‘My earliest food-related memory is stuffing my face at family parties,’ says Jessica Laditan, the founder of Pop-Up Africa. This summer, she’s inviting Londoners to join the ultimate feast at Africa Utopia, with The African Food & Drink Takeover 2017. The food market’s thirteen stalls offer festival-goers dishes from across the continent, from Nigerian jollof rice to Malagasy curries.
The traders might be serving up a wide range of plates, but they have one thing in common: the desire to share national tastes and original flavours with lucky diners. We spoke to a selection of stallholders about the secrets behind their recipes, and how they got started serving up their favourite cuisines.
‘Chuku’s is the world’s first Nigerian tapas restaurant and home of the ‘chop, chat, chill’, (chop is Nigerian slang for ‘eat’). Our family always struggled to find a place to enjoy Nigerian food outside of either ours or our grandma’s house. When school friends came over to try our food or curiously sampled the jollof rice in our lunchboxes, they always loved it but didn’t know where to find it for themselves.
‘In the restaurant we serve traditional fried plantain, commonly known as dodo in Nigeria, and we are the first and only restaurant to offer plantain waffles. We also sell jollof quinoa, a superfood spin on the traditional Nigerian dish jollof rice, fragrant rice steamed in a rich plum tomato and red pepper sauce - and one of Nigeria's most famous dishes. It has now become our signature dish.
‘When I think of Nigerian food I think of eba and egusi. There’s nothing quite like it in the UK so it can be a bit difficult to imagine. But think of eba as a dough ball made from ground cassava. Egusi is a ground melon-seed stew which is normally enjoyed alongside it: you dip the eba into the egusi before eating. And then multiply the flavours in your mind by 100.’
‘One of my earliest and fondest food-related memories is from one of our first trips to Nigeria. We’d gone to visit my grandad in the village – a magical place. I remember him showing us the pineapples growing out from the ground, plucking fresh mangoes from the trees and calling for his machete to hack into the green outer shell of a coconut, so we could have fresh coconut water. The pièce de résistance was visiting his ranch where we had fresh fish for dinner. Caught just for us, it went from farm to our plates in 20 minutes and literally melted in my mouth.
‘We know that people eat with their eyes first, so [when creating Chukus] we started by thinking about presentation, which led to the idea of small plates. I’d previously lived in Spain and realised that what we were essentially describing was tapas. Having spent much of my time in Spain chilling out in tapas bars with my new friends and making even newer ones, I knew that tapas culture was about more than just small plates of food. The social dining element is key and this seemed to marry so perfectly with the focus of Nigeria’s own dining culture so it wasn’t long before we’d developed our whole ‘chop, chat, chill’ concept.’
‘I'm from Uganda and but have been living in London for years now. When I went home in 2008 I found everyone was eating 'rolex' (trust me, they're much better than the over-priced watches) which turns out to be the cheapest meal sold on Kampala's streets. Being a chef, I was curious to try one for myself and was blown away by how such a tasty dish could be made from such simple ingredients.
'This got me thinking - how had it taken me so long to hear about and try a rolex?! East African food is really under-represented on London's street food scene, which is one of the best in the world in my opinion. As well as new hits like rolex, there are so many delicious traditional dishes that should be shared with the world.
‘When you talk about East Africa, a lot of people just think of Maasai warriors and mountain gorillas. These things are important - but East Africa isn't a monolith! There is a far richer and more complex history than many people realise, which can be traced through food. For example, pilau arrived with Persian sailors in the 2nd century and spread, along with Islam, up the Swahili coast. Over the years it has been adapted to suit local tastes, like a preference for goat and chicken over beef and lamb. As the recipe spread inland via the spice and slave routes, and later with the arrival of large Indian communities under British colonialism (who already had their own version of pilau) the dish was refined. Even our own version of the dish is an example of how food changes as people and cultures travel - the idea to shape the rice into balls was born after a stint working in an Italian restaurant, making arancini!’
‘I wanted a change in life so I decided to start working with something I knew I could never get bored of - food! My top five store cupboard essentials are fresh ginger, cinnamon, coconut oil, black-eyed beans and gari - toasted cassava flour. It’s really versatile and can be used to make quick dinners or breakfast.
‘The dish that reminds me of Ghana is okro stew with akple. Okro stew is a filling stew made from chopped jumbo okros, steamed beef or crabs and smoked fish. It’s similar to gumbo but with strong smoky flavours and lots of textures. Akple (or banku) is a light dumpling made from maize and cassava dough. It’s slightly tangy because of the way the grains are fermented and compliments the smoky flavours of the stew perfectly. To me it represents Ghana because it can't be rushed (Ghanaian food is the original slow food); it’s healthy and it's also the official dish of the Ewes - the ethnic group my family originate from.’
‘I started a food blog in 2014, then the Ebola crisis hit and I wanted to find a way to raise money for Ebola charities - and CHAM CHAM supper club was born. I donated some of the proceeds to LunchBoxGift (a charitable initiative in Sierra Leone). Then last year I began doing pop-up markets. I like to shop for ingredients at Well St Butchers and Mircey Fruit and Veg, near Homerton, and Ridley Road Market in Dalston.
‘My favourite thing on the menu is binch (meaning beans) topped with a fried egg - I label it as a Liberian/Salone-style baked beans. It’s black-eyed peas slowly cooked in sustainable palm oil with onions - such a simple but super tasty dish . A classic Liberian dish is the plasa, essentially a stew made with the leaves of many root vegetables. There’s the cassava leaf plasa, (sweet) potato leaf plasa and bitter leaf plasa, which is Liberia's national dish.’
‘Our family were discussing our homeland, Madagascar. We all agreed that since moving to England, we had seen very little about the island other than the animated film and a few BBC documentaries focusing on its wildlife. So we decided to start a business to introduce food from Madagascar to the UK. Madagascar is very diverse, so dishes vary depending on what part you travel to. Rice, however, is the common factor as it is eaten in every part of the country. We are from a small village called Mahajanga. We eat lots of fish because we are near the sea but a dish called Romazava is popular, which is basically a light broth.
‘One of our most popular dishes is our whole-fried tilapia fish topped with tomato and onions, in a rich sauce, served with rice and Malagasy salad. Our coconut curries also seem to be a great hit! They come served in a variety of ways: chicken, tilapia or beef. To make great food, cooking with fresh ingredients is key, and trying to source ingredients that are from your homeland. Our curries have a unique flavour because the curry powder we use is from Madagascar and this gives them a great taste.’
‘I launched Tokunbo’s Kitchen at Africa Utopia in 2015 (initially trading as Tee’s Food Corner). To date, our most popular dish is ayamase, beef slow-cooked in a sauce of green bell peppers, onions, ginger, garlic and thyme, most commonly served with rice. My personal favourite is puff-puff, a sweet fried dough that is fluffy, spongy and simply delicious! My 10-year-old daughter loves it too, and if I am not working at the weekend, we will make up a batch together and eat it hot with some ice cream.
‘My tip for cooking well is to find two or three recipes for the food or meal you want to make. Everyone has a slightly different ways in which they cook and you can put all their different techniques together to create a spin of your own.
‘Nigeria is made up of over 250 ethnic groups with a vast range of dishes. Just three of the dishes that represent Nigeria to me are suya, fried yam and catfish pepper soup (also known as 'point and kill' as the choice of catfish that ends up in your plate is totally down to you).’
Mouth watering? We're not surprised. You'll find each of the stall holders above, and their signature dishes, at The African Food & Drink Takeover 2017 under Hungerford Bridge from 13-16 July, as part of Africa Utopia.