Groundnuts take flight

GroundnutsAfrican fusion cuisine is gaining a presence in London and beyond, with enigmatic young creatives the Groundnut Boys leading the way, as msafiri discovers

South London foodie trio Duval Timothy, Jacob Fodio Todd and Folayemi Brown share an energy that knows no bounds. At once animated and ambitious yet giving off that effortless urban cool typical of young city creatives, the boys juggle independent career paths with their grassroots African foodie revolution, hosting sub-Saharan/European fusion pop-up supper clubs in the heart of London. It’s a trend that, first imported into England, is now promising to be exported back to Africa with the release of the trio’s debut cookbook.

It’s been an impressive ride for The Groundnuts – a concept that was born just four years ago when the three friends, of mixed African heritage and all living in London, decided to host bi-monthly dinners in attempting to bring dishes of their youth to the table.

“Yemi and I have been friends since we were six,” says Duval. “We went to university and then met Jacob, who was studying with my brother at Goldsmiths University. Bonding over their shared love of football, music and, most importantly, great food, the pop-up restaurant concept was a natural progression.

Setting up in the architecture studio belonging to Duval’s father, their supper project was innovatively balanced between Yemi’s African music partnership MogaDisco and Jacob’s research job in an African non-profit organisation. “It started off as family and friends, but word of mouth quickly saw it spread,” says Duval. “Every time we did a dinner there would be even more new faces, and even more mouths to feed! They were lured in by the spirit, by the atmosphere, but mostly by the food.”

Developing a three-course set menu with traditional dishes at its core, The Groundnuts have attracted growing numbers to the supper club in its three-year run. Guests sit at long tables, with a seating arrangement that is informal and communal, and always with a nod towards traditional African dining in sharing exciting, flavoursome food and rich conversation And of course, use of cutlery is strictly frowned upon! With two of the team busy in the kitchen and one looking after front of house, the trio deliver an inclusive set-up that’s a world – or at least a continent or two – away from the rather staid London dining experience.

But this isn’t just a London project. Of course it is, in the sense of location, but the trio are merely the latest in a growing line of chefs and restaurateurs championing and pioneering the rich flavours of Africa. Just as the content now dominates in so many other regards – from sports performance to music provenance – so now its culinary inspirations are finding a modern platform in all four corners of the globe. And the geography of home that informs the cuisine is diverse and varied – Yemi’s parents are Nigerian, Duval’s heritage is dual Ghanaian and Sierra Leonean, while Jacob has lived in Mozambique, Swaziland and Tanzania. Between them, they’ve sampled a medley of African staples and delicacies, while Duval and Yemi also have French dessert skills on their curriculum vitae, having worked at the Rose Bakery in Paris. The innovations they now bring to the table include Yorkshire pudding with mango curd, beetroot anise soup, moin-moin, sukuma wiki, and sweet red and yellow pepper frozen yogurt.

Capturing the continent
Yet The Groundnuts are under no illusions that their food speaks for an entire continent, even though through scanning what’s on offer on the shelves of London bookshops they’ve come to realise the food history of Africa is sorely underrepresented. “I was surprised not to see any prominent sub-Saharan African cookbooks on the shelves,” explains Duval. “Maybe a bit of North African cuisine, but there is so much more we should all be exploring and celebrating. And by celebrating I mean really getting to know great flavours and ambitious cooking methods.”

“Up until recently there has been a whole continent missing from the world’s dinner plates,” says Yemi, “yet we feel African food is the best in the world so we really wanted to share this with people – we wanted to make it a bit more accessible. I still remember my grandmother’s jollof sauce with barapuda which we’d always have in Sierra Leone – a local catch that fishermen would bring to the house, complemented with fresh salad and homemade ginger beer.”

The Groundnut Cookbook embraces the ‘throwback food’ mentality, with photos of the boys’ past and a cementing of the familial heritage of recipes, yet it remains ostensibly of the moment. “They’re the recipes that got us passionate about food in the first place,” says Jacob. “We also added foods we discovered on our many trips back to West and East Africa. Naturally it’s a fusion, but an authentic one, given that we are Africans living in London.”

The boys have filled a gap in the market catering not only for South London’s large West African population but for anyone looking to expand their culinary repertoire beyond Asia and the Med. More than a cookbook, it’s an appendix of ingredients, a start point for the multitude of possibilities that African food offers. “People coming to our dinners are very curious. They want to know how to create these dishes – they want to envelop themselves in the African food culture, and that’s very exciting,” smiles Duval. “There are some unfamiliar ingredients but people may be surprised by just how many ingredients are known. We’re just using them in different ways.”

Duval’s keen to disperse the tired idea that all African food is the same. Just as Italy offers far more than pasta and wood-fired pizza, and the everyday Parisian isn’t snacking on frogs’ legs, the chef stresses that, in a vast and geographically diverse continent, African cuisine can change not just country by country, but city by city, with climate, culture, population, tradition and native ingredients all feeding into the overall mix. “Spice is just one element of African food – there are so many textures, colours and tastes.”

Indeed, the boys, who are keen to steer away from a ‘pan-African’ label, like to think outside the box: for example, take pineapple tart and greens, otherwise known as knocki – their root vegetable version of Italian staple, gnocchi.

“As my heritage is from Sierra Leone and Ghana and Yemi’s roots are Nigerian, we share similar West African coastal regional foods,” explains Duval, who cites palava sauce, fondly known as ‘Trouble Sauce’, as a favourite. Jacob, on the other hand, brings ideas from the eastern coast. “There are interesting contrasts and similarities between different foods of different countries, and how the geography dictates what might go into a dish,” he says. “Perhaps there’s a lot of seafood in a jollof in coastal regions, whereas inland you’ll find different meats.”

Recently back from a trip to Kenya, research involved tucking into tilapia and stewed chicken, and sampling nyama choma, the national dish: “There’s a sharing aspect to Kenyan food that should go through all food in my opinion,” says Yemi. “We love that philosophy – sharing meat with lots of sides, and mandanzi, a slightly sweet dough bread. What we’ve certainly realised is that, if anything, we’re spoilt for inspiration.”

Big on flavour, easy on the waist
Duval, Jacob and Yemi insist that eating well doesn’t mean a trade-off between tasty and nutritious. “African food is natural food. If you think about the provenance there are very few processed ingredients in there, and not much dairy or wheat,” says Yemi. While he happily confesses to a liking for the good old-fashioned British staple of fish ’n’ chips (actually a meal introduced to the island 200 years ago by Portuguese and Spanish Jewish refugees), the three prefer dishes of African provenance for the nutritional value.

And The Groundnuts aren’t the only ones to acknowledge the healthy aspect of African food. The Lancet Global Health recently attempted to evaluate dietary quality across the world, using national data from almost 90% of the world’s population. They analysed diets between 1990 and 2010 by taking 17 food groups, healthy and unhealthy, and working out which of these groups individuals consumed, and in what quantities. African countries found their diets scoring positively, while European counterparts’ ratings suffered. Of course, the abundance of sugar-laden and ‘fast’ foods in the West plays a huge part, but The Groundnuts’ use of natural ingredients keeps their menus on the right side of filling.

Taking to the skies?
The Groundnuts say African food can work at any time and in any setting, but is that really true? Imagine a situation where the very best of the continent is being served 30,000ft in the air.

“The airline thing is really interesting to us,” says Jacob. “You have to be careful, versatile and remove wastage, but serving good food in the sky should be just as easy as serving it on the ground.

“I think our rich groundnut stew would be really good, complemented by different rices. Then there are things like mango and karabi salads – they would hold up well. We love meat but we don’t like to be too meat-heavy; we want to cater for everyone.”

Duval chips in: “And because of the format of cooking for 30-50 people in one night at the same time, a lot of the food we cook can be prepped in one go and is very adaptable for different occasions.”

Fad or phenomenon?
Speaking to us today from England – English food culture is already a hotchpotch of trends, localities and rejigged national dishes. But if it translates in the UK, then it is likely to elsewhere.

“The UK has the best chefs and some of the most impressive influencers of cuisine, so it’s a great place to start,” says Yemi. “It’s for that reason that we’re so excited to see that, as a nation and as a continent, we’re starting to notice a very real African foodie presence and movement.”

“One thing we’ve noticed at our dinners is that everyone is extremely passionate and curious about African food and the stories behind it,” Duval concludes. “London‘s food scene has seen Japanese food, elevated street food and vegetarian/vegan establishments flourish in recent years. Whether African cuisine will become a food movement is yet to be seen,” says Duval, “but it’s a tasty proposition… in more ways than one!”

The rise of the pop-up
Pop-ups, home restaurants and supper clubs have become the ‘it’ food trend, especially in the summer season. They rely on low rents and, when able to function on limited or DIY staffing, can be a potential money-spinner. Ten-seater restaurants operating on a ‘one month only’ basis are cropping up, while long-established restaurants set up camp in a city’s green spaces to please the al fresco lunch crowd. Fuelled by social media and word of mouth, the concept has been the launch pad of an increasingly impressive list of chefs, including Brit Rachel Khoo, who came to fame hosting tiny dinner parties in her minuscule Parisian apartment. These days she has her own cookbooks and a TV deal. Fellow Londoner and African food pop-up chef Zoe Adjonyoh, of Ghana Kitchen, finds pop-ups a great way to introduce newcomers to African dishes, and staunchly believes renaming and adapting dishes can help access a wider audience. With their energy and resilience, the younger generation are putting African food on the map.

The Groundnut Cookbook by Duval Timothy, Folayemi Brown and Jacob Fodio Todd (Michael Joseph) is out now. Available on amazon.com

A taste of Africa: London
msafiri pinned down some of the best places for African eats in the English capital…

MORROCAN – Momo, Soho
At Momo, Marrakech-style interiors complement classic Moroccan tagine with pears and prunes, served with their exquisitely fluffy couscous. Momo caters for the suited and booted set, as well as those celebrating a special occasion, as to be expected of a Soho restaurant. www.momoresto.com

ERITREAN, ETHIOPIAN, SOMALI and YEMENI – The Red Sea, Shepherd’s Bush
The Red Sea is a mixed bag – offering Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali and Yemeni cuisine, it’s a slice of the Horn of Africa tucked away in an unassuming corner of West London. The decor reflects Eritrea-cum-London and attracts an expat crowd. 382 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London, W12 7LL Tel: +44 (0)20 87496888

ETHIOPIAN – Queen of Sheba, Kentish Town
Kentish Town presents Queen of Sheba, where injera accompanies every meal. Think zilbo stew, doro wat, and very strong coffee. They do vegetarian very well, while chicken, lamb and fish are far from forgotten. www.thequeenofsheba.co.uk

NIGERIAN – Lagos Island, Leyton
With both takeaway and a banqueting hall as an option for diners, Lagos Island in Leyton has all options covered, but is best known for its Sunday buffet, featuring plantain, eba and amala, and pounded yam among the staples. If that’s too heavy, a lunch pack of joloff rice and fried fish will fill empty stomachs. www.lagosislandrestaurant.co.uk

The following recipes are taken from The Groundnut Cookbook by Duval Timothy, Jacob Fodio Todd and Folayemi Brown, published by Michael Joseph. Recipe ©

JOLLOF RICE
Serves 4 | Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
• 4 red peppers
• 2 medium to large onions
• 3 bulbs of garlic
• ½ Scotch bonnet pepper
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 100g plum tomatoes
• 4 tablespoons sunflower oil
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• ½ teaspoon ground ginger
• ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper or alternative
• ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
• 1 heaped teaspoon tomato purée
• 500ml chicken stock
• 1 teaspoon red palm oil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 300g white basmati rice (to 600ml of cooking sauce). The ratio is 1:2 of rice to cooking sauce

1 Finely slice the onions and peppers.
2 Make a paste out of the garlic and a teaspoon of salt. Deseed and slice the Scotch bonnet pepper, dice the tomatoes and set aside.
3 Soften the onions and peppers in sunflower oil over a high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. 4 Add the pasted garlic, Scotch bonnet pepper, tomatoes and dry seasonings and cook for a further 10 minutes on a medium heat, stirring frequently.
5 Add the tomato purée, cook for another minute or so, then remove from the heat.
6 Blend the mixture with 200ml of chicken stock. If this was prepared in advance, raise the temperature of it first.
7 Add another 200ml of stock and blend until the mixture is smooth. Add the palm oil, a teaspoon of salt, and pour 600ml of this mixture back into the pot. Raise the temperature until it is lightly bubbling.
8 Measure out your rice, then add to the pot. The pot should have a tightfitting lid, but if it doesn’t you can use some foil with the shiny side facing down to retain the heat.
9 Stir gently so that all the rice is coated with the red sauce, then reduce the heat to a very low flame – the lowest possible. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Open the lid and stir gently again. It is important to get under the centre of the pan so all the rice cooks at the same rate. Cover and simmer for another 10 minutes. Open and stir for a final time, then simmer for a final 10 minutes. This makes 30 minutes cooking time in total.
10 Turn the heat off and allow to steam, covered, for a further 15 minutes. It’s tempting to open the pot here but it’s very important to trust the process and allow the rice to cook residually. This improves the final taste and texture of the rice.
11 Open the lid then leave to stand for 5 minutes, uncovered. Then fluff with a fork to separate the rice, slowly working inwards from the edge of the pan in a swirling motion. If the rice is not completely cooked, add the reserved stock, stir gently, then place back on a low heat for a further 10 minutes.
12 Spoon the rice out onto a separate dish and serve.

GROUNDNUT STEW
Serves 6 | Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
The Groundnut will always hold a special significance – it is the dish that lent us its name

• 1 chicken, skinned and chopped into 8 pieces
• 2 teaspoons salt
• ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon white pepper
• 5 tablespoons groundnut oil
• 1 Scotch bonnet pepper
• 4 small onions
• 3 cloves of garlic
• 2 heaped tablespoons tomato purée
• 125g homemade groundnut butter or smooth peanut butter
• 500ml chicken stock

1 Place the chicken pieces into a large bowl, add the salt, black pepper and white pepper, and mix well.
2 In a wide frying pan, fry the chicken with 3 tablespoons of olive oil on a medium heat. The chicken should not overlap, as this will prevent it from browning. If you are using a small pan, fry in batches.
3 Pierce the Scotch bonnet pepper with a sharp knife and add it to the pan. Piercing the pepper means that as the stew develops it absorbs the flavour of the pepper, but if it becomes too spicy it can be removed at any point. Shake the pan regularly so that the chicken does not stick. Turn over after 5 minutes. While the chicken is browning, finely dice the onions and crush the garlic to a paste. Keep separate and put to one side.
4 After 5 minutes, add half the garlic to the pan and fry for a further 5 minutes, so that the garlic and chicken brown together. When given room in the pan, garlic caramelizes very quickly – this gives a lovely rich flavour and texture which attaches itself to the chicken. When the chicken has browned nicely on both sides, remove it from the pan and put to one side. Using the same pan, slightly increase the heat to medium-high and add the diced onions and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Cook the onions for 12 minutes, stirring regularly. When they are very soft and dark, turn the heat down to medium and add the tomato purée and the remaining garlic.
5 Mix well and cook for 5 minutes, then add the groundnut butter and stir.
6 Put the browned chicken back into the pan and add the stock slowly while stirring, so that it is incorporated with the sauce.
7 Leave to cook on a low heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. It should reduce slightly and take on a thicker consistency. Serve hot.