Way back when the Government was introducing GCSEs to replace O-levels, I was teaching history at a school on Portobello Road. I remember it as a very stressful time: we didn’t know what changes were going to be made and this uncertainty caused a lot of stress.
We’d get a few minutes of respite at lunchtime, when I used to enjoy checking out the local shops and cafés. I would have a quick look at the clothes in The Duffer of St George – this went on to become a big thing – and scan the shelves at Honest Jon’s record shop.
My favourite café was over the road: it was so laid-back that I don’t think it even had a name. Notting Hill was very different back then. I can remember sitting watching the people working in the café and enviously thinking they didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
I think it played a big part in me wanting to work in their world rather than mine. They didn’t have the hopes and education of 60 children in their hands. Nor the bureaucracy that went with it; to say nothing of the marking and lesson planning, which often went on until midnight.
One lunchtime I had a dish that was billed as West African stew: braised beef with a gravy that included peanuts. I never really established what the other ingredients were. I have tried a few times over the years to recreate it but without much success.
Just this last summer, I found the answer in a very unlikely place just off Haymarket in London. Two years ago at a conference I had heard a fascinating talk by a chef called Jeremy Chan, who was just starting a restaurant called Ikoyi, inspired by the tastes and ingredients of West Africa.
It took me 15 months, but eventually I found myself in London on a bank holiday. Ikoyi was open and they had a table for us. I like it when a plan comes together – however long it takes.
It wasn’t long before I realised that this was one of the most original and unlikely restaurants I had been to in years. The format was a tasting menu of small dishes; the flavours were unusual but delicious. One dish that has become a signature for Ikoyiwas plantain dusted with raspberry powder, served with a Scotch bonnet mayonnaise. This is one of the hottest chillies used in cooking, but as well as its fierce heat it has a distinctive fruity taste. This was playing on my mind long after we’d finished eating.
Later on it struck me, that it was the missing ingredient from the dish I used to eat at that Portobello café, all those years ago.
The intense heat was less noticeable than the fruitiness that came along with it; but I realised that the clever combination of umami-rich beef, creamy peanuts, fruit from the pumpkin and heat from the chilli had been the essential taste of the stew I had tried to replicate for years.
I make no claims about the authenticity of today’s recipe: I haven’t been to West Africa and I don’t know much about the region’s food.
But this much I know: Ikoyi isn’t just a delicious and groundbreaking restaurant. It also helped me unlock a 30-year-old mystery.