For me, there’s a real mystery about Accra, as well as it provoking a sense of inquisitiveness. It means so many things: it’s where my dad is from, and half my family. I was sent there as a child for six months, before moving back to London, and then I returned as a chef in search of recipes for my cookbook, and stories for a memoir. In my eyes, my father had the keys to this Ghanaian kingdom and I was never given them. My most recent trip was about trying to find out who he is and who I am, through him.
Do not forget the yellow card that tells the authorities you’ve had your yellow fever jab. I dozed on the plane and woke to flight attendant cries of “yellow card, yellow card”. I had forgotten mine and started to worry about how awful it would be, in terms of the nature of this trip, to get turned back. Fortunately, at passport control, they recognised my family name Adjonyoh and said, “Welcome home”. I still had to “negotiate” the policeman in the arrivals lounge who was collecting yellow cards, but I got through!
I wasn’t expecting the constant, intense noise of cars – and street-food vendors selling breakfast – at 5.30am. It took an hour to get from the airport to the Kaneshie district, where my grandmother lives. There were just lines and lines of vendors along the route. It’s like that from dawn till dusk.
Jamestown is electric. It’s the city’s oldest district, and it’s like Hackney Wick on steroids: a supremely better version of what Hackney Wick wants to be. Yes, there is poverty, the homes are corrugated shacks for the most part, but there’s a constant vibrancy. I was lucky enough to have Emmanuelle, who works for a local children’s charity, as my guide; though it’s possible to book walking tours, too. City-centre areas such as Osu are shiny, new, slick and western.
In Jamestown you’ll see a harbour with an expanse of Atlantic, dotted with traditional fishing boats called pirogues. When the catch comes in there is amazing fresh fish everywhere: squid, barracuda, mackerel, flounder, and bass among them. You’ll see people barter and buy those fish and take them straight to smokers – there’s one at the side of virtually every house – and from there they’ll sell them.
The pestle and mortars we’re used to in the west are like dainty objects in comparison to those I saw in Accra. But when you are making fufu (a cassava dish served with soup) in Ghana, like I saw my aunt make at my grandmother’s house, the pestle was two feet long and the mortar was like a tree trunk. It went boom, boom, boom!
Seeing kenkey being made is like watching street art. It’s fermented maize dough, and I knew I had to put it on my menu. It has a similar flavour to tamale. In Accra, they make it in cauldrons, mix it up, cool it, get corn husks and wrap it up – and then bury it. I do a spicy sardine dish that uses thin kenkey crisps (or banku crisps) and is served as a canapé.
Accra’s contemporary culture scene is powerful at the moment, whether it be music, fashion or art – such as the new Ano gallery in Osu. The Chale Wote street art festival, run by Accra[dot]Alt, was introduced to me by DJ Aries, who created the playlists that appear in my cookbook.
I’m a big fan of Jamestown’s “create your own buffet” style. You won’t get one big meal, but I love eating from all the different street food stalls. Go get some kenkey from one, then go along a few stalls and pick up some fresh shito (hot black pepper sauce), maybe some smoked fish and then sit, eat and watch the sunset.
For a great night out, eat late – maybe at JayNii for its amazing harbour view, or the Jamestown cafe-bar – and then see a boxing match. There seem to be as many boxing gyms in Jamestown as there are churches in Kaneshie. Anywhere around there is likely to roll into a party that goes into the early hours.
If you’ve got good legs, run up to the top of the lighthouse on Cleland Road for its views. It overlooks the harbour and you can see the James fort, the Bukom district, the Ussher fort and into Osu. I say “run” because it’s not manned; and I’m not sure it’s actually a tourist attraction!
My grandmother is 98 and has to use a walking frame but she dances into the room on it, and she’s always smiling! Her favourite food is jollof (coloured rice with meat or vegetables), though what my aunt and grandmother helped me to understand best was groundnut. I went to Kaneshie market with my aunt and she showed me how to make it, but grandma would keep saying, “Don’t forget to add this; don’t forget to add that.” In the end it became this amazing surf, turf and snail dish.
• Zoe Adjonyoh’s food is available at @PopBrixton and @Sun13Cantons. She is the author of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (Octopus, £25). To order a copy for £21.25 inc UK p&p visit bookshop.theguardian.com