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Rich dish: from banker’s books to the ramen on your plate

Naa Oyoo Kumodzi made a tough transition from financial services to her place of passion – the food industry and a place called Essi’s. She told Asaase’s reporter how she intends to take Ghanaian cuisine to the world

Naa Oyoo Kumodzi began her career as an assistant in the health and safety department at Tullow Ghana Ltd in 2009. She had done a few banking internships, but then missed an aptitude test. Today, she thinks of this episode a blessing in disguise.

She decided to accept an offer of unpaid work as a home safety writer for a publishing company. It was this that paved the way to her work at Tullow, where the job required some expertise in home safety.

Her interest in food and food safety grew when she was promoted to work in the company’s occupational hygiene department. It brought the opportunity to work with the caterers serving Tullow’s headquarters, where she ensured that the staff adhered strictly to all safety rules.

Birth of a blog

After a few months of writing home safety articles for the company newspaper and other publications, she received training in the field, taking a course in intermediary food safety in Scotland. Here, she deepened her knowledge of ways of preserving and cooking.

But then, on her return to Ghana, Naa Oyoo and many other workers were laid off by Tullow in 2014. It was another blessing in disguise, though: this was what birthed her food blog.

Naa Oyoo holds a degree in banking and finance from the University of Ghana, Legon. She is also a mother-of-one, a food blogger, a digital and marketing skills trainer, a chef and the proud owner of Essi’s, a Ghanaian fusion restaurant.

She has won many local and international awards for her lifestyle blog – naaoyooquartey.com – where she writes on fashion and social issues. Through the blog, she shares bespoke recipes, blending Ghanaian with global ingredients, reviews restaurants and offers blogging tutorials.

“How to be 30 and single”

Naa Oyoo pursued her passion for writing and began blogging in 2010 while still working in the oil and gas industry. With a few years’ experience of online writing, one award to her name, skills in cooking and knowledge of food safety, she did not find it difficult to start a food blog.

Yet the 2000s were an era when social media was not a common tool. Naa Oyoo found it hard going to generate traffic for her online platforms. As a way around the problem, she took to writing about current affairs and topical matters, sharing her posts on Facebook. Her understanding of tech began to pay off. Descriptive words and keyword-rich titles for her posts helped place them at the top of the search results when people looked for topics connected to the content she had created.

Her first blogpost, on how she was 30 and still single, went viral. In a culture where so many women feel obliged to marry at a young age, the many who were not in a marriage had become too scared to talk about their feelings of stigmatisation.

Naa Oyoo's advice on hiring a nanny
The blog offers advice on everything from the uses of shea to hiring a nanny

The post took off like wildfire. Many women related to it; others saw it as a bold declaration of war. This gave Naa Oyoo the motivation she needed. She began posting stories on everyday matters that most other people at that time would rather avoid.

One of those posts focused on her experience of being laid off. The writing about life issues was a big stepping stone, helping her generate views for the thing that was becoming ever more important to her: her explorations of food and what it means to her.

Different flavours, one meal

As Naa Oyoo’s work took a new direction, so did her home life. She got married. Then in 2019, after a few years of dreaming up recipes for herself using local and global ingredients to create Ghanaian dishes, she decided to take a stand at the annual Ghana Garden and Flower Show in Accra and sell her own asaanaa and ŋmɛdaa. Both proved to be a hit.

Encouraged by her husband, she took a food stand later that year and sold out on her most popular dish – pork ramen, a Chinese delicacy she makes using locally sourced ingredients for the broth, with egg and pepper (nkosua ne meko) for the topping. Yet another food stand followed at her mother’s house in December.

Finally, the enthusiastic attendance wherever she set up camp motivated her to launch her own restaurant in Accra, Essi’s.

The bijou eatery in East Legon has been going since early this year. It focuses on freshness of ingredients and detailed sourcing of everything that goes into a meal, from farm to plate.

As a chef, Naa Oyoo believes strongly that there is such a great variety of things we can do with our ingredients and traditional foods. It is this belief that has driven her food blog and the menu at her restaurant, where she fuses many local and global ingredients and dishes.

“I always feel we have so many stories to tell with our foods, and when it comes to sharing with the world what we have to offer in terms of food, as a country,” she says.

“Often, when we talk about international cuisine, Ghana and Africa are left out of the story because the Western and Eastern cultures cannot handle our spices and they do not know what to do with our foods. I feel they are intimidated by our bankus and fufus.

“So, I look for ways we can still cook our local foods differently to appeal the world,” she told me.

The careful thinking all comes together at Essi’s. Coconut jollof with roast pork jostles for space on the menu with green juice, cassava fries with suya ribs and a thrive brown rice protein bowl.

Organic and holistic

As a former health and safety worker and lover of healthy living, Naa Oyoo runs a highly organised operation that sources as many of its ingredients as possible from Ghanaian farmers. All her suppliers practise sustainable farming, to ensure that the food reaching their clients is healthy and grown in ways which do not harm the environment.

Naa Oyoo even has a small hydroponic garden at the restaurant where she grows lettuce and other vegetables in a solution of water and nutrients, instead of soil.

She believes that opting to eat food that is healthy should not mean eating food that is boring. She is keen to spread the word: sourcing your ingredients directly from farmers who practise sustainable farming is very important to ensure that the taste, condition and flavour of the foods you consume are not compromised, especially in these COVID times.

Essi’s incorporates many environment-friendly ideas in how it makes and serves food. Naa Oyoo and her staff use paper bags to package takeaways, and dishes are served on waakye leaves. As a safety measure in these times, the restaurant has resorted to using some disposable plastic. However, Naa Oyoo has plans soon to start using eco-friendly, biodegradable packaging materials such as coconut husks and banana leaves.

“The lands and the oceans feed us,” she says, “so we need to take better care of them.”

Priscilla Owusu

* Naa Oyoo’s blog – on food, drink, fashion, beauty, style, entertainment and tech – is at https://www.naaoyooquartey.com/
* Essi’s is doing orders and deliveries only, to ensure food safety. Log on to: https://bit.ly/EatAtEssis or call 030 254 9787 / 055 248 8380
* Asaase Radio 99.5 – now live on your radio. Tune in or log on to broadcasts online.
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