Cooking since childhood, self-taught cook and London grime artist Big Zuu believes in straightforward recipes with maximum flavour. Although his only professional cooking experience is working behind the grill at Nando’s, his no-fuss style, West African twists and food-truck crowd-pleasers led to him being snapped up to present his own Dave show, cooking for comedians including Jimmy Carr and Josh Widdicombe. His most popular recipes from the series now feature alongside other dishes from around the world in his new cookbook Big Zuu’s Big Eats, out this month.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I’d say I’m a home cook who’s inspired by the wide variety of food we’re able to access now thanks to things like YouTube, travel vlogs and living in a city like London that has restaurants from hundreds of different cuisines. There’s a big West African influence in there which we don’t really see in cookery books in the UK and I’m happy to shine some light on my heritage. Normally, when you think about African cuisine, you think about Nigeria or Ghana so I’m happy to put Sierra Leone – where my mum is from – on the map.
What defines Sierra Leonean cuisine?
It’s very homey and uses a lot of tomato – we love tomatoes as much as the Italians. We use a lot of cooking techniques that you might see in Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi, like the way they stew their veg before they cook their meat. It’s about really earthy, wholesome flavours and it’s very good for you as well. A lot of the food from Sierra Leone has a lot of nutritional value. It’s very hot and people work very hard there so they eat food that’s really good for you like cassava leaf and ochre in everyday stews.
Did you always love those flavours growing up?
Growing up I always had Sierra Leonean food. Then I’d had enough of it and I just wanted sausage and beans. I went to primary school in Marylebone and we had Turkey Twizzlers there before Jamie Oliver came and ruined everything! So I grew up kind of craving Westernised foods and it wasn’t until I got in my twenties that I started to miss all the home food my mum used to make. She’d stopped making it because we just wanted spaghetti bolognese and I think that’s very common. Ethnic communities take cooking really seriously and it’s a big part of their life so I had it so much growing up, I just wanted something else.
When did you first start cooking yourself?
I was about 10 and my mum was pregnant with my brother. I realised I was probably not going to get dinner because she was on the sofa looking very tired! We had some tortellini in the fridge and a sauce you put in the microwave and some cheese – I thought surely it can’t be too hard? My mum was so surprised that it was so nice. Although she said that the pasta wasn’t cooked and looking back now, it was just al dente. In Africa, we don’t do al dente, we cook it till the germs are gone!
You went on to do home economics at GCSE. How important was that?
Growing up, I’d always watch Sunday Brunch and Saturday Kitchen with James Martin cooking 100 kilos of butter. I used to watch it and think I could never cook any of those things because I had no access to any of those ingredients like truffle oil and vegetables I’d never heard of. It was only when I went to secondary school and started home economics that I started realising I could make a roux or a pizza base and I learnt the basic skills of cooking. Mine wasn’t a private school or the greatest school in the universe but it had a fully functioning kitchen and if we didn’t have that, I might not be doing the things I’m doing now.
On your TV show, you cook from a food truck with your two childhood best friends, Hyder and Tubsey. Where did your love of food trucks come from?
I travelled to places such as New York, Miami and Texas and ate at food trucks there, then over here as a musician, I’d perform at festivals and all the food is from trucks. Some of the greatest food I’ve had in my career has been from the back of a truck at a festival. I played Outlook in Croatia and discovered a vegan joint that was so good, I ate the same bean burger from there every day.
What’s your go-to food truck dish?
Probably a burger cooked on a flat-topped grill. I love walking down the road and smelling those onions. There’s one on Chelsea Bridge open until 6am and it’s top-notch.
What sort of recipes feature in your new cookbook?
A lot of the recipes come from our two years of making Big Eats but there’s also a lot of recipes in there from my life, my mum and my background of travelling and eating different foods. I looked back at all the food I love and turned them into recipes. The main thing was to make it as accessible as possible and make the food look as good as possible.
What’s the one dish of yours you’d love people to try?
Probably my ochre stew. It’s my mum’s recipe and you can make it with or without the meat. It’s a good way to use a vegetable that you might not have in your house otherwise. You might never buy ochre or you may have only had it in ramen but you probably won’t have had it the way we make it.
Is your Doritos Fried Chicken still your most popular dish?
We made that for Jimmy Carr in the first episode of Big Eats and people just loved it. I think people realised, oh, I’ve got Doritos in my cupboard, I could do this! When you add the crisps, it just gives it a nice little flavour. I think people loved it because it was a good way to get their kids involved in cooking because kids love their crisps! If you tell your eight-year-old, “Oh Mummy’s coating your chicken in Doritos”, they’ll go wild.
Do you hope your book and series will encourage people who’ve never cooked before to give it a try?
Yes. I’m a young London boy and a musician so people probably think I eat a lot of takeaways. I know people watch our show and think, if those three idiots can make it, we can definitely try it! I know I don’t look like the average TV chef. In the food industry, there are fewer women and there’s less representation of ethnic minorities, so when they see a young man like myself, I hope it will give people a little nudge to get in the kitchen. I’m happy about that.
Big Zuu’s Big Eats (Ebury Press, £22) is out now. Big Zuu’s Big Eats series 2 airs on Mondays at 10pm weekly on Dave.
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