An interview with Adejoké Bakare of Chishuru
On West African ingredients
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The first message I got from Joké was in March, soon after the creation of Vittles. It was a long message about yaji and dawadawa, ostensibly offering to send me some, but with the subtext of “Jonathan, I suspect the stuff you’ve been getting is not that great ─ here is the real deal”. A week later, a palm oil stained envelope arrived with two types of yaji, some kuli kuli, a bag of fonio, some shito and a jar of yassa. From this you can deduce a few things: Joké loves to feed people, she loves to educate people about her culture, but also that her culture stretches beyond the borders of one country.
At this point, I still thought Joké was a very eager amateur with a fledgling pop-up. But as soon as I posted the pictures on Instagram, I got another message, this time from Jackson Boxer: “If you are getting food from Joké, you are in for a treat. She’s a marvel. One of my favourite cooks and favourite people”. He was correct on all counts: during the premature summer of May, everything that got barbecued ─ chicken, lamb, kidneys ─ got showered in yaji or marinated with sunshine brightness of Joké’s yassa. She then wrote a newsletter on yaji, one of my favourite things I published in season 1. And finally, earlier this summer, Adejoké Bakare opened Chishuru in Brixton Market, a restaurant so comfortable and confident in its own skin it feels like London has never been without it.
I had the idea for this interview during the first time I was in Chishuru, with Joké manically encouraging me to stick my nose into various forms of iru, Calabash nutmeg, Grains of Selim and Grains of Paradise. These are all extraordinary ingredients barely known in the West; it’s no surprise, for instance, that Ikoyi have based their own cuisine using the structure of these ingredients, and that chef/artist Tunde Wey’s only foray into sourcing has been with iru, in an attempt to educate both about indigenous food processes and their erosion by neo-colonialism.
This weekend, I sat down with Joké at Bake St to talk about West African ingredients, how they both construct and undermine nation states, the role of West African restaurants and shops in educating people, and a long-predicted visit from the least incognito critic alive.
Jonathan: Without naming names, I’m assuming you're going to have a critical rave review very soon…
Joké: *laughs for inordinately long amount of time*
I mean, I did say he was going to come! I told you to look out for him!
My GM Rafa wanted to post “*redacted* came check us out” and I was like “no no we can’t do that”. But he was like, “no, people must know”
With Melissa’s article for Vittles, there’s been a lot of talk recently about critics not reviewing certain restaurants ─ obviously Black-owned restaurants being a big part of that. Do you think that kind of stuff is important? And if it is, what would it mean for you personally to get a positive review?
Representation is important, very, very important. And just like I was saying to Ana (Gonçalves, from TATA) there's this thing of ─ okay, I grew up in a country where we were colonised, and always felt what was ours was not good. You know, we had always wanted to import rather than export. So, if somebody from outside decides to come and look at your things and go, “oh, this is quite good” in many ways, it turns us back into looking at ourselves and thinking “oh we can produce good things”. If others can look at it and appreciate it, I can allow myself to go into it and give you my absolute best. So there is this representation aspect.
The other thing...okay, I'm not trying to make excuses for people but if you've not been outside your circle, you think...there's this saying where I come from, where they go “If you've not been to somebody else's farm, you always think your father's farm is the largest”. And you always want to stay in there, it will take something else to push you out to think, “oh there is a bigger thing out there”. So that's the good thing with what's happening now, it's pushing people out of their boundaries to go, “oh there's something else and that other thing on offer can be as fantastic as what I'm used to”.
It’s interesting you say that about others giving you validation. I wrote about a Bolivian restaurant recently. And I think when I first approached them about writing they were very skeptical about me. They didn't know who was writing for. And then when it came out, I was actually walking down the street and they hailed me down and they were said “we got like such a boost from you writing about us, can you write about us again?”. And what they said was, before they used to put up reviews on Facebook in Spanish on from Latin American papers about them and people didn’t really care. And as soon as it was an English publication, people were like, “Wow, congratulations!”. Obviously I felt good that my review had made a difference, but I also felt like: why is it like that? Why should my opinion count for more? But I get it ,because when an outsider can see something really good in what you're doing, somehow that approval does mean a little bit more.
It's funny. It's funny, and it's sad but it is what it is. We were talking before about Jeremy (Chan) being, to me anyway, instrumental in the way that people think differently about our region. And most of the top chefs in Nigeria, I know for sure don't use our produce that much. They prefer to import, because they believe that those things, French cuisines and whatever, are the top notch and make you different from everybody else. Not just make you different, it makes you... elevated. Yeah, you’re elevated above the crowd and you move in different circles. So I think what he's done is he's made people think differently about the food and instilled a sense of pride in them as well, because now they're playing with the food in their own individual ways.
I actually wanted to talk about Ikoyi because I know you did work there for a bit. It's such an interesting restaurant that has been constantly misunderstood by almost everyone who has written about it. It’s's not this “elevated” West African cuisine, it's fundamentally different. So how would you personally characterise the food being produced there, if you even need to characterise it at all?
I don’t think it has one. I think it when he first started, because we ─ me and my family that is ─ have always been going there right from the get go, there was that thing of, and it’s the same thing as writing, “oh somebody is doing our kind of food”. And let's be honest because Jeremy is Jeremy he's not Black, and a non-Black person is doing our food, so he's looked at it there’s that stamp of approval that he feels that he can do our food. So we all rushed there and we supported him. A lot of people came expecting the same old same old, and he did try in the beginning to give them something familiar in his own way. But then I think he just went, “No, I'm just going to cook with the ingredients and cook my way” which is what he's doing right now. When people come and ask me, “oh, West African food - there’s Ikoyi that's doing it” I’m like, “no, even if you ask him, he will say it's not West African food”. He's doing his food - maybe using West African products but doing the kind of food that he wants. We don't have a Michelin starred West African restaurant anywhere yet.
Has Ikoyi made you think differently about the ingredients that you know very intimately.
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. The one ingredient that they use is ogbono, which is wild mango seeds. And the way he's used it, I think they used it in a drink offering at one time, and it just opened my mind. It was like “Oh yes”. It wasn't that it gave me permission to think differently about it but it's just like, “Oh, it doesn't have to be this way” which is usually only soup. It has different applications as well. So for me personally, yes, it's opened my thinking to other uses for the ingredient that I grew up eating.
Like Ikoyi, your own restaurant is led by West African ingredients. How has the process of sourcing those ingredients and finding them been in London? Because I would imagine that the supply chains are very different from what other restaurants are used to.
Oh yeah, absolutely. So if you go to any market where there are lots of West Africans in the area, you will get those ingredients. But the quality is what you won’t get. Most of the spices have resin in them, and if it travels and is stored improperly it loses its pungency. So, most of the time I get things brought to me from back home. Say for example the yaji I use, I get it from the same person we’ve been using for years. I get my cousins back in Lagos to go to the village to get stuff for me. That's what I'm doing now, but I don't know. With everything happening in Nigeria with End SARS, that's affected our supply chain as it is. But if you want to just cook bog standard foods, you can get the ingredients, but the thing is it's the quality that you won’t get.
How do you get round that? Obviously you've got round it with very personal supply chains but of course there are other ways. Like in terms of how you cook, in terms of substitutes, in terms of finding farms here that actually produce those ingredients?
With the fresh produce, if we can’t get it then we try and substitute for stuff here. And I've just been introduced to a couple that farms, I think in the Midlands or something, and they’re growing West African vegetables. In the case of fermented fish products that we use in food, like the crayfish or whatever, the quality is up and down. You go to a place and get really good quality ones, or sometimes it’s bad. So the way I've gone around that is we've started using things like fish sauce instead of crayfish. There was a time when we even tried using fermented shrimp paste in my ayamase. And it's come out well. It's not as pungent as the crayfish, but it's similar in the flavour profile. And sometimes if I don't get it, I just omit it!
There’s this really good essay, I don't think it's in her book but it's online, by Yemisi Aribisala about the idea of ‘pepper’ and ‘pepperish’. I mean Nigerian cuisine is often characterised as this sort of bruiser cuisine; extremely spicy….
*laughs* Nooooo. It’s the Yorubas, the Yorubas are crazy about pepper.
But she talks about peppers, not as in chilli, but the subtleties of false peppers and their irreplaceableness. So we're talking about Grains of Paradise, Grains of Selim and so on.
She’s right, there's no substitute for that. If you're talking about chilli yes, you can do chilli peppers from all around. And there's this pepper that we use called Cameroonian pepper which is quite similar to actual chillies, I think. When it comes to Grains of Selim, when it comes to uziza, no, there's no replacing that
How would you describe them to someone who was new to them?
It's a building block. It's a pillar. It’s a pillar in the dish. If the ingredient itself is not done very well, it will definitely affect the structure of the dish itself, but it won't completely kill it. Do you understand? If what you're looking for is authenticity and everything, then it has to have all of that. But if you are not too worried about the quality of what it is, you’re fine to go with the not so good quality stuff that you can get here.
Yes, but you couldn't completely substitute with non-West African ingredients, like use nutmeg instead of Calabash nutmeg?
*outraged* Oh GOSH no. You have smelled Calabash nutmeg. There's no substitute. I used to love cookbooks, I used to love buying cookbooks and whatever, but the cookbooks about West African food in the 60s, they were really crazy. They’d say if you want to make suya spice you can put in oregano. Like, WHERE? Where did you find this??? Or like, those books for people living abroad: “if you don't have this don't worry, you can put sage or whatever in and then it will come out fine. Like NOOO. Why are you telling people this?
Do you think that's maybe one of the reasons why West African cuisines have gone under the radar for people in the West? Because it's difficult for people to get these ingredients. I think it took until Yewande Komolafe writing in the New York Times, with those 10 Nigerian recipes ─ I think that was maybe the first time the New York Times had published Nigerian recipes. And she's talked before about how when she came to America she didn't even think that she could even get these ingredients. It was only when she went to a Nigerian restaurant that she was shocked they had some of them. I guess what I want to ask is, is this the main barrier to people engaging with these cuisines or is it something else?
The reason why I feel the engagement for other types of cuisines have been so different is because people have traveled there, they’ve eaten it and they've tried something else. They have been able to push themselves out of their comfort zone and go, “oh, this is kind of nice”. But not a lot of people have gone to West Africa, it's not like Nigeria is really a touristy place. So if you've not had even that little connection, how would you even think, you know, to be able to push yourself to try something? Like somebody came into the restaurant the other day, I think the second week after we opened. And he went “Oh I live in Peckham and I've always wanted to try West African food but there's no place”. Like, REALLY? Really truly? Is it that you've never looked? If you don't know what you're looking for, you can't see it. It will be right under your nose but if you don't know what you're looking for, you can't find it.
So that's, that's one problem. And the other thing is having the courage to go into one of the shops and go, “Oh, what is that? What can I do with that?”. It's just, there's no information out there and most information you get online has been...what's the word... it's just been people who don't really know much about the culture. Some of the information is false or half-hatched. Like I'm looking at them and thinking “who's been teaching you?”. Yeah, there’s just that lack of information, and the courage to be able to push and find out what is just right under your nose.
There have been many cuisines that have got prominence within Anglophone media because they’ve had a translator who kind of bridges that gap ─ whether it's someone from that country or someone like, say, Fuchsia Dunlop who's done it with Sichuan cuisine. Do you see your role at Chishuru as the role of a translator?
It wasn't my intention, but I think that's what it's becoming now. I'm getting a lot of “Oh I’ve wanted to try West African food but this has been, you know, my first taste of it, and I really enjoy it”. And I'm telling people well this dish is modern West African food and this dish is much more traditional. Most of the things that we do, we try to stick to tradition as much as possible, but this is modern West African food. It’s a lot to take on
The problem is, like what Ikoyi was having to deal with, both of you in your different ways are iterating on something which you know very intimately, but your audience might not know. And then they start thinking “this is traditional” or “this is what it should be like”. Whereas actually it's a very personal thing.
Yeah, yeah. For me it's very personal, because it's how we've specifically eaten in my house. I've always said we have a mix of cultures in my household. So you take a thing like a soup which is eaten in one part of the country. And it's part of my heritage, but because we've lived in another part, how we've eaten it there has affected how I cook it.
I want to talk about this, because you call yourself a West African restaurant. Not a Nigerian restaurant. So can you explain a bit more about the food that you're cooking and how your heritage and life experiences have influenced it?
When I say “West African”, the thing is, I wanted to move away from that thing of countries. Because we were not countries until a couple of hundred years ago, even decades ago. We were regions that had similar cultures across those regions, who ate the same, farmed the same. Our languages are variations of each other’s. And just afterwards, when we were put in nation states, that affected how we thought. We had this strong lesson of nationalism, but forgot the fact that if you cross the border, just on the other side, the people on that side; they’re family and you cook the same way as them. So recently I was talking about fonio with someone. And he went, “oh, this is what we eat“. I said “but this is what we eat as well, have you forgotten?”. And then we started talking about the old Mali Empire, we talked about how that affected things. And the thing is this same grain, that is not known in the south of Nigeria or parts of West Africa but known all over the northern part, is what connected us.
One thing I wanted people to understand is the connection across the regions that we have, and we should stop compartmentalising and seeing ourselves only as nation states. Just think outside that ─ look, we were all regions before and we all worshipped the same before, we were all the same before. So this guy, he was Ivorian - northern Ivorian - talking about fonio with me, someone that is, I would say, northern Nigerian, and with somebody that was Senegalese. They were Francophones, I was the only Anglophone, but that thing that connected us was fonio and how it's cooked it the same way. So for me it's just stop thinking about yourself as from Benin, or from Togo, think of yourself as “oh I'm from this kingdom, I'm from that kingdom” or “I'm from this region or that region.”
That’s really interesting, because a shared food culture is often a key theme in the construction of nation states.
And I guess that has happened in some way in Nigeria, and this construction of a thing called ‘Nigerian cuisine’. But also what you're talking about here actually undermines the idea of a nation state, that there are these much more broad connections across regions which are not necessarily part of the same nation.
I'm a pan-Africanist. I'm a pan-Africanist. When I was growing up, I was of the era of Sankara. And, you know: “we're gonna do a revolution in the youth of West Africa!”. So, I still have that. Maybe because of the way my family is: my family married across nation states. I grew up in a time in Nigeria when other nations were in my street; my street was a mini West Africa. We had Malians. We had Chadians. We had Nigeriens. We had Ghanaians, loads of Ghanaians. On this long street, we had different people. I went to school with different people. Not now, things have changed. There's this nationalism flowing through the whole of West Africa itself, where everybody wanted to identify where they are from. There was such a connection amongst us. Even though the language is different, we felt we were one, you know. We went into each other's houses, you could eat with the children, you know, we had our uncles there who were Ghanaians. So it was like that growing up for me. So this concept now is, I'm still trying to get my head around it, going “oh, I'm different from this” or “this jollof is better than that”.
Perhaps what’s more important than whose jollof is better is that you’re all eating jollof right?
*laughs* Absolutely. Absolutely.
In your piece that you wrote for Vittles, I'm trying to remember, you have a Hausa heritage because you lived in the north. You have heritage in east Nigeria and in Ghana?
Yeah, yeah, my, my dad is from the west. My mom is from the east. My uncle is Ghanaian. And on my mom's side, a number of them lived in Ghana and the Congo before that. So, yeah, there was all of that mix-match in my family. And that is evident in the food. We've eaten it growing up. I've had it. I might be doing it my own way, the way I like it done now but it's not been that strange ─ they've been familiar things on the table.
What I loved when I came over just before you opened, and I imagine it’s the same way now, that you had lots of people working for Brixton Market ─ generally Francophone African ─ who had never seen the food of their home in that setting before. And they were all suddenly very interested in what you were doing. Is that still happening?
Yeah it still is. Like we even got to talking about netoutou and soumbara, so iru which is called different names by different Francophone nations. And fonio still. Funnily enough this Burkinabe lady, she was much more northern than the others, and she was like “oh so you cook like this?” “Yessss. Don't you remember?”. So there’s that thing that I truly love, the connection, the things that bring collectiveness through food.
What has been the general reaction from them to what you’re cooking?
The guy from Ivory Coast, he looked at it and went “Oh it’s really nice but not as nice as my wife’s”. And I was like “Yes you have to say that. You have to say that so that I don't tell her”
When me and Feroz came over we were talking about Brixton and areas with strong diasporas, and it was Feroz who made a really good point about this idea that in diaspora things get amplified a lot because most of the time you might all be from the same place or same town or village, and that gives you this sense of comfort, to be how you want to be. And that's Brixton essentially. And you felt that Brixton and Peckham were very, very different to what you were used to. You brought up that Peckham for you is very specifically Lagos, which is not your home city, and your upbringing is very different to that.
With your food are you trying to get away from this Lagos-centred idea of Nigeria? I love it when I make some evidently very stupid blanket statement about Nigerian food and you’re like “no no no, that’s just Lagos”.
It’s because that’s what people are used to. When I tell people I'm Nigerian they say “oh are you from Lagos”. No?. It's what people know. I want to push people to think that there's other things to Nigeria than just Lagos. Lagos is a world of its own. Just like you said, everything in Lagos gets seriously amplified. You go to Peckham, and yeah, you're in Lagos, that's it. But there's another part. And one of the reasons why I wanted to push back on that and say there's other parts, there's that thing about the North: the north of Nigeria is looked at and the only thing people think of is “bring back our girls” and Boko Haram. But there's so much more to it. Some of these people that I have grown up with and lived with, their thinking is much different. You can't put everybody in one box.
I'm gonna do a very simplistic kind of parlour game. A very easy way of thinking about a cuisine is to work out the cooking fat of choice and then three basic ingredients. So Sicilian food might be olive oil, with tomato, garlic, maybe capers. But then in the north, it might be butter and sofrito and parmesan. Or in Sichuan it would be peanut oil and chillies, Sichuan peppercorn and vinegar. So if you were trying to characterise the cuisines within Nigeria itself, how would you divide them in terms of ingredients?
Ooooh. In the north, you will get maishanu which is that fermented butter. You will get ginger, yaji, and dawadawa. In the east you will get the trifecta of peppers which is uziza, the uda and the ehuru. Some palm oil but they don't use palm oil that much. In the West...actually that's the thing. When I go to the East they characterise Yoruba soup, as ofe manu which means “palm, not soup”. They feel we drench everything in palm oil. *laughs* We love oil. So when we cook the palm oil has to be swimming on top of it. It's delicious” If you have freshly made palm oil, like cold press not a commercial one, you could just sit down and just like good quality olive oil, you could just sit down and have boiled yam and salt and that's it. That’s a meal. But, I digress. In the West, it is... palm oil! Palm oil, iru, onions and chillies.
And there is a distinction there with dawadawa?
Yes. And there is a difference within iru was well. There is iru pete which is much more smooth. Still coarse, but smoother. Then, and it depends on what you want to cook it with. With iru woro the beans have been fermented but quick. So you still get that salty sweetness of the beans itself. And it's all single. So those you can put in rice or something. But if you're making soup you want to use iru pete, where it dissolves in the soup itself. But the dawadawa is different. If you go to northern Ghana, most of the dawadawa is powder. So it's all similar, because they're similar beans, but there is a slight variation on how it’s done.
Another interesting parlour game was this one which Ash Sarkar did on Twitter.She asked if you could pick three spices for the rest of your life, and the rest you had to discard, what would you choose.
Oh gosh. Arrrrrrgh. What would I be cooking though?
This is the interesting point. I personally thought what people should be thinking about is, not what are my favourite spices, but what do I want to cook everyday? And what cuisine? Because you couldn't do Indian cuisine with three spices. It would be ridiculous. Maybe I should give you five. Five spices.
Even in Nigeria, you can't ask me to just choose three. Let's say for example, the baobab leaves soup which is called kuka. In the north, traditionally, it's cooked with bone broth. So you cook the bone broth for a while, and then put the leaves in with pepper, if you want, and then yaji and the dawadawa. And at the end just put maishanu it and then you've got a soup. But for us, if we want to cook kuka in my house, yes, we could use the bone broth, but then you use meat, THEN you use dried fish, THEN you use crayfish, THEN you use palm oil It’s different.
Maybe an easier question would just be what spice could you not live without in your everyday cooking?
Spices, not like fermented stuff?
Yeah let's include fermented stuff in it.
Because our food has to have fermented stuff. I can't live without all of the forms of, iru, ogiri, dawadawa, I can't live without it.
Is it just because you cannot substitute them?.
There's nothing like them. I've tried, I've tried doing something with Chinese fermented black beans but it tastes different. I would say yaji, and
Hold on, that's...cheating.
*cackles” Because of the combination?
I mean, that could be dozens of things.
Okay. Let's see. Wow, and it's just Nigerian food yeah?
It doesn't have to be.
No no no no you can’t box me into a corner. Because there will be times I want to eat, like our staff food the other day. I wanted to call Omar (Shah) to come down and try my adobo. So it depends on what you want to cook.
This is the infuriating thing that no one really talked about. You can't just name your favourite spices and construct your own cuisine around nutmeg, paprika, and ginger.
Ginger! Ginger! You can't cook without ginger. Onions! Gosh, like onions lemongrass, ginger, garlic. No, come on. And the thing is for us because we are quite liberal with anything that we put on food. When people tell me “oh it's so delicious” like we've not done anything. That cauliflower, I promise you, we’ve not done anything special to it. We’ve just marinated it with loads of seasoning, like ginger, garlic, turmeric, pepper and lemon juice. We've just not been scared about the amounts that we put. And I'm waiting for somebody to go, “oh, you put too much seasoning or you’ve put too much whatever”. Because I'm thinking “that's just how we eat”.
Do you see, in terms of traditional restaurants and in terms of new restaurants, this being an exciting time for West African food in London?
I think so. I think much more in terms of representation. It will inspire more people who had always thought that the restaurant industry was not something for them. There's also validation, in that I can try something new. And another thing. If there's so many out there, it can be fine for you to be a rubbish African restaurant and go “okay, I own my space”. Because you get Thai restaurants and yeah there are great ones, there are middling ones and there are rubbish ones. And there's space for everybody. This is good. There'll be much more and then you can have the really good with the middling and the rubbish. When we get to that point, then we’ll go “yes, West African food has arrived!”. When there’s space for us to be rubbish as well.
There are couple more days to try Joké’s food at Chishuru before Lockdown 2, and right before a certain critic blows her up. I wholeheartedly recommend you go.
Photos credited to Feroz Gajia