Recipes: Big Zuu on working hard, African food, and the importance of his sardines with rice recipe
Grime artist and chef Big Zuu's debut cookbook – and the importance of his sardines with rice recipe. Ella Walker finds out more...
BIG ZUU is a right laugh to spend time with – as many of our brightest big-name comedians will know – but the man’s work ethic is absolutely no joke.
A grime artist, rapper and cook, Big Zuu, born Zuhair Hassan, is best known for hosting series Big Zuu’s Big Eats on Dave, which sees him cooking for and chatting with comedians like James Acaster (“He’s absolutely hilarious”) and Rosie Jones (“[She] is a boss”), alongside his best mates from secondary school, Tubsey and Hyder.
The 26-year-old from London is also the self-proclaimed Roux King – “I’m just really good at making roux” – a cheese lover despite being lactose intolerant (“I’ve not accepted it”), and while his professional kitchen experience amounts to a “gruelling” stint on the grills at Nando’s, he now has a cookbook, also called Big Zuu’s Big Eats, to match the series.
“It’s a beautiful moment,” he says on the phone. “Not something I expected to ever do in my life, is write a bloody book. And I’ve gone and done it.
“Oh, my god, I was gonna cry. I didn’t cry. But I had tears in my eyes,” he says of holding a finished copy in his hands for the first time. “To see that final product, like, ‘Yes, I’ve done something here. I’ve put in some work to make this be created’. I was just really proud of how far I’ve come in terms of the stuff that I do.
“Having a physical book in front of you, it made me feel like, yep, this is all worth it. This is what I’m doing. I’m working hard to make this happen.”
That hard work started at home, supporting his mum. Mumma Zuu – Isatu Hamzie – sought refuge in Britain after fleeing war in Sierra Leone in 1995, gets good and bad press in the book.
“Basically, my mum was a good chef, yeah? But she wasn’t the best chef in the world,” says Zuu with an affectionate laugh, explaining how he got into cooking when his little brother was just a bump, and Zuu himself, still a kid.
“Mum was a preggers individual and when she was pregnant, I just thought, ‘Ok, how do I help around the house? What can I do? What is something I can help with?’ One of those things was cooking.”
It became an obsession, and although it’s culminated in a telly show on Dave and a cookbook, Mumma Zuu doesn’t always appreciate her son being so blunt about her cooking.
“Sometimes she’s like, ‘Does everyone have to always know your roots of life?’ She feels like I tell people too much about myself. Which sometimes is true,” admits Zuu.
“But she knows there’s a cause, there’s a reason why we do what we do. So I think she’s got to come to terms with that a bit more. Before she was [like], ‘Everybody knows my business’, now she’s like, ‘Ok, Jonathan Ross show, eyy.’”
Fortunately, Zuu also pays homage to “the incredible individual she is”, sharing her recipes for jollof rice (“That recipe has energy!”), okra soup and fufu (“Beautiful”). How and what he cooks today can be traced in part back to her too, from the fact he always has music playing in the kitchen (“It’s part of the vibe”), to the recipes that draw on his family’s African heritage.
As a child, he remembers asking for, even demanding, Western dishes. But as he got older, he got “more in touch with my African roots, understood what it meant to be African and understood what it meant to be from where I’m from” – and that helped, Zuu explains, “to not adhere to the classic Westernised dishes I kind of forced myself to love.”
Slowly, he realised “African food is amazing. It’s crazy, I kind of went from not having it all the time, to being upset when my mum would make [Western] stuff, being like, ‘Where’s the jollof rice mum? Where is that? I’ve had enough of this bloody spag bol. Can I please get something less spag bolly?’ And then she just come through. She come through with the goods.”
Zuu doesn’t consider his food “typical”. The book is a delicious melding of myriad cuisines: African, Jamaican, Lebanese, French, Japanese, Kurdish, Mexican, Iranian, American, Italian and more, featuring dishes that are big, bold, Instagram-worthy and largely for sharing.
His recipe for sardines and rice stands apart.
“I grew up broke,” Zuu writes, “like sardines and rice for dinner broke.”
“Yes, show them the roots, show them what we come from. Show them the grind, the hustle,” he says passionately, when asked about the recipe’s importance.
“I feel like highlighting that in the book just proves to people – there might be someone reading that and [they’ll] actually be like, ‘I eat sardines and rice’. Well, I still do! It might inspire someone to not feel s****y about their choice of food.”
You get the sense Zuu is intent on taking everyone with him. “I feel like I’m making a change in my own way and doing what I can,” he says. “I’m not gonna turn around and say like, ‘I influence a generation’, but I definitely feel like I’ve played parts in making and changing the face of who is a huge chef and who writes a cookbook and who goes on Sunday Brunch. I definitely feel like I’ve made an influence in that in some type of way.”
Key to that is eagerly encouraging everyone to just give cooking a go. “We’re not making pretentious food that nobody can make. We’re making food that is possible to make, that anyone can really have a go at,” he says, adamant. “That’s the main thing – we’re not the best chefs in the world. But we’re having a go, you know? No-one can bring you down for trying.” And you can’t argue with that.
Big Zuu’s Big Eats by Big Zuu is published by Ebury Press, priced £22. Photography by Ellis Parrinder. Below are two recipes for you to try.
Big bang broccoli recipe
1.5l vegetable oil, for deep-frying (if using a saucepan; if using a deep-fat fryer follow manufacturer’s instructions for oil)
2 large eggs, beaten
½tsp Chinese five spice
100g broccoli or tenderstem florets
60g panko breadcrumbs
Flaky sea salt
For the dipping sauce:
1tbsp hoisin sauce
1tsp crispy chilli oil
2 spring onions, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced
1. Preheat the oil in a deep-fat fryer to 180°C or heat the oil in a deep saucepan over a medium–high heat to 180°C.
2. Mix all the dipping sauce ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
3. Beat the eggs, five spice and two-thirds of the cornflour together to form a smooth batter. Season with a pinch of salt.
4. When the oil is hot, working in batches, first toss the broccoli in the remaining cornflour, then coat in the batter and then toss in the breadcrumbs to lightly coat. Carefully place in the oil. Fry for one minute, turning if necessary, until the breadcrumbs are golden.
5. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper.
6. Season with flaky sea salt, garnish with the spring onions and chilli and serve with the dipping sauce.
Vegetable oil, for greasing
150g digestive biscuits
75g butter, melted
170g smooth peanut butter
225g cream cheese
100g caster sugar
2tsp vanilla extract
225ml double cream
40g icing sugar, sifted
60g frozen raspberries
100g seedless raspberry jam
40g salted peanuts, crushed
1. Grease a 20cm springform tin with vegetable oil. To make the base, put the biscuits in a plastic food bag and crush to a fine crumb using a rolling pin or pulse in a food processor until crumbly, then stir in the melted butter and salt to make a sandy mixture.
2. Using a spoon, press this into the bottom of the tin to make a smooth, even base. Chill in the freezer while you make the filling.
3. Using a stand mixer or hand whisk, combine the peanut butter, cream cheese, caster sugar and vanilla until smooth and well mixed. In a separate bowl, lightly whip the cream and icing sugar together until very softly whipped, then fold into the cream cheese mixture and mix until well combined.
4. Spoon the filling into the tin and spread over the base to make a smooth, even layer. Chill for four to six hours in the fridge.
5. To make the jam drizzle, heat together the frozen raspberries and jam in a saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to the boil and cook for five minutes or so until thickened, then remove from the heat and cool completely in a bowl.
6. When you are ready to serve, remove the cheesecake from the tin, drizzle over the jam drizzle and sprinkle with the peanuts.