My Favourite Dish: Akwasi Brenya-Mensa
Akwasi Brenya-Mensa talks to Tony Naylor about his favourite dish, Ghanaian red red
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds to talk about the dishes they love.
When chef Akwasi opens his restaurant, he plans to share ‘contemporary Pan-African stories through food, art and culture’. Here, he talks about his Ghanaian heritage and the dish that gives him most comfort.
See Akwasi's red red recipe.
Akwasi's Favourite Dish
As a DJ, artist manager and music producer, Akwasi Brenya-Mensa has travelled the world, but always with food in mind: "I'd have an itinerary, chef I wanted to speak to, cooking class I might do." The 39-year-old wanted to immerse himself in each country and, "for me, food is central to culture."
This fascination with food was cemented in childhood, cooking Ghanaian meals with his mum – and a professional interest in food has run parallel to his work in Black electronic music. He's previously launched burger bran Juicy Kitchen and in 2019 created Mensa, Plates and Friends, an immersive supper club that uses music, food and stories to share global discoveries.
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"Essentially, it's a way for people to travel without actually travelling," he says.
This winter, Akwasi will open his first restaurant, Tatale, at London Africa's Centre, where he will be telling contemporary Pan-African stories through food, art and culture. "To begin, we'll be presenting as a West African restaurant. I'm Ghanaian. That's where my heritage is and where I have a greater knowledge of dishes and customs. But, my approach has been about travel, taking inspiration and methodical learning and, as Tatale's menu develops, it will take more inspiration from other parts of Africa.
"My parents – Mum's a teacher, Dad a chauffeur – are from Kumasi and wanted their children to have a strong Ghanaian identity. Outside, we'd learn about being British. At home, where we spoke Twi, we'd learn about being Ghanaian. I refer to myself as Ghanaian-British. I grew up in south London, but I'm very much Ghanaian and food is a big part of that.
"Mum did most of the cooking. I say that I learned cooking from her and eating from my dad! As the oldest of four brothers, I was most trusted in the kitchen. I was naturally inquisitive and the kitchen was like a science lab. I was interested in how you take uncooked ingredients and get a meal at the end. I was constantly asking questions about how A plus B equalled C.
"Dinner would always be something Mum made. A lot of Ghanaian dishes are rich in flavour and spice and, depending on the meat, cooked over time in large batches. Mum might do a couple of weekly cooks, making two or three dinners. She loved cooking and enjoys sharing food. If you're full or trying to be healthy, she takes it personally.
"Generally, we ate as a family. It was a small house, so we'd bump into each other, but if you missed anything you'd be brought up to speed at dinner. Or, if you needed telling off, that could also occur!
"We'd eat banquet-style, and there'd be a main and various sides: rice, veg and sauces like shito, a Ghanaian chilli sauce. Like sriracha or gochujang, I definitely think shito could have broader appeal. It's similar in flavour to XO sauce, and when we did a Tatale shito burger with James Cochran's Around the Cluck pop-up, he really liked it.
"Growing up, Mum often made red red but I appreciated it more after I'd gone to university in Sheffield in 2000. The only time I'd get red red is at home, and as it holds well (it's red because its made with red palm oil), Mum would package some up to take back. The spicy tomato broth and sweet plantain, one of my favourite foods, is very warming.
"I've fond memories of Mum and my aunt making eto, too – boiled, mashed plantains with onions, peanuts and/or peanut butter and ground smoked fish like tilapia. It's made in an asanka bowl, like a broad pestle and mortar. It was served from the asanka, then topped with peanuts, avocado and boiled eggs.
"There are several recipes that traverse nations in west Africa, like the fried dough dessert known as puff-puff in Nigeria and bofrot in Ghana. But, there are dishes individual to the place they're from too, and a French influence in countries like Senegal. Even dishes in Ghana differ immensely depending on which tribe you're from. It's very broad subject and more complicated than people understand."