Food: What to do With a Green Coconut – and Other Brixton Market Secrets

The produce might look unfamiliar but you’ll help keep these tropical grocers going – and come away with authentic ingredients …

The produce might look unfamiliar but you’ll help keep these tropical grocers going – and come away with authentic ingredients to create a true taste of sub-Saharan Africa

esmes brixton market
“Esme’s kindly advice and knowledge is a great first step for your Afro-Caribbean food-buying adventure”

After a long-awaited trip to her father’s homeland this year, Sierra Leone, chef Colette Bardell returned not only with a fuller family tree, but a curiosity for West African cuisine. Back in south London, she has all the ingredients

Having navigated the dusty streets, dodged the mad drivers and extracted ourselves from enthusiastic market women of Freetown, we were sitting under the palaver contemplating my foodie addiction – buying local produce. I’d spent a fair bit of time in these open-sided, palm-thatched, traditional huts talking to local chiefs in the hope of finding my elusive family – but on this occasion the talk was of food: what to do with the exotic-looking items from the market. We had no chiefs for guidance but we did have a book: What’s Cooking Today: Recipes Used Around Sierra Leone, by Mrs Muriel Emekunle Davies, also picked up at the market. Thank God for “Mrs Davies” as she is affectionately known in Freetown, with her help our dinner might not be such a palaver after all.

colette buying cassava
Colette shopping for cassava leaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone

The only cook book I could find in the country was a photo-less collection of traditional recipes: everything from groundnut soup – a medley of pigs’ trotters, fish, tomatoes, okra, aubergine, peanuts and lots of pepper – to my absolute favourite discovery, oleleh, a cross between a terrine and a mouse of ground, black-eyed peas, fish, tomato and palm oil, seasoned then steamed in banana leaves – aaamazing!

On the last day in Sierra Leone I did finally find my family – an emotional conclusion to an incredible trip. And one that also threw up an interesting connection that added a personal dimension to my new cooking bible. My family connections led me to Peckham, where Mrs Davies herself was staying on a break from home. Doyenne of the Freetown culinary scene she has taught generations how to cook, been food writer for over 40 years and is putting the finishing touches to her latest book, let’s Get Cooking, as she approaches her 93rd birthday. A real inspiration. “I have a passion for teaching people how to cook healthy home-made food,” Mrs Davies explained when we met, sounding like a matriarchal Jamie Oliver. “I wrote this latest book as a call to action to get in the kitchen and try things out – it doesn’t matter if it does not work first time – keep experimenting.”

sierra leone groceries
Sierra Leone Groceries: ask owner Sadia for peeled black-eyed beans

Luckily with Brixton Village on the doorstep, I didn’t have to travel all the way back to Sierra Leone to get ingredients to do just that, and cook traditional West African food. And while I think it’s great this little slice of south London is getting a foodie focus right now, I’m on a mission to encourage food visitors to step outside their comfort zone and into the handful of West African food units still remaining. The produce might not look familiar and the customer service may require an attitude adjustment from you, but it’s well worth the effort: not only will it help keep these tropical grocers going, but you’ll come away with authentic ingredients to create a true taste of sub-Saharan Africa – the foundation of much Caribbean cuisine.

The first avenue of Brixton Village, aka Granville Arcade, is home to a trio of West African stores. Head to Sierra Leone Grocers at No 56 where you can ask owner Sadia for peeled black-eyed beans. I crush the dried un-cooked beans and mix with fish, tomato and spices for my favourite oleleh. Across the way is Neo from Ghana and his Kumasi market – ask him to reserve your potato, cassava and banana leaves because once the weekly delivery drops it moves quick. Banana leaves washed and dried quickly are perfect for steaming and, oiled, they make great serving dishes.

giant snails 2
Do you dare? The giant African land snails at Viva

Viva just down the avenue is run by a formidable Nigerian woman: you’ll need to stand your ground and take a patient but persistent shopping attitude, or ask one of the great guys serving to give you the heads-up on edible giant African land snails (pictured right) or what’s the best palm oil. If it’s healthy herbs and organic produce I’m after I head to Esme’s over in Market Row (opposite Rosie’s and in main image above). Esme lives by the quote: “Let medicine be thy food and food be thy medicine.” She sells wonderful, fresh turmeric and mini-ginger roots, plus many green herbs perfect for health supporting teas. Her kindly advice and knowledge is a great first step for your Afro-Caribbean food-buying adventure in Brixton Market.

The key ingredients

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green coconutGreen coconuts

These hail from West Africa the Caribbean and Costa Rica. Shake one to determine how much liquid is inside. If you want to eat more jelly and less liquid go for ones that sound more stable.

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dried fish 2Dried fish

This is seen all over West Africa: fish is smoked to enhance flavour then dried for preservation. Cat fish is high in vitamin D and Omega 3s and 6s. Boil to rehydrate or add to traditional “one-pot” stews or tomato and red pepper “soups” (sauces for rice).

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These generally have a lower glycemic index than potato products but are not nutrient dense, and so should be eaten as a stable with protein and vegetables. A versatile vegetable, you can steam, fry, boil bake or grate it. Different types, colours and flavours are available at the market.

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peeled beansPeeled black-eyed beans

You can soak, peel and dry these yourself – or just get a packet done for you at the store, as you can see on the shelves at Viva, left. A key ingredient to make delicious oleleh.

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bread fruitBread fruit

These huge green globes are all over the market. Peel and slice them for crisps or French fries, soak in water for 10 minutes then dry on kitchen paper before deep frying.

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bagging up cassava leaves at sierra leone groceryCassava leaves

The leaves from this West African and Brazilian tuber make Zakkitumboi – a healthy dish of beans, greens and African spices. Buy fresh and wash them well. Packet ones can be gritty and are best avoided.

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Words: colette headshot 1 CROPColette Bardell & Pictures: Kate Burt (except portrait of Colette).

Colette is based in Brixton and runs Here There Every Fare – food experiences, tours and cooking classes in London. Catch her selling home-made raw food goodies at the new Rush Common Market tomorrow, at top of Brixton Hill. @RushCommonmarket 

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