An African in London has almost inevitably gone through many processes of migration, evolution, adaptation and adjustment, fighting against this or that tradition, longing for one place or another, and rejecting some or other throwback to the home land. But what happens when three young men – Londoners, artists, patissiers, visionaries, Africans – embrace their African roots in such a way as to turn it into something current, modern, even progressive? You get a London food movement called The Groundnut and you get swathes of intrigued foodies turning up to see what comes on an African plate.
Duval, Folayemi and Jacob traipse in and out of the kitchen, flitting between their cavern of wondrous creations from which warm, comforting smells escape and waft into the dining room. They make interested conversation with the diners who have come to see what The Groundnut is all about, all three of them trying to ascertain what their diners tastes are, what brought them here, and, quite simply, who they are.
After all, these 30 or so diners will soon be sitting down to eat the food which will be served from their kitchen, and borne of their origins and creativity. Sometimes conversation gets cut short as one of the three suddenly looks up and scoots off back to the kitchen to turn something on or off or round or down.
These three young men don’t look like typical chefs, nor do they look like African home-cooks. Their coy smiles, modest nods in response to compliments and genuine pride make them more approachable than anyone that normally inhabits a professional kitchen, and yet they’re developing a reputation as leaders in the rebirth of African cuisine in the UK, with their names even stretching across the Atlantic in a tendril of groundnut-infused marketing and online presence.
They wear bright colours on tailored jeans, afros on sun-deprived faces and have a vaster knowledge of Pan-African food than most Africans who are restricted to the cuisine of their country alone. They’ve travelled, read, eaten their grandmother’s food, and realised that the food of their ancestors has a place reserved for it on the London scene.
Their cookbook stands on the mantelpiece near the doorway, containing many of the secrets of the aromas escaping form the wondrous cavern of culinary creations on the other side of the room, and some break the suspense and open the book, seeing how the trio create their groundnut stew, their fried fish, the plantain crisps they serve before every dinner and the vegetable concoctions which contain more flavours than any vegetable patch could ever aspire to.
This isn’t a restaurant; it’s a dinner, with a group of people, on one special night. However many times these dinners are held, each night has a unique vibe about it, the menu different each night and the people crowded round the tamarind water and blackboard menu never having yet experienced The Groundnut. With my two friends we’re therefore going through this for the first time, and all that we know we’re guaranteed is an array of African dishes served up, in South-East London, over the course of three taste-rich hours.
After serving the tamarind water (sweet and refreshing with not a hint of bitterness) and plantain crisps (natural and airy), and having made everyone feel at ease, our hosts invite us to take a seat and await the dishes that we’ve seen in words but want to feel on our forks. No introduction is necessary, and the food comes out from the kitchen on brightly coloured platters, black slabs and eye-popping utensils.
First we’re treated to a groundnut soup, which we all try to eat with the celery stick standing to attention in the pool of rich-coloured nutty goodness, before using a spoon to ensure no drop is left. We almost forget about the black-eyed bean akara (bite-sized Nigerian bean patties), until, that is, we taste them, and then we know that we’ll never forget them.
When the main dish comes out we realise that we need to gear up to swoop over East and Western Africa, dipping into countries and regions as the dishes guide us there, then zoom out to get a vision of Africa as a whole, as all the dishes come together in a complementary continental ensemble.
Fried mackerel that falls off its bones invitingly, Ethiopian berbere beetroot which taste of sweet, warm, edible earth, fluffy rice to soak all of it up, green coconut relish, glistening strands of raw green vegetables and black beans and smoked fish dip. The aftermath is groaning chairs, satisfied arched backs, belly pats and satisfied smiles from both diners and cooks.
A refreshing plate of green mango and iridescent pomegranate adorns each table, appearing from nowhere, along with groundnut milk to wash down the sweet, sticky, nutty homemade sweets it accompanies, that make our fingers stick together and oblige us to lick fingers and lips unabashedly. We all know that we’ve just eaten something special, and the chefs can now sit back and relax with us, enjoying the evening, and getting personal opinions on the many foods we’ve just eaten for the first time.
None of the ingredients The Groundnut cooks use are foreign or hard to come by; they’re all reasonably familiar, and perhaps often incorporated in our own dishes whether Asian, European or American, but never quite in this way, with colours and flavours mixing like on a modern artist’s palette. But unlike highbrow art, these masterful dishes can be recreated (to some extent), using the cookbook, and with a little help from the memories of the foods we had that night.