Sunday, 23 January 2011

London - Spinach and Agushi

Exmouth Market
London EC1R

Two stews and jollof rice (small portion): £4.50

As a nation, we regularly eat food from almost all parts of the world, but most people have never even thought to try food from African nations south of North Africa.  This long-standing culinary ignorance may be because we associate Africa with famine, or because we're so busy shovelling curry, fajitas, kebabs, couscous, noodles, hamburgers and roasts into our mouths, that we don't have time to venture outside of our already broad culinary parameters.  A meal at an Eritrean restaurant in 2007 opened my eyes to the vast number of cuisines I had not yet tried, but despite the substantial African communities in cities and towns across Britain, it is still difficult to find restaurants serving Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ethiopian and Somali food in most places.

Spinach & Agushi, a food stall in London's Exmouth Market, is bringing African food - their dishes are Ghanaian - to the mainstream, as evidenced by the long lines of City workers queueing for jollof rice, plantains, pepper beef, chicken in peanut sauce, and spinach and agushi (ground melon seeds) each lunchtime.  Taking my place in the queue, I noticed that most of my fellow line-dwellers were white and, judging from their clothes and the smart phones clutched in their hands, wealthy.  There were six or seven choices of stews to be served with a ladle-ful of jollof, and all were disappearing at an equal rate - there were no "safe" options, and people were gladly accepting large quantities of fiery chilli sauce on top of their already well-spiced dishes.

I ordered jollof rice with spinach and agushi and chicken in peanut sauce.  Despite ordering a small portion, I would not have needed dinner had I not been intent on getting a Jamaican patty.  The chicken was korma-like: rich and creamy, with large chunks of tender chicken smothered by a nutty sauce that provided only a slight spice-infused tingle.  The spinach and ayushi provided a contrast with a dry mixture of a granular agushi paste mixed with a large quantity of baby spinach.  Being new to agushi, I had no expectations, but its slightly bitter and nutty flavour lent itself well to the spinach, preventing it from tasting too much like the wilted salads you can find in every other swanky cafe bar around the Square Mile.

The only disappointment was the jollof.  I have eaten a substantial amount of this tomato, pepper and rice dish in my time, both from restaurants and my own kitchen, and Spinach & Agushi's version was too dry and contained few flavours beyond the chilli skins I kept finding.  A good jollof retains strong tomato and onion flavours that could not be found in this version.  In addition, it was too dry, and while jollof is not meant to be sloppy, it is often moist, making it stand out as part of the meal rather than being a foil for the stews and vegetable dishes served alongside it.

Now that African food is moving into the mainstream, I want to see more stalls and restaurants serving food like Spinach & Agushi's.  Their introduction to African food is flavourful but recognisable, not scaring off the uninitiated with too much chilli or too many unfamiliar ingredients.  Maybe soon, people will start going out for a Ghanaian or an Ethiopian on a Friday night.

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