because these are the books I have on my shelves. These are the posts that pop up first on google. These are the recipes that tell us how to substitute ingredients we might not have, or equipment we might not own.

I’m not saying I won’t use a Jamie Oliver recipe again. Of course I will. I love his recipes and own loads of his cookbooks. He is, and always will be, one of my go to people to learn about cooking.

But next time I make a Sri Lankan curry I’m going to seek out a Sri Lankan chef or food blogger and read what they have to say about making it. Or maybe buy a Sri Lankan cook book.

When I google “Jerk Chicken Recipe” the top two results are recipes from John Torode and Gordon Ramsay. That says it all really, doesn’t it?

Supporting Black Voices

From now on I’m going to consciously include black owned food businesses and restaurants in my blog.

However this shouldn’t just mean that I’m choosing restaurants serving Afro Caribbean food. What about the Black chefs cooking other cuisines? What about Black chefs with Michelin stars?

There aren’t many. This Guardian article from 2018 found that then there were only two (out of the 165 restaurants in the UK that then held Michelin stars that year) that had Black head chefs.

But it’s not just high end restaurants that are the problem. Absence of Black voices in our food businesses is an industry wide problem.

Melissa Thompson (who I follow on instagram @fowlmouthslondon) recently wrote an article titled

“Black Erasure in the British Food Industry”

She calls out the Evening Standard’s video where celebrated chefs, restaurant owners, critics and food writers all read poetry in a filmed montage, aiming to raise money for London food charities during the pandemic.

A worthy cause yes. But there was a problem. This video was meant to be all about celebrating the diversity of the people, and the food, we have in our city.

Of the 70 people who took part in the eight-minute video, just one was Black. It fell on the Evening Standard magazine’s own restaurant critic Jimi Famurewa to be that lonely face. Sure, there were plenty of women, and a couple of south Asian chefs and some from east Asia. But where were the Black chefs? The Black restaurateurs? There were more Edwards in it than people with black skin. This is a problem.

Melissa Thompson, ‘So What Now?: Black Erasure in the British Food Industry”

So I ask myself….. when have I eaten African food? Caribbean food? When have I personally experienced Black Food Culture.

Because, in the context of this blog, and my cooking challenge, each blog post needs to involve me cooking something, inspired by a restaurant. So if I’m going to write about the lack of Black representation in our food industry, then I need to find a food business, and a dish, that is part of Black food culture.

Smokey Jerkey in New Cross springs to mind. I used to live near there and would love getting their jerk pork, chicken and lamb to takeaway. I consider trying to make some jerk chicken. But the memories of watching the chefs putting the meat on their massive grill in the back kitchen means that if I did cook this, I would want to do it on the barbecue. With smoke and fire. Not in my oven on a rainy day like today.

I start googling restaurants. Reading menus. But I realise I’m starting from such a point of ignorance that I don’t want to try and recreate a dish when I have no idea what it should taste like.

There are plenty of meals I have cooked for this blog based on dishes I have never eaten, and from restaurants I have never been too. But I have enough knowledge of the type of food being made that I can try my best to work it out.

In the end the decision was simple. I’m cooking Groundnut Chicken Stew inspired by Spinach & Agushi.

Spinach & Agushi are a Ghanaian street food and supper club business. They have a stall on Exmouth Market, and of all of the food on offer there, this is one I go back to time and time again.

If the world hadn’t changed and I was still at work right now, I would be at the drama school near Exmouth Market today. I might even, at this very moment, be in the queue for this delicious chicken and peanut stew, served on jollof rice.

OK, that’s ridiculous. Typing “jollof” on my computer and it instantly autocorrects it to “jolly”. Even our spell checks are part of the problem.

I’ve even cooked a version of this dish before. Inspired by how delicious their stew was I wanted to make my own.

Yes, you guessed it. I followed a Jamie Oliver recipe.

But here is one of the brilliant things about our current situation. Spinach & Agushi, like so many other restaurants and food businesses out there, are sharing their recipes on Instagram during the pandemic. So we can carry on enjoying their food at home.

You can also order Spinach & Agushi “fridge fillers” which are being delivered across London. If you don’t fancy making your own.

So armed with two IGTV videos I start cooking.

I’m amazed to discover that I have most of the ingredients already. They do say they have simplified the ingredients and the process for the video. Chicken, peanut butter, tinned tomatoes, ginger, garlic, fennel seeds, curry powder. All completely familiar.

I buy some scotch bonnet chillis. I google what pimento is. Turns out it’s allspice – which I have in the cupboard. I can substitute African pepper for a sprig of rosemary according to the chef.

In fact the only ingredient I’m not sure about is All-Purpose Seasoning. Guessing this is some kind of spice blend? A look in the world foods aisle of my supermarket reveals that yes, it is. Salt, paprika, coriander, mustard, rice flour, onion powder, pimento and chilli are all listed on the ingredients.

As intended, the process is really simple. Well it would be if I had any rice cooking skills. Which I don’t. I hate to admit it but I am really really terrible at cooking rice. Pretty much anytime you see rice on this blog (except risotto, I can cook risotto) it will involve me opening one of those microwavable, pre-cooked packets.

I blitz onions, garlic, ginger, chilli and spices and fry them in olive oil. A red pepper that has been blitzed with tinned tomatoes then goes in. I let this cook for about 40 minutes and then add vegetable stock and rice. I must have got the ratio of stock to liquid wrong. Or had the heat too high. My rice was overcooked and mushy long before it should have been ready. I also seem to have accidentally made enough for about 10 people.

The chicken groundnut stew is much more successful. The chicken (I have a mix of thighs and drumsticks as that’s what I could get) gets poached in water with rosemary, all purpose seasoning and onion.

Meanwhile back to the food processor and in goes garlic, ginger scotch bonnet, rosemary, onion, fennel seeds and more tinned tomatoes. Add a generous amount of peanut butter (most of a jar) and some stock and blitz.

Once the chicken has had 20 minutes poaching it gets combined with the sauce and left to cook, simmering away for about 40 minutes.

It tastes really good. The sauce is definitely a bit thicker than when Spinach & Agushi make it. And I think I should have been a bit braver with the scotch bonnets. Even the jollof rice tastes lovely – I’ve just not got the texture right.

I sit at the table, full of stew (with enough leftovers to keep me going for a while too) but also full of optimism.

I know a white woman cooking a Ghanaian dinner won’t change anything.

But I’m part of the conversation now. I’ve taken a look at myself seen how I can be better. There’s lots to do.

I can’t wait to get started.

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