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‘Top Chef’ Star Eric Adjepong’s 3 Tips To Cooking West African Food & Getting The ‘Full Flavor Profile’

The former finalist is continuing his quest to spread the word about West African cuisine in the U.S. and he’s partnering with Ayo Foods to do just that.

Time. That’s the No. 1 ingredient every home cook trying to whip up a West African meal in their kitchen needs to have on their list. So says former Top Chef contestant Eric Adjepong. “You need a bit of time,” the 33-year-old told HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY. “Yeah you can make a meal in 30 minutes, sure. But to get the full flavor profile, the full extraction of the spices and the herbs and every other ingredient, you need a little bit of time to let things braise and stew.”

Eric Adjepong
Former ‘Top Chef’ finalist, Eric Adjepong has partnered with Ayo Foods on two readymade West African dishes. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock)

As fans of Top Chef know, the Season 16 finalist and first generation Ghanaian-American is passionate about sharing his culture and cuisine with others. During his stints competing on back-to-back seasons of the show, Eric devoted time to educating the judges, his peers, and viewers about his favorite West African dishes.

It’s something that he continues to do today. In particular, he has partnered with husband and wife team Perteet and Fred Spencer of Ayo Foods to produce two readymade West African favorites that anyone can buy in the grocery store, warm up and eat at home.

“We have two amazing products,” he said, referring to waakye, a “classic rice and beans dish,” and chicken yassa. The latter is made of marinated chicken thighs, caramelized onions and lemon, served over a bed of jasmine rice. His face is featured on the box of both dishes.

Listening to Chef Eric describe West African cuisine is like listening to a composer describe a symphony. Waakye isn’t just red beans and rice. It oozes this “beautiful almost dark, earthy magenta color.” It’s tomato-based cousin, jollof rice, isn’t just “the paella of the West African region” that cooks until the peppers, onions and ginger seep in; something that tastes fabulous the following day. This “strong, meaningful and powerful dish” that you can add goat, chicken, and vegetables to, is one of the “greatest rice dishes of all time.”

Such descriptions could intimidate anyone trying to make their own versions at home, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the food from that region. But, according to Chef Eric, in addition to giving yourself time there are two other ways to get the best out of West African cuisine. The ability to edit and the confidence to have fun are also key.

“There’s a little bit of a steady, controlled hand of spices – from hot, really warm spices to milder, cooler spices,” Eric said. “Things like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, star anise, to the really hot, like habaneros or Scotch bonnet [peppers]. That mix of temperament and really making things spicy when you want to, and showing some restraint and edit when you don’t, I think is another big hallmark [of] a lot of West African food.”

Given that West Africa was a slave trade hub, some version of the region’s cuisine appears in the dishes of the Caribbean, Latin and North America. “[You] see traces of the cuisine all throughout the diaspora,” said Eric, who is working on two cookery books, which are due to come out next year. “So, I would say thirdly, have fun with it. Don’t necessarily feel you need to have the ripest plantain or the starchiest cassava.

“You can mess around with things and that’s essentially what people who were dispersed all across the diaspora did and were able still to make amazing cuisine. So don’t fret if you don’t necessarily have all the ingredients in front of you. Take some time out and enjoy the process.”

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