What other things about the food have you had to tweak to make it more accessible to outsiders?
ZA: That’s been an interesting, ongoing journey because I do street food, catering, pop-ups, and supper clubs, and the menu will be designed for the environment and the customer that goes into that space. In order to make money in a high-volume environment, you need to adapt your menu so that it flows out fast and doesn’t require a lot of explaining. JFC (meaning Jollof Fried Chicken) was created exactly for that reason. I marinate the chicken in the seasoning I use for jollof rice and buttermilk, then fry it. That’s how you get people to experience the flavor—you adapt to new environments, hoping that it’ll take people in steps to participate in the eating experience.
The complication then comes when a catering client will say, Can you turn down the spice a bit? I can and I will because the client has requested that and I know that the majority of people in that building would prefer that. I think that heat is the same as salt and pepper, and it’s a beautiful thing when incorporated into dishes properly, but everybody’s tolerance for heat is different. Physiologically, their bodies react to it differently. Heat isn’t the most important part of the food—it’s experiencing the way it’s made or the majority of the flavor.
But increasingly, my inclination is to not tone it down; it’s to make the food that I’m happy making, that I feel gives the best representation of the dish it originates from, and people can do with that what they will. But when it comes to cooking at home, you want to encourage people to play with the flavors, play with the ingredients. It’s more important that you take away as many barriers to that process as possible so they can find their own way back into it. My first cookbook, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, was only supposed to be an introduction to the flavors that I love and new ways of cooking old, traditional dishes or new ways of incorporating ingredients into a Western, everyday diet. The whole point of that was to break down the otherness of the cuisine to show people how easy it is to adapt it to their daily diets.