315: Decolonizing the Food Industry – Sharing African Food, Breaking Down Stereotypes, and Combating Cultural Appropriation with Zoe Adjonyoh

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An image of different kinds of food in bowls and the title of Zoe Adjonyoh's episode on the Food Blogger Pro Podcast, 'Decolonizing the Food Industry.'

Welcome to episode 315 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Zoe Adjonyoh about her journey with Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, as well as her fight against the cultural appropriation of food.

Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Kimberly Espinel about how she has grown her business teaching food photographers how to find their unique style. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.

Decolonizing the Food Industry

While Zoe Adjonyoh initially started out by just cooking Ghanaian food for her community, she quickly took on a larger role with her brand, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Through her blog, cookbook, supper clubs, and more, she has been actively working to foster an African Food Revolution and bring African food to the masses.

And in recent years, she has shifted her focus from just pioneering West African food to decolonizing the food industry and helping people understand what cultural appropriation is.

It’s a really powerful interview that will make you consider your role as both a consumer and a content creator, and we hope you enjoy hearing more about Zoe’s story.

A quote from Zoe Adjonyoh's appearance on the Food Blogger Pro podcast that says, 'My focus has been on decolonizing the food industry and making people understand what cultural appropriation is and does.'

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How she started Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen
  • How her supper clubs worked
  • How she worked to start an African food revolution
  • How she shifted her focus to work on decolonizing the food industry
  • What the difference is between cultural appropriation and appreciation
  • How we have power as consumers to support the culture where food comes from
  • Why activism is ingrained in her identity
  • What she covers in her book, as well as what she has updated in this new edition

Resources:

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].

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Transcript (click to expand):

Bjork Ostrom: Hello, hello, hello. This is Bjork Ostrom. You are listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Today we are chatting with Zoe Adjonyoh, and she is going to be sharing a little bit about her story, the origins of what is now known as Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and how it started as a pop-up restaurant, really what that is and how that works. It was something that I had never really thought about before, but when she shared how it started and then what that looked like to actually do that, it was just a really fascinating concept to me.

Bjork Ostrom: She also is going to be sharing about a concept or really a framework for thinking about how you approach recipes, cultural recipes, and the idea of appreciation versus appropriation. And we’re going to be talking about how whether it’s a restaurant or a food publisher, you can be using that framework to think about how you’re talking about recipes, how you’re approaching recipes, how you’re promoting recipes and food from different cultures.

Bjork Ostrom: And she’s also going to be sharing, this was kind of a fun one, a story about riding in a taxi when somebody realized who she was and the conversation that came out of that. And I found that to be a really unique and fascinating conversation. So, let’s go ahead and jump into this interview with Zoe from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Zoe, welcome to the podcast.

Zoe Adjonyoh: She foolishly sips tea as her introduction is made. Yes, hello. Thank you for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: It reminds me there was a time when I took a handful of almonds and ate them right before, and I was like, “Okay, here we go.” It’s the worst food that you can possibly eat before starting to record a podcast.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Let me just segue real quick because I did a little, last summer during the pandemic, I hosted some content on For the Culture platform on Instagram. For the Culture is a Black women’s food and drink magazine basically. And I had a little show being called Sunday Crunch, which I thought was very naughty. And I would encourage people to have a snack during our discussions. And I always had … I eat a lot of almonds, and I was always just eating almonds. I was just spitting almonds at people while they were talking or I was laughing. Take away the crunch, don’t eat whilst you’re talking basically.

Bjork Ostrom: So, you can relate. It’s not the best conversation food. It’s also not the best your voice is being recorded food. Tea, great. Almonds, not so great. These are the lessons that we’ve learned through trial and error.

Bjork Ostrom: Really excited to have this conversation with you today. For me, spending time reading about your story, who you are, it was really inspiring to spend some time doing that and obviously, there will be folks who are familiar with what you do and some who aren’t, and we’ll link to the different places so they can find you.

Bjork Ostrom: The thing that stuck out to me when I was exploring your site was this sentence here, and I’d be interested to kick this off. It says, “I founded Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen in July 2010, to start an African food revolution and bring African foods to the masses.” Did you know at the time that you wanted to start a revolution and how do you do that?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, good question. The truth is in 2010, the concept, the germ of the concept, the seed of the idea started because that’s the first time I cooked for money. And I cooked this dish called groundnut stew, otherwise known in my house as peanut butter stew, and I’d borrowed a table, borrowed a baby belly oven, borrowed the pots, borrowed everything in order to do this. The context of that is well documented elsewhere, but there was a festival in Hackney where it was an opportunist moment to make some money. Because I had just come back from traveling around the states completely broke, and thousands of people were pouring into this neighborhood I live in where there was nowhere for them to eat or drink. And my home, which was a live-work space where our house was being used as an art gallery.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, I was just kicking around with nothing to do, so I thought, oh, I’m going to see if I can make some money selling some food. And that moment created a party outside my front door which was fun, but it also raised some questions. And those questions were why don’t people know where Ghana is? Why have people never heard of this food? Why are these people asking me to do this again? Because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just making food.

Bjork Ostrom: Ask you to do it again meaning, hey, next week, next month-

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: My family’s getting together, can you do this?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Exactly. But at the time my mentality was I’m going to be doing … I was getting ready to do an MA in creative writing at Goldsmith, and this was my … I thought my raison d’etre was to be a writer, and I’d avoided being creative for the majority of my adulthood for a lot-

Bjork Ostrom: Why do you think that was?

Zoe Adjonyoh: There’s myriads of reasons. Mostly fear. But also some of it being not feeling as though that was something that was available to me, and having come from my father being a strict African mankind of thumped that strict-

Bjork Ostrom: Strict in terms of policy and upbringing and-

Zoe Adjonyoh: Well, it was academia all the way was my childhood. There was no room for flowery writing and things like that. It’s all about the…

Bjork Ostrom: Essays over poetry.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Exactly, yeah. And anyway, luckily I came back into a community of creative people and I got inspired again and that’s what led me down the writing path. Anyway, in the middle of it food turned up, this moment. So, in my brain, lots of synapses were firing. This is weird. Why is this a problem? Why don’t they know this? I didn’t think it was my problem to solve per se. But I had a really fun time doing it. And so I collected all the email addresses and said, “If I do it again, I’ll let you know.”

Zoe Adjonyoh: And so between 2010 and 2012, I used Ghana Kitchen to support myself through the MA. But I was still doing it in a very haphazard, as you like it way. Supper club in my house when I felt like doing it. There was no structure really to it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But what was happening in the meantime was I went on a trip around Europe with some colleagues of mine on the MA course, and we ended up in Berlin. And then I fell in love with Berlin and wanted to stay there. Again, I had run out of money, so I thought, “Oh, let me do a supper club and let me see how that goes.” And the supper clubs were a very new concept in London at the time, in the UK, but they were brand new in Berlin, nobody had heard of a supper club. So, there was a lot of-

Bjork Ostrom: And for those who aren’t familiar that are listening, can you explain? You kind of can put together the pieces just hearing what it is, but what is a supper club?

Zoe Adjonyoh: It’s a glorified dinner party essentially. But it’s taking a restaurant experience and putting it in your home usually or more usually in London at the time it was taking over dead space and turning it into … It became the beginning of the pop-up culture where you turned warehouses into usable spaces because the rent was cheap or free because nothing was in the building.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s not like you’re going in, taking over a preexisting restaurant space. It was maybe some industrial area that hadn’t been used and it then becomes a destination. People drive there, it’s not like people are walking by. You get a ticket, you show up. Is it you have 12 tickets and everybody’s two people? You’ll go on a date and then there’s six couples who maybe know each other, don’t know each other? What is the makeup of the group look like? It’s got to be an interesting dynamic.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Oh, it’s great. I used to love it. It was always very random. It was some couples, some groups, some people on their own, which I love. And I would always orchestrate it so that as much as possible I would try to split people up so that they were sitting next to people they didn’t know or in close proximity to strangers basically.

Bjork Ostrom: Which initially people don’t like-

Zoe Adjonyoh: They hate it.

Bjork Ostrom: And then they love it at the end.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then at the end, I used to get so many emails from people like, “Oh, now I found my boyfriend through your supper club,” “I got this work connection through your supper club.”

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah.

Zoe Adjonyoh: We met great friends now, thank you so much.

Bjork Ostrom: Incredible testimonials.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, it’s a good way to bring people together. But anyway, so I did this in Berlin and so I borrowed a friend’s apartment, I borrowed a neighbor’s chairs and I went to every bar and club and café. I told people I’m going to do this supper club, come, it’s going to be fun.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And one of the people who turned up at that was the editor of Tip Berlin, which is the Berlin equivalent of a Time Out kind of thing. I didn’t realize that during the event, but a week later when I was back in London after the event this article had come out reviewing the supper club. And my inbox was full of Germans trying to book for the next event, which didn’t exist obviously. So, then I was like, “Oh great, that’s a reason to keep going back to Berlin.” Which is what I then did. So, I was just doing supper clubs between Berlin and London.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And at the end of the MA, I decided to move to Berlin. And I took a kitchen residency in Neukölln at Werkstatt der Kulturen and then this other phenomenon happened where loads of German press descended on this residency for the duration. So, I was constantly in the German media. And at the same time loads of blogs in London and tabloids were picking up the UK stuff. But I was still determined to be a writer, and I was trying to have my bohemian writer life in Berlin with cooking being the side hustle. And very quickly it became apparent that I was getting booked for catering gigs, I was getting booked for more and more things in London, so I thought, well this is … I had to just stop and be like, “What’s happening here? The universe is obviously telling me this is a thing.”

Bjork Ostrom: There’s something happening, yeah.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, I packed up and went back to London and that’s when I decided to brand it Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. Previously it had just been Ghana Kitchen. And I created the mission statement of bringing African food to the masses. Which 12 years ago the language was fine. I think I probably wouldn’t use that same language now because what does the masses mean? Who are they? Kind of thing. But at the time the masses were people in the diaspora, of the diaspora, and anyone who was interested in finding out more about food. So, it was really about trying to break down a lot of stereotypes around what West African or African “food” was. Because I used to get these ridiculous comments like, “Oh, I thought you just ate bush meat,” or, “Don’t you eat rats?” And “Don’t you eat gorillas’ hands? Isn’t that what you eat?”

Bjork Ostrom: Did somebody actually say that?

Zoe Adjonyoh: For sure. And just this conception that it was really unhealthy. There were lots of negative stereotypes whirling around. And while there were mom and pop shops in London and plenty of restaurants that existed doing this, I wasn’t the first to cook West African food obviously, A, they were very much spaces for people in the community, which was great and needed and welcome, but they weren’t inviting necessarily for people who were outside of that community. So, I was just bridging this place between what is contemporary dining in London and what is Ghanaian food and how do you introduce it to people that keeps it solid, but allows it to merge with this new kind of idea?

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then over time it extrapolated again to just being contemporary West African cuisine. And I was one of the first, if not the first, sort of modern contemporary West African food concepts in the UK. And so that’s why I got a lot of traction off that.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, when I talked about starting a revolution, I was trying to manifest that. Because having had a background in PR and marketing and journalism myself prior to this, I understood the power of media and the power of narrative and how important it was to have control of that. And also I didn’t want to be in isolation in what I was doing, so I spoke of it as a much bigger vision in order to encourage people to come into that vision and share in it. And over time that did happen.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then I spoke of the revolution then becoming a movement once more people started doing contemporary West African cuisine, which they did pretty quickly. So, within three or four years, following that there was a hell of a lot of new concepts and supper clubs scene, in the pop-up scene, in the street food scene. And at this point now, at least in the UK, it’s very much a well-established cuisine in London. West African food is definitely on the map whether I’m there or not. And that was always the point really.

Bjork Ostrom: What is it like for you to look at the impact that you had on that as a cuisine and the impact of it? And I think also of you have an Instagram video that does a great job talking through the difference between appropriation and appreciation. Could you explain a little bit about that and could you talk about how you were maybe able to observe that as you started to see some of the ripple effects of you maybe leading this movement?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Well, do you know what? In terms of cultural appropriation and appreciation, people don’t know this but really where my obsession with this question stems from my own I’m going to say confusion, right? Because when I started Ghana Kitchen I was very cognizant of the fact that I didn’t want to be perceived as appropriating the culture from which I’m from. That was really, really important to me. I didn’t want Ghanaians to think I was bastardizing it. I also didn’t want people to think that I was representing Ghanaian food carte blanche kind of thing. And that is specifically why I called it Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen to really pull it to me. This is my relationship, this is my story as regards to food.

Bjork Ostrom: Versus The Ghana Kitchen, capital T, The.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Exactly, exactly. And what happened is over time … It’s also important to know that I had nothing to do with a food scene. I didn’t call it fancy, I never worked in a restaurant, I wasn’t culinary trained. So, that world was outside of me and I was very much in my bubble making food I loved to make, playing with flavors and ingredients and the passion and for the play, for the love. So, it was very much outside of an industry that likes to label an other and do all of these things. But I was cognizant that it was there in terms of how I spoke about my own stuff.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Especially once the cookbook came out in 2017, and leading up to that, and the more I was integrated into that food scene culture, the more horrified I became by the cultural appropriation consistently smothering me. I couldn’t believe how many people thought it was okay to start a Thai street food when they have nothing to do with the culture or a Vietnamese. All of these cultures were being appropriated by middle-class rich white men, and a lot of the time without any authenticity behind what they were doing. So, they were doing a very bad translation of the cuisine, but making a lot of money doing it. And it just became increasingly more alarming to me that that was a thing that was happening.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, to bring it back to that video. My focus shifted from pioneering West African food and flavors for, let’s say, the first eight, nine years of what I was doing to now the last three or four years my focus has been on this idea of decolonizing the food industry and making people understand what cultural appropriation is and does and the negative effect it has on the culture both from a wealth-building perspective and from an equitable perspective in terms of who gets congratulated for what and what that world means. And just looking at the whole food chain and the whole food system and who benefits out of this and usually, it’s not Black or brown people and it’s because of cultural appropriation.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And so the difference is … And I should also point out I have an anecdote here which highlights my involvement in appropriation, for want of some better words. Whereas I was taking a taxi one time and the driver was a Ghanaian man, and we were having a chat as you’re wont to do with your taxi driver. If you don’t want to, you have to. I was telling him … He asked me what I did for a living. I said, “I’m a cook and chef.”

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then he heard I was Ghanaian and then he realized I was the Zoe from Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen which he heard of. And he pulled over. He couldn’t believe that I was in his car. I thought, oh, this is a fan, this is nice. He pulled over the car and he showed me a WhatsApp message group that he was on before I got into his car. And it’s basically this big discussion between a load of Ghanaians in Ghana about me and about Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen and about the cookbook, and basically questioning whether I had the right … Whether it was good or bad what I was doing for the cuisine. There was a whole thing about it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Then I had to have a big conversation with him about what my purpose was and what I’m doing. I’m trying to bring the culture some love and light, not rip it up kind of thing. So, just so that people know that I guess my point is that it is possible to be considered within your culture as appropriating the culture. Which is exactly what I was scared of at the beginning, right?

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yeah. Right, right.

Zoe Adjonyoh: I’m just putting my hands up to say that I am not without being a target for that accusation.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. What was that like for you, that experience? It feels like that would be the kind of thing when you step into the taxi versus when you step out of the taxi where your mind is is a completely separate place.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah. It was interesting. It was funny mostly to be honest. But I convinced him of my argument. To be honest he was already on my side I think. There were other people in the group who were a bit against me. But there’s purists. In any culture you’ll have purists who will say, “This isn’t Ghanaian food,” or “This is X, this is Y.” It’s very complex field to negotiate.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But there are some basic rules that I think should stand as regards identifying appropriation versus appreciation, and when you are appreciating a culture you’re not claiming it as your own if it’s not your own. So, you’re signposting where you got these recipes from. You’re signposting what the mother recipe is if you’re changing it. You’re honoring the people that created it or produced it who gave you the knowledge to be able to pass it on. It’s really about respect for where the food comes from or the recipe comes from in the first place.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then it’s about if you want to monetize that it’s about ensuring that at some point in the monetization process there’s somebody involved in the culture who gets to benefit from it equally. Because it’s not okay. Otherwise, it’s tantamount to colonialism and just going into somewhere and taking everything that’s good which still goes on in Africa honestly. There’s a huge Chinese influence there right now where there’s a lot of colonization going on frankly.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But appropriation is I went to … I’m sorry to use Thailand consistently as an example. It’s just a really good example. People go to the Far East, they go to Southeast Asia, they have a two-week holiday, they taste some delicious Lapsang or whatever it is, and they’re like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing. I can make this and I’m going to start a food business.” And they’ll come back and that’s what they’ll do. But they won’t necessarily learn how to make it from the right person. They won’t hire any people from the culture in relation to producing that. They won’t reference anything about the culture properly and more often than not they will bastardize the recipes to make them palatable to where they’re serving it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And the same thing happens with cookbooks a lot. It’s like people go on holiday for two weeks when they’ve got nothing to do with the culture and come back and write a cookbook about the culture. If Black and brown people don’t have that privilege, so if we don’t have that privilege, can you leave our culture alone and let us be the ones to talk about it and write about it and sell the food and monetize it?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Anyway, I bang on about cultural appropriation a lot. If you google me and cultural appropriation there’s plenty out there.

Bjork Ostrom: Well, it’s good. And it’s one of the reasons why Alexa and our team reached out and shared that video with me. She said, “I think this would be a really good conversation because it’s really applicable obviously to the food world.” Other worlds as well.

Bjork Ostrom: I had a conversation, I don’t remember what episode this was, but if people follow along with the podcast, with Marcus Samuelsson, fellow New Yorker, and he drew analogies to music in that world and how music is an art form, much like food is an art form. There’s a lot of analogies that can exist within there and folks can check out that podcast episode as well to hear his thoughts on it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: You see it in fashion too. In 2010 –

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, yeah, yeah, another example, yeah.

Zoe Adjonyoh: I remember saying in 2010 that they’ve already started appropriating the music. This is when Afrobeats and high life started coming in to mainstream pop in Europe in a significant way. And also in fashion you would see a lot of traditional … I can’t name all the different types of fabric, so I’m going to use the shorthand of African fabric because each tribe has their own. In Ghana we have kinte is the big tribal fabric. But you would see a lot of those patterns coming in to commercial big stores, like your Primarks and your Hennys and your big stores.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, I made a point of saying at the time and that’s what happens with food. It’s usually the music, the fashion and then the food that cross over in that order. But-

Bjork Ostrom: Music first, then fashion, then food.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But usually when it’s the original people making it, so young African musicians or young African designers, they don’t get to benefit from the mass appropriation of it because it’s stolen. The beats are stolen. There’s no credit given. The idea of the print is stolen and…

Bjork Ostrom: And they’re not going to be able to call their attorney and say-

Zoe Adjonyoh: Exactly. And the same thing happens with food. Just recently Tom Kerridge put out a recipe for suya kebabs, and it’s like, why? Why is Tom Kerridge putting out a recipe for suya kebabs? That’s way out of his field of interest or influence. He shouldn’t have any hands-on that whatsoever.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And if the program that allowed him to do that wants to profile West African food, they should pick a West African chef to do it. I feel very strongly about that. He has no business putting out that kind of recipe because he didn’t even credit where he got it from. He didn’t invent it, did he? He didn’t make it up. Where did you get that?

Bjork Ostrom: Right, right. Do you have examples of whether it’s individuals or companies that you’ve run into and you’re like, “Yes,” doing this well? Does that exist or not really?

Zoe Adjonyoh: It’s very rare honestly. There’s a brand in the states called True Moringa, and they have … They’re a married couple, so it’s a bit different. So, it’s led by a white woman and her partner who is an African man. I think he’s Kenyan. So, it’s slightly different. But I think they do a good job of making sure that this white woman isn’t the face of the brand for example, and that they’re telling the story of all the people who work to make those products. And they are amazing products. And…

Bjork Ostrom: What kind of products?

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, it’s basically different extrapolations of moringa. So, moringa is a superfood. It’s usually consumed as a very high antioxidant vitamin-packed ingredient for lots of health benefits usually consumed in powder form and maybe you drink it as a tea or something like that. But you can get from moringa you can get oils and you can use the fibers. It’s one of those plants like ochre or hibiscus where the whole plant has many, many uses. And so they have products like moringa-based skincare range, moringa oil, moringa body scrubs, things like that.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But I’m not sure it really falls sensibly into this category. The question is: is anyone doing it well? Nobody can do cultural appropriation well.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yeah.

Zoe Adjonyoh: That’s the thing. The way that you can … If your company is culturally appropriating the way that you can change the sting of that is to, as I say, bring in talent, whether it’s consulting or marketing or … Who are you using to translate the story behind the brand or ingredient or whatever? How are you doing it? Who are you doing it to? It’s very much about the lens and the gaze.

Zoe Adjonyoh: What we have to get away from is this kind of white gaze that tells a very restrictive leisurely story and more often not others in the community which it’s financially benefiting from. So, it’s more about that. If you are a white finance company there’s nothing wrong with white people’s money obviously. They have more of it than us usually. But then who’s fronting the brand? Who is telling the story of the brand? Who’s making leadership decisions? Who’s hiring? Who are you hiring? And how are you creating a truly diverse and equitable system where somebody from the culture benefits?

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, and I think that’s getting at the question. Maybe for people who are listening to the podcast and they think understanding the category of this is something that you shouldn’t do, to your point you can’t do cultural appropriation well, that doesn’t exist. Proactively then what does it look like to do things? And for people who are asking that question who are listening, you spoke to that a little bit. To think strategically about what it looks like to fold in strong representation of different people, so it’s not if you have a finance company that it’s not all 30-something white guys. If I reached out to my Twin Cities, Minnesota, network of friends, that’s probably what it would look like. So, how do I think strategically and be proactive if that’s something that I want to do? Considering that and making that a priority.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you have other thoughts for people who are in the category of, hey, I’m listening to this. I want to not only not do wrong, but I want to do right and to do good. What does that look like? Does that question make sense? A basic example would be supporting businesses who are the creator and the owner is aligned with and connected to the food that they’re creating. Versus some random Thai place in that it doesn’t have that connection, a Thai family as an example to use the Thai … Go to that restaurant from a Thai family who just immigrated.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Exactly.

Bjork Ostrom: Other ideas for people who are like, “I’m passionate about this. I want to join in this movement.” How do we do that?

Zoe Adjonyoh: The consumer has some purchasing power, right? So, if enough people start interrogating who they’re buying from and is it appropriate to buy this from there? So, I know that’s quite a lot to put on a consumer, but when you think about people like Trader Joe’s, right? You go into Trader Joe’s and Trader Joe’s makes good stuff. They make good food with ingredients from all over the world. Does anybody at Trader Joe’s necessarily have anything to do with that? Probably not, but they put out plantain chips or put out various things from all over the world. So, the question is if you really want to eat plantain chips, maybe you should look up Sunmo Foods, or maybe you should look up another brand, Sankofa Snacks. Who from the culture makes this product? Because it’s probably going to be better honestly.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And also you know that then you’re supporting the culture from where the food comes from. There’s not just one person making plantain chips. There are hundreds these days. And many of them are Black-owned businesses. So, I think that’s the thing is whether it’s South Asian food or Indian food or any food from the African continent, just look at the label. Where is it made? Who is making it and are they from the culture or are they ripping the culture off? Because in my opinion, if they’re not from the culture then they’re ripping the culture off really.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting. We did a TV event with a chocolate maker in Jamaica, and he was talking about the four chocolate companies. And the disconnect that exists between where the cocoa is harvested and when it’s actually then sold in Target. Wow, you can start to understand that as why it’s important, the significance of buying … Trying to understand where you’re buying from and getting as close to the source as possible. Would that be an accurate way to describe it?

Zoe Adjonyoh: That would be a really great way to describe it. And cocoa is a great example because, for example, Ghana makes something like 80% or 90% of the cocoa products in Europe use Ghanaian cocoa. However because the facilities aren’t yet in Ghana to process that chocolate, because the money isn’t there within the indigenous community and maybe the knowledge as well yet, but it is happening soon I hope. The process that cocoa into consumer bars.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, they ship out the cocoa. It goes to Belgium, it goes to France, it goes everywhere, it goes to America as well to be honest. And then it’s sold back to Ghana in bars that people can’t afford. Nobody can afford to buy those bars of chocolate, and it’s their cocoa. Which is just insane. That’s part of the problem.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And again this isn’t … I’m not trying to say that consumers, you’re bad people for not knowing this stuff and you’re not bad people for making better choices. But there is an opportunity now and there is some responsibility to educate yourself because it’s also about sustainability. It all contributes at the intersection of sustainability and what is … How do we all survive and thrive in this world? With as much equity and equality built into it as possible. And it’s not any longer okay for big white conglomerates to be the only people benefiting from tech, finance and mass marketing consumerism. Especially when they’re doing it in a way that, as I said before, others or diminishes the communities and cultures from which they’re making that capital benefit.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Capitalism doesn’t have to be a bad dirty thing. But it certainly needs to be done better. And also there’s lots and lots of brands now, look at Diaspora Co., I think most brands these days will wear their mission on their sleeve. Look at Burlap and Barrel in New York, which is a white-owned company but it’s selling spices from around the world. In fact there’s your example, because you asked for one, Burlap and Barrel. Because what they do-

Bjork Ostrom: As a company who you’d say, “Hey, look at this as an example.” Maybe not everything right, but a lot of things right.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Well, they’re very sensitive about telling the story of the people and the places where the ingredients come from, and it’s not like, “Hi, I’m a white guy and I found the best X ingredient in the world.” No, you didn’t. You hired somebody to help you. And they’re honest about that.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And I think as a consumer if you go to a website and they’re telling you that, if they’re telling you, “We work in partnership with this farm and we do this to ensure these fair wages. We have a very short, transparent supply chain.” When you see words like that on the website, that should encourage you to want to purchase from that company because there is a value chain there. You know that there’s responsibility being taken along the supply chain for making sure that people are getting paid properly, and also that people are getting recognition for what they contribute to that ingredient being on the shelf at the end of the day.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And I think that’s what’s notably missing from a lot of larger companies is, and they’re the same companies that would put up black squares during Black Lives Matter, a year later what have they done to change their policies around anything as regards to diversity, equity and inclusion stuff like that? Not very much honestly. So, there’s a lot of virtue signaling that goes on and I think that’s the hard piece for consumers to navigate. But there is a small responsibility on us as people who purchase things to be mindful of that.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And it’s complicated with restaurants in particular because there also comes a point like, who owns this cuisine anymore? Especially in America so much cuisine is beyond fusion. Especially when you think of the East coast. In New York there are so many restaurants where you can eat ingredients from all over the world on one menu. And I recently just in … I want to write an article about this particular thing actually. So, you’re getting a sneak peek into this. But-

Bjork Ostrom: All right, good preview.

Zoe Adjonyoh: I went to a restaurant in Ashville recently, the name of which sounds Japanese but is actually Native American, and the strap line for the restaurant says Japanese smokehouse. But it’s not a smokehouse. And the menu, which was incredible I have to say first and foremost, everything on the menu was stunning, the taste, the flavor, the presentation, the execution was brilliant. But there was Japanese ingredients involved in most of the dishes, but it wasn’t Japanese food and wasn’t Japanese street food. Which is the other thing they’re calling it, influenced by Japanese street food.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then I found out that there’s no Japanese person working in the kitchen. However, the chefs have been hired to deliver that menu have experience of working in Asia at length for some time. So, it’s complicated.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s not black and white clear line, yeah, yeah.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Black and white. But what I can say is, well, the food was absolutely stunning and I would recommend anyone to go there. I do take issue with the name. I do take issue with how they’re describing the menu, and I do take issue with the fact that it is cultural appropriation. And even that the point was made that the owner has a bit of an empire around the concept of Japanese food, not just this one place. And there was almost this bragadocious element to him being like, “I’ve never been to Japan.”

Zoe Adjonyoh: Okay. I just wonder what the thinking is behind that. Why wouldn’t you hire a Japanese chef? If you’re so focused on that, what is it that stops you from enabling the community to participate in it? It’s very curious to me.

Bjork Ostrom: And to your point it seems like that more than … Important beyond anything is to understand and consider and to know that there will never probably be an instance where you’ll be able to say, “Hey, this checks every single box.” There might be some instances of that, but it sounds like there’s a spectrum. And what you realize is that spectrum can shift from either extreme. And to be aware of it for people who aren’t. And I think a huge part of this conversation is introducing that awareness level for people who maybe weren’t aware at all or were aware but not really, and maybe hopefully leveling that up a little bit.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things I’m interested in with your story is it seems like there’s kind of been an evolution around the work that you’re doing where it’s entrepreneurial, it’s food focused. You’ve written your book, which I pre-ordered. We can do a little shoutout. So, I pre-ordered a book, we can do that on Amazon, and would encourage other people to do that as well.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Thanks.

Bjork Ostrom: But how much of your work has kind of also folded in activism around it? How have you balanced that as an important piece of what you do along with telling the story of your story, the story of Ghana to an extent, and the story of African foods?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, activism is a clumsy handle for me because I have called myself an activist before and then afterwards been like, “Well, you’re not an activist.” I feel like activism really … True activism is like a vocation and it’s something that people … And there are so many amazing humans in the world who are very much ingrained in activism. And activism for me means really doing, it’s not just doing…

Bjork Ostrom: Active — it’s like the word. The root word of it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Very much doing, and doing it as a grind on a daily basis as part of your existence really. All that is to say though that activism is rooted within me in the sense that because of my circumstance, because of my identity, because I was a third culture kid born to two immigrants in a working-class environment in a country where people like that don’t do well. So, you’re almost born into the politics of identity. So, it’s always just been inherently in me, like social justice, criminal justice.

Bjork Ostrom: Because it’s your lived experience.

Zoe Adjonyoh: It’s my lived experience, right. So, I’ve experienced all of these and I’m gay and yadda yadda. So, I’ve been marginalized so many times throughout my life and layered upon and layered upon with that marginalization. I have something to say about all of those things because it’s my lived experience.

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, it’s not that I have to weave it in. It just is. It just is who I am and it’s part of how I show up in the world and it’s in every meal I make, it’s in every conversation I have and it’s in everything I do.

Bjork Ostrom: Whether you’d like it or not probably. It just is.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Literally can’t help it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, right. And your lived experience with, talking through all the elements of your story, the contrast between my lived experience as a 30-something year old white guy growing up in Minnesota, those conceptually, I can look at that and say, “Yes, that makes sense. I’m behind these things.” What that feels like, I would assume for you, is just so different because I haven’t bumped into walls in the same way or hit ceilings in the same way. What I hear you saying, let me know if this resonates, is you have no choice but to be an activist because that’s what you’ve experienced growing up.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, essentially. It’s weird. Again, the word feels clumsy to me. But it’s just very much ingrained in my identity as much as being Ghanaian is, as much as being Irish is, as much as being a lesbian is. All of these parts of me are folded into each other to make who I am. I can’t take any of it out. So, when I see an injustice, when I feel an injustice, I just naturally … It’s what I want to stop. It’s a part of who … I don’t even know how to explain it beyond that to be honest. It’s inherently part of my disposition.

Bjork Ostrom: This is another shameless plug for the book. Is that something that will exist within the book? So, if people pre-order that, they look at that, your story, my guess being that it’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, will be a part of that? What does that look like in terms of your story and the food? To put a bookend on the conversation, how does Zoe and Ghana come together within the book or within your work to kind of create the harmony of that existence, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen? What does that look like? And if people order that what will they see and what can they expect when they see that?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Wow, that’s a big question. Yes. So, what I will say is it’s also bearing in mind that I wrote this book initially in … So, I was writing this in 2014, 2015. Because publication got delayed for a year.

Bjork Ostrom: This new one is technically a re-release?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Right. The original version was 2014, 2015. At a time when I was probably a little more naïve as a person, again, very new to this food scene, world, industry. Also a time where I was much more capable of being influenced by the publisher and influenced by people around me in terms of what could and couldn’t potentially go into that book. Not that there was any … I’m not saying that anyone said, “You can’t write about this,” or “You can’t write about that.” But also I’m an intelligent woman, more than one degree, so you pick up on things. And also you know I think at the time I was very, very conscious of the white gaze and I was very conscious of the fact that probably the biggest audience for the book would be white middle-class people because at the time there wasn’t really … As I say, I was at the forefront of “this revolution.” There was still some work to do in convincing Africans to spend money on learning about their own food and ingredients.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure, yeah. It’s an interesting point when you say that. It’s like, “Oh, interesting.”

Zoe Adjonyoh: So, I was very much writing with all of this in mind. That said, when it came to the recipes in the first edition it was very restrictive for me because I had to make a lot of substitutions. I had to be mindful of who … The tone was having to guide people through the basics. That’s why there’s a super big-

Bjork Ostrom: That seems like it would be really hard. It seems like a really hard thing to do.

Zoe Adjonyoh: It wasn’t easy I’ll tell you. But what it meant was I wanted the book to be a resource. So, there’s a very, very sort of dense section of what the ingredients are, what the flavors are. A reference tool so that people could get to understand the ingredients as much as play with the recipes. And I really did want people to play with the recipes because I think when you’re cooking at home you need to be able to explore with what you’ve got and it shouldn’t be too restrictive and regimental, right? So, the recipes, some of them are very traditional, but the majority are my extrapolation or my playfulness or my creativity with the ingredients.

Zoe Adjonyoh: But the spine of the book is my story. There’s a lot of me in it. I have anecdotes from my travels around Ghana. I have anecdotes with my family. There’s funny moments around food with my family, like going to the market or the first time I made them dinner and they didn’t know that I cooked for a living. And in the original introduction, it was very much that I needed people to know that I didn’t grow up with loads of African aunties around me or at my grandmother’s bib. That wasn’t my experience. I didn’t come to this book with that experience. So, there’s a lot of explanation of who I am, my identity and it’s very anecdotal in that way. I wouldn’t call it a memoir, but there is a lot of me in it.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And then there’s bring the culture in, so there’s playlists. I created playlists on Spotify to cook to and to eat to.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I saw that when I was looking, which we’ll link to those.

Zoe Adjonyoh: And all of that stuff is still in there in the new edition. However, which is what I’m most excited about by this edition actually, is that I got the opportunity to go back over and recalibrate, let’s say, quite a lot of the recipes. So, I updated about 70 of the recipes to go back to how I would have originally wanted them to be in the book. Not to say that people can’t still substitute if they want to, they can, but I wanted to be the original ingredients to be in there because they are now available through my shopping list and if not through … There’s many, many other spice markets especially in the states it’s much more easier for people to get ahold of those ingredients. And I really wanted them to be able to taste it proper as we say. Proper.

Bjork Ostrom: Proper.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Yeah, I’m excited about it. That book was an absolute labor of love honestly. I was writing it at the time that I had just opened my restaurant in Brixton at the time. So, I was working 16 hours a day and then coming home, eating whatever I could smash into my face and then staying up until 3:00 in the morning to write and then … It was very intense. It certainly was an experience I got to really enjoy. When they seem to-

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. When I hear people talk about cookbooks it’s usually like this wasn’t going to the movies.

Zoe Adjonyoh: It was intense and stressful. But fun. And I think and I hope that the book really marries the whole idea of it. The original steadfast was traditional recipes remixed for the modern kitchen and that’s what I want them to be is this homage to tradition. But also letting people know you can still have these ingredients and flavors in these other ways that may be less time-consuming and maybe a little bit more healthy. So, I hope it does all of those things. I think that it’s got something for everybody in there. For the beginner, for the person who doesn’t like heat, for the person who loves heat. There’s a big cheat sheet in there as well that I recommend people start with because once you make up all of the spice blends and maybe make yourself up some chili sauce and things like that, it makes everything else a lot easier.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. That’s wonderful. We’ll link to that in the show notes like I said. We have a pre-order copy coming. The re-release comes out in October, is that right?

Zoe Adjonyoh: October, yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Okay, and you can pre-order now. We’ll be sure to do that and encourage folks to do it. Zoe, it was so wonderful to talk to you. Thanks for coming on the podcast, for sharing your story. For those who want to follow along more with what you’re up to, what’s the best way to do that?

Zoe Adjonyoh: Oh yes, please visit social media. I’m on social media @zoeadjonyoh, A-D-J-O-N-Y-O-H, and Ghana Kitchen is @ghanakitchen. I have a podcast called Cooking Up Consciousness, please check that out at zoeadjonyoh.com. And yeah, that’s about it. Most of what I get up to is on Instagram. I probably post too much honestly. My wife says I post too much.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s always nice to have that spousal feedback on your social media tendencies. Well, that’s great and we’ll link to those in the show notes as well. Zoe, thanks so much for coming on.

Zoe Adjonyoh: Thank you so much for having me. It was a lovely conversation.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s a wrap for this episode. Another big thank you to Zoe for coming on and sharing her story and some frameworks, some ways that we can be thinking about food, recipes and honoring the origin of those recipes and not only being aware of that but also being intentional with that. So, another big thank you to Zoe for coming on.

Bjork Ostrom: We’ll link to Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, the new release of that in the show notes. But you can also check out your local bookstore or go to Amazon and search Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen to see where you can order that or pre-order that depending on when you listen to this podcast.

Bjork Ostrom: And as a reminder, if you do not yet follow Food Blogger Pro podcast go ahead hit subscribe. Follow along with what we’re up to. In any podcast app you can subscribe or follow, it’s free. And we are here every week putting out content to help you get a tiny bit better every day forever. Until next week hope you have a great day. Make it a great week and we’ll see you then. Thanks.

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2 Comments

  1. This was a fantastic interview. Thank you so much for your intentional efforts in having dialogue with such diverse people. As with all of the episodes, the content of the conversation is so meaningful and thought provoking.