I’ve argued and shouted and stamped my feet. I’ve pointed and cursed and lost friendships over the lazy generalisations of food and national cuisines. “I hate American food!” But what is American food? “Urgh, they eat guinea pigs in Peru. Emu in Australia. And grilled snake in Cambodia!” They do, but spankingly fresh ceviche too. Tim tams and whopper prawns and grilled banana with coconut ice cream, so what’s your point?
Editors are no better, lazily titling listicles and ill-researched stories under such generalised clickbait rubrics as “Indian Food Made Easy” or “Top Italian Restaurants”
The notion that you can group or pigeonhole a nation’s culinary output via one recipe or ingredient is absurd. It infuriates me that people even try. Food writers and restaurant critics across the English language continue to struggle with this fact, and most editors are no better, lazily titling listicles and ill-researched stories under such generalised clickbait rubrics as “Indian Food Made Easy” or “Top Italian Restaurants” as if the nuisances of regional, geographical and spatial lines are inconsequential. You try and serve a northern biryani from Lucknow to a southern Indian in Hyderabad and they’ll spit in your face.
The most recent country under this problematic culinary microscope is not a country at all, but a continent: Africa. African cooking and African cuisine is… well, it’s nothing. It doesn’t exist. Sorry, but it doesn’t. If you’re tutting and disagreeing while reading this, then it doesn’t get any easier. How can you compare Ethiopian cooking with the output of Malawi or merge dishes from Gabon with an ocean catch from Djibouti? With clearly defined frontiers, assorted cuisines from Africa cross transcontinental lines while much exists and thrives within areal borders. Africa’s output is myriad and entwining. The influences impacted by peoples, religions, tribalism, lifestyles, histories, colonialism, weather and agricultural capabilities.
Recently, there’s been a tussling jollof debate in London. The West African recipe of long-grain rice, onions, tomatoes, diced vegetables and spices, all cooked in a single pot, is often credited as Nigerian in origin. However, it has been suggested that the dish dates back to the Jollof Empire which ruled during the 14th century, spanning parts of today’s The Gambia, Mauritania and Senegal, where rice was grown. How the recipe migrated remains fiercely debated. The agricultural and ecological historian James C. McCann proposed that it is unlikely that the dish could have spread from Senegal and is more likely to have originated within the Mali Empire, namely the Djula tradespeople, who dispersed widely to the regional commercial and urban centres, taking with them rice agronomy – and the religion of Islam. Today, there are several variations of jollof, in name and ingredients. Nothing about it is straightforward.
Akoko in London’s Fitzrovia is the latest West African restaurant to enter the jollof discourse. While the capital’s African communities have produced a wealth of brilliant restaurants, namely Nargis Kenyan in Southall, Kenya Kitchen in Edgware and Khamsa Algerian in Brixton, other capital additions such as the double Michelin-starred Ikoyi have upped the ante with their technique and product sourcing. It’s that mould in which Akoko follow.
Much of it will be familiar to those with experience in Nigerian markets and the bubbling vats and chop-shop counters of Iddo and Mile 12 in Lagos
The project of first-time restaurateur Aji Akokomi, a British-Nigerian, Akoko is an elevated take on West African cuisine, specifically those recipes from Akokomi’s childhood, growing up in Ibadan in southwest Nigeria. Much of it will be familiar to those with experience in Nigerian markets and the bubbling vats and chop-shop counters of Iddo and Mile 12 in Lagos. I recall stressful visits to these sprawling markets in 2014, where various tribes and ethnic groups convened, displaying buckets and baskets filled with grains, beans and rice. Competing vendors – usually a plucky duo of a muscular man in a vest and wellies and a woman in an eye-catching Iro ati Buba – tussle for custom. Then there’s the jumbled Serekunda Market in The Gambia and the cluttered and congested Marché Sandaga in Dakar. Both are my first port of call when travelling.
While comparisons between Akoko and Ikoyi are reasonably drawn, Akoko’s divergence is in reimagining already established and recognised recipes; many of which you’ll find in the markets mentioned above. Jeremy Chan at Ikoyi, meanwhile, is more attentive to the creation of plates around a particular British ingredient and experimenting with the subtleties of spicing. The head chef at Akoko, Ayo Adeyemi, formerly of Singapore’s Tippling Club, confirms to me the genesis and generational accord of recipes, affirming their culinary cognizance to African guests and those caucasian diners with experience of West African markets.
Of the two available menus – 11 courses plus petit fours, for £120.00, and seven courses, for £55.00 – I opted for the smaller, tighter lunch offering. The menu is short but perfectly formed, split into headed sections. Beginning with YAM, the popular tuber is boiled and pulverised, shaped into a sort of plump cookie ball with a tantalising smash of Ehuru spice and penja white peppercorn. And because of the season and that recipe elevation, it’s topped with slivers of shaved truffle for an earthy lacing. This comes with WAINA, or hansa masa, a popular northern Nigerian street food snack usually prepared in a heavy-duty cast-iron mould to aid in the shaping and heating of fermented puff batter. On top is a smooth whip of yassa cream and chicken mousse. And there’s a Japanese-inspired TATASE, harnessing the pepper often used in jollof, within a sort of nori roll. Rather than wrapping the content around or within seaweed, Ayo makes a croustade casing, which has the deceiving appearance of nori, to hold tiny cubed raw akami (the centre of the tuna’s body), speckled with sesame seeds and mint leaves for a nutty yet fresh tang against the steely flesh of the fish.
At the midway point, MIYANTAUSHE, which is traditionally a soup made from pumpkin, commonly eaten by the Hause tribe in northern Nigeria, further reinforces the Nigerian influence paired with the finest in seasonal British sourcing. Cubes of butternut squash and dabs of Kendake Honey from Lagos merge and sweeten locust beans and yakuwa leaf, with additions of Cornish mackerel strips for textural bite. I ordered a £15.00 cocktail of pineapple palm and sherry for a sense of the tropics. It’s called Soke and is a bit like a Kingston Club or Sweet Liberty’s Sherry Cobler; a zesty riff with walnuty depths.
And then the jollof. A beautiful ceramic bowl designed by Jua Rhee is filled with golden rice, glistening from lashings of lovely chicken fat, and electrified by speckles of green springs onion. With this, crispy goat asun, a peppered and smoked goat meat, dances on top – dense, savoury, packed with soothing and harmonious flavours. There is a supplement charge of £20 for N25 Oscietra Caviar, but it’s an unnecessary addition if you ask me. What you have here is first-rate ingredients with balanced spicing, laced with meat and rice cooked in fat. It’s comfort in a bowl and puts to end London’s best jollof debate.
A dessert duo of compressed triangle pineapple with Tepache, made from the peel and the rind of the pineapple, is sweetly fresh with the reassuring piquancy of top-notch fruit, and ARIDAN, a dark bean-like flower pod native to West Africa hit the spot nicely. And you have to admire a chef with the nerve to offer mushroom bofrot, a type of Ghanian doughnut, with quince and uda seed ice cream, a gallant pairing of earthy agrarian sapidity and creamy, pungent corollary of the lowland uda pepper. It’s only two small desserts, but there’s a hell of a lot going on.
Without banging the same old drum, African cuisine is not a thing. However, of the 54 countries within the continent, ingredients and techniques have always and will continue to travel and coalesce. Aji and Ayo call Akoko a West African restaurant, but in their efforts to elevate recipes and apply British products, it has become something other. The influence of many knitted countries combines to produce a menu of a new breed, shifting the argument from what is African food to how we categorise and define restaurants like Akoko and Ikoyi. To which I point out: should we even try? It feels to me as though such an exercise to specify and scrutinise geography, tearing apart a menu to index its makeup, withdraws from the excitement and surprise of the experience. This is food with an African heart but a very British temperament. Its inspiration is West African but the creativity is British-Nigerian, via Singapore with appreciative nods to Japan and the Cornish coast. You try and define that. On second thoughts, don’t. C
Akoko, 21 Berners Street, London W1T 3LP
akoko.co.uk; 020-7323 0593