Tagines are easy to find, but where can an adventurous diner – or a homesick ex-pat – sniff out a bowl of ogbono soup or a few balls of fufu?
The various cuisines of the 16 countries that make up West Africa are especially poorly represented in the capital, something that friends Jeremy Chan and Iré Hassan-Odukale set out to change when they opened Ikoyi.
Well, sort of. The pair derive inspiration as much from haute cuisine as from the market stalls of Lagos, and the menu at Ikoyi – while showcasing many unfamiliar ingredients – is designed, as Chan puts it, “to weave deliciousness into a whole new concept. The aesthetics of our food are almost as important as the taste: we play with colours, textures, geometry.”
Much research has gone into their menu, including sessions in the British Library researching West African cuisine, but other elements are at work, too. Chan’s reworking of jollof rice – a complex assembly involving brown crab meat cooked like a custard in a Thermomix; rice fried in chicken fat and cooked in a broth of barbecued vegetables, chicken and seafood; then a final burst of high-temperature, Cantonese wok hei cooking – is a case in point: “the flavour is West African, but the cooking is from my childhood in Hong Kong.”
And the genesis of one of Ikoyi’s most popular dishes – fried plantain strips, dusted in raspberry salt and served with a smoky, sweet sour, piquant emulsion – lies in Paris. At Le Châteaubriand, to be precise, where Chan ordered Iñaki Aizpitarte’s tempura of calves’ brains in strawberry powder.
“Using dried fruit as a seasoning was shocking and brilliant,” he recalls. “It came back to me when we developed the dish. Not just the flavour, but the colour and texture, like the surface of Mars.”
The dish looks dramatically simple on the plate, but there is much complexity in the preparation: Chan even dehydrates his own raspberries, but admits that the freeze-dried version works just as well.
Much trial and error went into the right coating for the fried plantains – a blend of polenta with sorghum, rice and tapioca flours, which stops the fritters becoming soggy – while his recipe for chilli oil needs a fearless touch at the grill. “The shallots need to be blackened and completely soft, or the oil will end up unbalanced, bitter and very spicy,” he advises.
The other element in his emulsion is a pickling liquor flavoured with honey, lavender and two West African spices: calabash nutmeg, the seeds of an evergreen tree from the forests of West Africa with a similar odour and flavour to common nutmeg, and grains of selim, a musky, peppery spice. Both are toasted before being added to the pickle “which is like a honey and lavender tea: you can drink it”.
At Ikoyi, the plantain dish is a kind of mission statement for the menu. “It’s the first bite of food that most diners have, and it’s also the spiciest. We enjoy playing with flavour, visuals and diners’ preconceptions.” Chan hesitates for a moment, then smiles. “Actually, what we really like is playing with people’s heads.”
Plantain, smoked scotch bonnet and raspberry
For the plantain
150g sorghum flour
225g tapioca starch
75g rice flour
6g ground cloves
5 medium to well-ripened plantains
Vegetable oil for frying
For the salt
500g raspberries (or 100g freeze-dried raspberries)
20g ground cloves
10g smoked paprika
10g ground cinnamon
3g dried Scotch bonnet
30g fine salt
For the chilli oil
700g fresh long red chillies
700g banana shallots, peeled
100g Scotch bonnets
1.5l grapeseed oil
For the pickling liquor
1.1l cider vinegar
5 bay leaves
25g black peppercorns
10g calabash (or regular) nutmeg
10g grains of selim
10g dried chilli
For the emulsion
65g egg yolk
8g Dijon mustard
4g hot paprika
4g chipotle chillies
600ml smoked Scotch bonnet oil
130ml pickling liquor
1. For the chilli oil, pierce the chillies and halve the shallots lengthways. Toss well in grapeseed oil, then thoroughly blacken everything under a grill. Chop it all finely and mix with the oil. Vac pac and leave for 48 hours to infuse, then strain through a double layer of muslin.
2. For the pickling liquor, bring the liquids and honey to the boil and set aside. Toast the peppercorns, grains ofselim and nutmeg until fragrant, then add to the hot pickle liquid with the chilli, lavender, thyme and bay leaves. Chill and reserve.
3. Make the emulsion. In a blender, mix the egg, mustard, paprika, chipotle chillies and salt, then drizzle in 400ml of the chilli oil to form an emulsion. Scrape down the sides of the blender and add the pickle liquor. Blend again, slowly adding the remaining chilli oil.
4. If you are using fresh raspberries, dehydrate them in a fan oven at 55°C overnight. Blitz them (or the freeze-dried raspberries) with the spices, then mix with the salt.
5. Whisk together the flours and spices and reserve. Whisk the salt with the buttermilk until dissolved.
6. Slice the plantains into long 5mm strips. If they are not quite ripe, deep-fry them in oil at 120°C for 3 to 5 minutes to soften the cores and lightly caramelise the outsides. Lightly dust the plantains in the flour mixture, then dip in the buttermilk, then in the flour again. Deep-fry at 180°C for 3 minutes, until caramelised and very crisp.