" We Eat First With Our Eyes": On Ghanaian
My initiation into West African culture
and food began in Berkeley in 1970. A naive and unsophisticated obroni (white
person), I was preparing to fly to Ghana alone to spend
a year teaching while sorting
through the implications of a cross-cultural, cross-racial
marriage to Kwadwo, my Ghanaian fiance and fellow student
at the University of California.
Another student, Kwamena Okyere, introduced me to the
Twi language and to Ghanaian cuisine.
did his cooking in an electric skillet
on the floor of his single room. Groundnut stew simmered
reassuringly next to us as we sat on cushions and read from
a children's Twi reader of the Dick and Jane variety (Kofi ne Amma in Ghana). I was enticed by the cooking
the first time I smelled the stew, unfamiliar as it was.
I had no idea then of the close links between West African
cooking and the American South,
nor did I realize that Joy of Cooking already included recipes for Ghanaian Peanut or Groundnut Soup with chicken as well as for West
African Beef Stew thickened
with peanut butter.
Kwamena's mild version of the stew contained chopped onions,
a little ground hot pepper, pureed tomatoes, and chicken pieces stewed in
a broth thickened with pureed groundnuts—i.e., peanut butter. We ate the
stew spooned over boiled rice.
The reading primer we used for lessons
showed a girl and her mother outside, the mother dressed
in a simple long cotton skirt (ntama) and top (kaba). The girl stood holding a tall wooden pestle above a wooden mortar with
a flat bowl. The mother sat next to the mortar on a low
wooden stool, her hand poised to turn what looked like
white dough within the mortar. The caption read: "Amma
ne ne na rewo fufuu-no." ("Amma and her mother
are preparing fufu"). Gradually, I learned to hear the terraced tones and to
imitate the rhythm of the language. Making fufu, however, was another story.
Fufu and the Stranger's Eyes
Most Ghanaian meals comprise a starchy
carbohydrate, like fufu, which is eaten with a soup or a stew or a sauce—the distinctions
tend to blur. Versions of fufu (or foo-foo, fou-fou, foutou) are eaten throughout Western and
To prepare fufu, Ghanaians use a variety of starches
alone or in combination (yam, cassava, green plantain, and cocoyam, a.k.a. taro); people elsewhere in
Africa use other ingredients, such as rice.
my first year in Ghana, a Twi proverb often came to mind: " Ohoho
ani akeseakese, nanso onhuu hwee." ("The stranger's eyes are very
big with looking, but she/he doesn't see anything.")
This saying is embodied in Barbara Kingsolver's novel The
Poisonwood Bible , in the character of a a sad, bitter
missionary wife in the Congo, who describes herself as "pale and wide-eyed
as a fish." Seen through this woman's eyes, Congolese fufu is repulsive:
What on God's earth did they eat?
. . . a gluey paste called fufu . . . It cooks up into
the sort of tasteless mass one might induce an American
child to try once, after a long round of pulled-up noses
and double-dog dares.
By contrast, Sir Richard F. Burton, the famous nineteenth-century
European traveler, writer, and translator, enthusiastically
described fufu as
playing a role equivalent to ". . . the part of European
potatoes, only it is far more savoury than the vile tuber,
which has already potatofied at least one nation."
For me, a twentieth-century traveler from Berkeley, California, fufu held an immediate attraction.
The preparation of fufu is difficult and time-consuming.
I recall sitting on wooden stools in Ghana like those pictured
in my reader, peeling African yams, or cassava, or cocoyam
or green plantains, using large knives to the accompaniment
of good-humored laughter directed at my awkwardness. The
major yams grown in Ghana are Dioscorea alata, Dioscorea
rotundata, Dioscorea esculenta, and Dioscorea dumetorum
--all of which are quite distinct
from the Ipomoea batatas, or sweet potatoes, eaten in the United States. We would cut the vegetables
into chunks, rinse them in large white enameled or aluminum basins, cover
them with water, and put them in pots to cook. The aluminum pots, with rounded
bottoms and raised handles on the sides, sat on charcoal braziers or kerosene
stove burners, or, if the power was working, on electric stovetops. The slower-cooking
vegetables, like cassava, were placed on the bottom, with the faster-cooking
vegetables, like plantains, over them. In another pot, soup would already
Once the tubers or plantains were
cooked and while they were still warm, the clean mortar
was moistened with water. The starchy vegetables, added
a few pieces at a time, were pounded and turned with a
steady rhythm. Usually one person would turn and another
person pound, though for a small amount of fufu one person might both turn and pound. A little water
would be added from a bowl to keep the fufu from getting sticky, and lumps would
be picked out as it became smooth.
This labor-intensive process takes
an even rhythm and split-second timing to ensure that the
pestle never descends on hand or finger. Gradually, the
mass gets more elastic. The fufu softens the sound as the pestle hits
the mortar with a soothing thumping as women prepare dinner.
Eventually the mass becomes a smooth, springy ball of dough
that looks a little like a cross between freshly kneaded
dough and a dumpling.
In 1972, at the end of my first year
in Ghana, I carried my mortar and pestle back to the U.S.
with me, but the mortar cracked in transit. I have since
learned, as do most displaced Ghanaians, to make do with
the much simpler imported instant fufu powder. Most of my Ghanaian friends
and I prefer the Tropiway brand plantain fufu flour. While it is a vast improvement
over the potato starch and instant mashed potatoes we used
to use, there is still no substitute for freshly pounded fufu.
In 1971 one of my first tasks was
to convince my fiancé's aunt in Accra that fufu is not "too heavy for an American's
stomach"; another was to learn the proper etiquette for
serving and eating it—using the soap and water provided
in a basin at the table to thoroughly cleanse hands, putting
the fufu into the bowl before adding the soup, ladling just a bit
of soup over it, and remembering to use only the right
hand to eat. Ghanaians are capable of downing impressive
quantities, but for an American about three-quarters of
a cup or a cup is a reasonable serving size. For soup and fufu purchased at a roadside "chop bar" or
restaurant, the cost increases for additional meat (e.g.,
goat, beef, mutton, or wild game), poultry, or fish. The
poultry is usually chicken; the fish is fresh, smoked,
or salted. It is quite acceptable for foreigners to eat
with a spoon, though most Ghanaians use their (right) hand
directly. Sometimes there is a common bowl, but often adults
have individual bowls; in fact, everyone might not eat
together at the same time and place.
There is an art to neatly breaking
off a small amount of the fufu with the thumb and first three fingers, making an indentation
with the thumb to turn the portion into a kind of spoon,
dipping it into the soup, and tossing it into the mouth. Fufu is is not chewed, but swallowed whole,
carried down the throat by a soothing peristaltic motion.
Eating it is a very sensual experience.
More Cooking Lessons
That first year in Ghana, my husband's
younger sister Afua stayed with me. It was Afua who taught
me to cook. Women are the cooks and the ones who teach
others to cook, though traditionally it is the elder mother,
aunt, cousin, or grandmother who teaches the younger. A
singular challenge was that I am left-handed, and Afua
refused to let me cook with my left hand, which is reserved
for personal hygiene. It is still an insult in Ghana, or
at the very least bad breeding, to hand anyone food with
the left hand. Afua insisted that I use my right hand to
hold the special wooden spoon used to grind vegetables
(kwankora) in the black earthenware ridged
bowl called asanka.
Still, Afua made a lot of allowances
In her oral culture, writing down recipes signaled incompetence.
With amused tolerance she nevertheless wrote down cryptic
recipes for me, always referring to the sacred combination
of pepper (generally habaneros or scotch bonnets), onions,
and tomatoes as "the ingredients." These vegetables formed
a holy trinity, providing, in the appropriate amounts,
the base for endless varieties of soups, stews, sauces,
Creamy, spicy "groundnut soup," nkatenkwan in Twi, made with "the ingredients" plus
chicken, okra, and peanuts, remains a standby in our family.
We most frequently prepare "light soup" or nkrakra (especially with lamb or beef and smoked or fresh
fish, mushrooms, okra, and tiny eggplants, the "garden
eggs" of Ghana), but for sheer richness, color, flavor,
and texture, palmnut soup or abenkwan (pronounced ah-BEHN-kwan) surpasses
all other soups. Abenkwan is made with the small red fruits of the palm tree, called
palmnuts, and includes the strained pulp and oil from the
fruit surrounding the palm kernels at the center of the
palmnuts, but not the inner kernels themselves.
Ghanaian stews, gravies, and sauces
usually involve frying; the soups, however, are boiled.
Many soup ingredients may be ground: tomatoes, peppers,
legumes (most commonly peanuts, but also several varieties
of cowpeas, such as white, brown, black, red, or bambara
beans), seeds (like agushi, a melon seed), small, egg-shaped eggplants, and cocoyam
leaves (nkontomire) or another kind of green (Ghana has forty-seven different kinds of edible
green leaves, each with a distinctive flavor).
For stews, some of these ingredients
might be sliced or chopped and fried instead of being ground. The starch
component of the meal may be boiled, steamed, grilled, fried, or baked/roasted,
mashed, pounded, dried, grated, ground, or fermented, or a combination of
the above; most likely it consists of rice, yam, cassava, plantain, millet,
cocoyam, or white corn/maize (usually dent corn, sometimes flint corn
). The starch can be creamy, crunchy, tangy (or sometimes
bland), grainy, fluffy, elastic, or chewy.
As in all good cooking, ingredients
should be fresh. Another Ghanaian proverb pays respect
to this important truth: "The good soup comes from the
In Ghana I always shop at outdoor markets, which sell
produce that has just been picked. Ghana's coastline borders the Atlantic
Ocean, and the country's interior, apart from the northern regions, is crisscrossed
with rivers and lakes, so fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish appear in
many dishes. Ghanaians frequently combine fish or shellfish, fresh and/or
smoked, and meat in the same soup or stew, as in light soup, palmnut soup,
and palaver sauce, a stew made from spinach, cocoyam leaves, or other greens,
ground melon seeds, fish and meat, palm oil, and "the ingredients".
Ghanaians often have difficulty adjusting
to the sweetness of the diet in the United States, where
sugar is added to almost everything. Ghanaians sweeten
their porridges, beverages, and sometimes their fruit salads,
but not their soups and stews and sauces. Even their unfrosted
cakes and cookies ("biscuits") are less sweet than their
North American counterparts.
On the other hand, salt and vegetable
oils tend to be used prodigiously in cooking. In the traditional
Ghanaian context of hard physical labor, this diet makes
sense: oil is a highly concentrated form of energy, and
body salt that is lost through perspiration needs replacing.
to Abe (Palm Fruits)
Palm oil may have been part of the
Ghanaian diet as early as 3000 B.C.,
perhaps even earlier. The oil palm, indigenous to West
Africa, has been described as ". . .probably the most useful tree in West
It is as hard to capture the essence of the palm fruit
and oil as it is to describe the hues of sunset to a blind person. The fruit
has a color like paprika or glowing coals, with the softness of red velvet,
the silkiness of a fine sari, and the richness of fresh cream. The oil is
life-giving, like blood, and an important component of many ritual dishes
and medicines. Palmnut soup is integral to numerous festivals, such as the Homowo festival described below. It is also
given to pregnant or nursing mothers.
Traditionally, all parts of the tree are used, and not
only for eating—fronds, roots, sap, stems, flowers, fruits, kernels, pulp,
A root decoction or pulverized roots
are used in Nigeria for headache, while the palm cabbage
is used for menorrhagia and a decoction of it or of young
leaves is drunk for gonorrhoea. . .The palm cabbage with
Capsicum and salt, is boiled and eaten in B. Congo as a
cure for bronchitis. . .The juice from young petioles is
used in Fr. Equat. Africa to heal cuts, and the ashes of
thorny bracts are applied to scratches. . .Pericarp oil,
which contains carotin in high proportion, is commonly
used in various local remedies. . .Palm kernel
oil is used internally as an antidote and is used externally
in different ointments and in enemas. . . and for anointing
the hair and the body. With camwood it is used for crawcraw,
or it may be a vehicle for other medicines. On the Iv.
Coast the ashes of the roots, with salt and fresh palm-oil,
are drunk to help in the expulsion of the placenta. A decoction
made from fragments of stem in palm-wine is drunk in certain
local treatments of sleeping sickness. A paste is made
from the spines placed with lemon on the iron of a hoe,
and put over the fire until the mixture boils. The liquid
obtained from squeezing the paste through a cloth is used
for local applications for all kinds of skin troubles .
. . Leaves
are used for roofing and for the sides of huts, and the
rachis for hut poles and rafters, beds, carrying-poles,
ladders, and even for torches. The fibrous material at
the base of the leaves is used as tinder, and formerly
for making a coarse cloth. The midribs of the leaflets
come in for brooms, the fibres in the fruiting stalk for
brushes (hair, teeth, etc.) The roots yield another strong
fibre. To make the palm-wine, the tree is commonly cut
down—a most wasteful system, a tree which may have taken
50 years or more to grow being destroyed for the sake of
a few days' palm-wine . . . The dead trunk is left to yield
edible mushrooms and the grubs of certain beetles. . .
The alcoholic content of the sap, after 7 days' fermentation,
varies from 2.3 per cent to 5.1 per cent. . .It is commonly
used as yeast in local breadmaking. The young and tender
branches . . .are used. . .as a token of peace, and . .
. as a warning. Ashes from flowering stalks and leaves
are used as kitchen salt and for soap-making. . .
As with olive trees, there are numerous
varieties of oil palms, and the quality of oil varies with
the type of processing and the variety of fruit. The quality
of virgin palm oil depends on how quickly the palmnuts
were boiled after picking, how ripe they were, whether
the oil was pressed directly from the boiled seeds or the
seeds were left to ferment before processing, and how the
oil was extracted. There is soft, unrefined oil, which
is liquid at room temperature; semi-soft oil; and hard
oil, which is solid at room temperature. If the fruits
are not too ripe, the soft oil yields a free fatty-acid
content of roughly three to twelve per cent. (By comparison,
extra virgin olive oil from the first pressing has an acidity
of less than one percent, virgin oil less than three per
cent.) The sooner olives (or palmnuts) are processed after
harvest, the higher the quality and the lower the free
fatty acid content. The hard palm oil is simpler to process
and higher yielding, but the percentage of free fatty acids
it contains is considerably higher, ranging from eighteen
to over forty-five percent.
(The variation in figures may be due to different kinds
of oil palms, unstandardized processing, or some other factor.)
Americans are generally familiar only
with refined palm oil. The bleaching and processing that
this oil undergoes removes its natural beta-carotene, an
important precursor of the antioxidants vitamin A and vitamin
The carotene gives palm oil and traditional Ghanaian foods
a distinctive red color; this beautiful hue is lost in American processed
foods, as refined palm oil is generally colorless.
Certain misconceptions about the African
oil palm, Elaeis guineesis, need correcting. For the past
several years, the thought of consuming unhealthy tropical
oils has shocked Americans. Yet according to The Cambridge World
History of Food,
empirical data linking palm oil to nutritional danger in
the Western diet is lacking:
. . .the notion that the addition of tropical oils to food products
could lead to an increase in cardiovascular deaths ignores
the fact that at least in Western diets (and especially
in the United States), animal products and soybean oil
are the main sources of saturated fats in the diet. It
also ignores the cloud of suspicion now enveloping the
use of partially hydrogenated oils.
[Moreover, the] fatty acid composition
of palm oil is quite different from that of coconut or
palm kernel oil [italics mine]. The latter are
lauric oils with about 80 to 90 percent saturated fat,
predominantly lauric acid (45 to 55 percent), myristic
acid (13 to 23 percent) and palmitic acid (4 to 12 percent).
Palm oil is rich in oleic acid and low in saturates (less
than 50 percent) relative to coconut and palm kernel oils.
In fact, when palm oil is added to
a Western diet, the level of plasma HDL cholesterol typically
rises, leading to a better LDL:HDL ratio, and this ratio—rather
than the total amount of total plasma cholesterol—appears
to be the better indicator of the risk of coronary artery
Making palmnut soup at home requires
a cluster of the fresh, red, ripe, palmnuts (abe), which are washed in cold water
and boiled until they soften and crack, then pounded in
a sloped and rounded version of the fufu mortar to make palm butter. The pounding loosens the skins and frees
the stringy orange pulp from the kernel. The whole mixture
is transferred to a bowl and covered with warm water, and
the nuts/pulp are squeezed by hand to remove the remaining pulp,
then strained into a soup pot. This is the palm butter.
I often skim off the excess palm oil that rises to the
surface and save it for making stews.
Once the palm butter is extracted,
the soup is made from "the ingredients" and an assortment
of fresh, salted, dried and/or smoked fish, shellfish,
meat, mushrooms, snails, okra, and eggplants. In the U.S.
we must satisfy ourselves with canned cream of palm fruit
that is exported from Ghana or Côte d'Ivoire. Currently,
the most popular brands from Ghana are GhanaFresh or Ruker.
I sometimes lighten palm oil by blending
it with peanut oil or canola oil. High-quality palm butter
and oil do not taste oily or have an aftertaste, but are
rich, like butter. As with olive oil, there are different
grades and flavors of palm oil. The Ewe blend ginger and
other seasonings into palm oil to produce zomi oil. According to Hassan Aboagye-Marfo, the owner of the well-known African
Market in Roxbury, Massachusetts, the highest-quality palm
oil available for export currently comes from Guinea and
Liberia. He suspects that the older, traditional varieties
of the palm trees
produce the best-flavored oil, though he cannot identify
what those varieties are.
"It Takes a Full (Heavy) Stomach to Blow
In 1989 I returned to Ghana to study
eating and cooking habits in the Western and Ashanti regions
of the country. Ghanaians generally eat one or two main,
or "heavy," meals a day, supplemented by snacks or a lighter
meal. The interviewers initially had some problem determining
what constitutes a "meal," since those interviewed considered
only a heavy meal a true meal, one that consisted of soup
and fufu, or kenkey (a fermented cornmeal dough steamed
in corn husks) and fried fish, or rice and stew. Only "heavy" food
counts; as another proverb proclaims: "One blows the horn
with a full stomach."
In a subsequent survey, for the first meal of the day,
the top five categories revealed that sixteen percent of the men and women
said they had eaten kenkey and fried fish with a hot pepper sauce, thirteen percent
reported eating porridge and bread, eleven percent reported eating bread
and a hot beverage, eleven percent reported eating rice and stew, and four
percent reported eating rice and beans.
Snacks, also known as "small chop," include
roasted ripe plantain and peanuts; boiled or roasted corn; chichinga or kyinkyinga (a West African kebab from beef,
mutton/lamb, or goat, rubbed with a mixture of ground peanuts,
ground red pepper, salt and ginger); baked meat or fish
turnovers; fresh fruit (coconut, mango, papaya, avocado,
pineapple, orange); a wide variety of deep-fried snacks
like kelewele (spicy
ripe plantain cubes); green plantain chips, atwemo (a deep-fried cross between a biscuit
and cookie); akara (a kind of ground cowpea fritter); or bofrot (a wonderful, springy sort of large,
round doughnut made with palm wine). In the Ga language
spoken on the Ghanaian coast, their delightful name for
the last of these is togbei, which means "goat's balls."
During my husband's childhood in the
1950s, his pregnant mother might have craved a hearty bowl
of palmnut soup and a ball of fufu for
an extra-special breakfast. Today, among the Ga of Accra,
a person might breakfast (or lunch, or dine) on kenkey and fried fish with hot pepper sauce. Among the Fanti
of Cape Coast, a different version of kenkey, steamed in plantain leaves instead
of corn husks, is preferred. However, imported wheat has
long been milled in Ghana, and distinctive Ghana-style "tea
bread" or "sugar bread," eaten in thick slices with margarine
or marmalade, is common. Eggs are also eaten in many parts
of Ghana, usually fried, boiled, or made into omelets.
Another common breakfast food is porridge, made from fermented
cornmeal (koko), roasted ground corn ("Tom Brown"), "rice
water" (rice cooked with extra water), or gari, a dried, grated, fermented form
of cassava. All of these porridges might be served with
evaporated milk and sugar. Gari,
a kind of West African couscous, serves as an all-purpose
convenience food for meals and snacks. It forms the base
of a popular one-pot dish called gari foto or gari jollof and is also frequently eaten moistened with water, a fiery
pepper sauce called shito, and fried fish.
The traditional Ghanaian diet does
not emphasize milk and dairy products: for many years the
tsetse fly made dairy production impossible except in the
northern regions of the country. In the past, when refrigeration
was scarce, milk consumption was limited to canned milk,
used mainly with hot beverages, desserts, or porridges.
Today, fresh milk is somewhat more available.
Ghana was a British colony from 1874
through 1957, and British influence is seen in the widespread
preference for tea, though coffee is gaining in popularity.
During my research in Ghana, "tea" was the generic word
used for a hot beverage, whether tea, coffee, Milo (a malted
drink similar to Ovaltine), or chocolate.
Ghanaians occasionally eat tropical
fruits at breakfast, such as papaya, which is sometimes
sprinkled with fresh lime. Mangoes, watermelons, and pineapple
are more popular as snacks or desserts. Oranges are sold
with the thin outer rind removed and the top sliced away,
so that the juice can be sucked out as the orange is squeezed,
a convenient arrangement for travelers. Ghanaians also
eat orange and pineapple slices and drink fresh orange
juice or lime or lemon squash, or pineapple juice, or cut
off the top of a freshly picked green coconut, sip the
liquid within, and eat the soft coconut meat with a spoon.
Fresh fruits cut up individually or
served in fruit salads are the likely dessert choice. After
a typical filling meal, rich desserts are unnecessary and
appear a concession to Western tastes, although custard
is occasionally served. Cakes are usually reserved for
parties, or as a tea-time accompaniment. Even without indulging
in many sweets, Ghanians tend to be large in girth: the
cultural ideal of prosperity, power, and wellbeing has
historically been the (literally) "big" man or woman.
Global Food Migration
Like the vibrant
music of West Africa, the cuisine of this region is gaining
recognition outside of Africa. In the 1970s, in her Flavor
Principle Cookbook, the food anthropologist Elisabeth
Rozin omitted the region altogether; in her 1983 Ethnic
Cuisine she found it to be "neither rich
and devoted less than three pages to it; but by 1999,
in Crossroads Cooking, she devotes thirteen pages to its
regional history and recipes, describing the West African table as having "evolved
into an appealing mix—spicy, colorful, earthy—not only incorporating a number
of outside elements into its own design, but also sending forth many of its
traditions to contribute to the culinary style of the Caribbean and the American
elements began arriving in West Africa even before Europe
began to extend its reach across the Atlantic. Common tropical
foods such as plantain, bananas, sugar cane, ginger, and
coconut arrived centuries ago from the merchants of the
Far East. The fiery capsicum peppers were most likely brought
to the western coast of Africa from the Americas by the
Portuguese explorers who first arrived in Ghana in 1471
and by the settlers who followed them. It may be that the
peppers were a subspontaneous crop, spread not by humans,
but by "African birds [who] fell in love with chile peppers.
Attracted to the brightly colored pods, many species of
African birds raided the small garden plots and then flew
farther inland, spreading the seeds and returning the chiles
to the wild."
Though the Portuguese, along with the later Spanish
explorers, introduced tomatoes, pineapples, sweet potatoes, corn, cassava,
avocados, and papayas, after over five hundred years these foods are as integral
to Ghanaian cooking as the indigenous African yams, cowpeas, rice, sesame,
pumpkins, melons, okra, eggplant, palm oil, and mangoes, or the onions and
citrus fruits that migrated south from the North African trade routes.
I am partial to sweet ripe plantains.
If I had to identify my favorite snack, it would be the kelewele mentioned earlier. Kelewele is made of well-ripened plantains
that are peeled and cut into cubes or chunks, then rinsed.
Fresh ginger, red pepper and a hint of salt are pureed
in a little water, then stirred into the drained cubes
to coat them lightly. The cubes are deep-fried until golden.
The sealed browned outside is spicy, but when you bite
into the warm cubes, there's a burst of soft, creamy sweetness
that contrasts to the chewy outside.
It is hard for me to separate the
taste of kelewele from
memories of walking along roadsides in Kumasi or Legon,
to where street vendors had their stalls, which were lit
by flickering candles or lamps. The sellers scooped the kelewele out of the oil and wrapped it neatly in clean newspapers.
I would stroll along in the cool evening, eating kelewele accompanied by a handful of dry-roasted,
unsalted peanuts. The crunchiness and blandness of the
peanuts balanced the sweetness of the spicy plantain cubes.
My favorite main dish after abenkwan (palmnut soup) and fufu, or chicken groundnut soup and fufu or omo tuo (rice that is cooked, mashed, and
formed into balls), would be banku and okra or garden egg stew, or perhaps kenkey with kenan (fried fish) and a pepper sauce.
Having grown up in the San Francisco
Bay Area with sourdough, perhaps I was already primed for
the fermented cornmeal dough used for both kenkey and banku. White cornmeal is ground very fine and allowed to sour.
There is a wide variation in the preferred degree of sourness.
In Ghana, with its warm, humid climate, the fermentation
process is faster than it is in more temperate climates.
For kenkey, half the dough is cooked in boiling salted water, with constant
stirring, then mixed with the uncooked dough, shaped into
balls, wrapped in cornhusks, and steamed. Kenkey can be sliced when cooked, but is more commonly eaten
as a ball, accompanied by roasted or fried fish, known
as kenan or kyenam.
The most common fresh-water fish in
Ghana is tilapia, of which there are eight species, the
two most prevalent being Tilapia nilotica and Tilapia galilea.
Ghanaians, who have practiced small-scale
fish farming for many decades, harvest fish from streams, rivers, and fish
farms. For kenan,
the fish is rubbed with lemon juice, salt, and/or flour; slit along the outside;
and stuffed with seasonings, such as salt, and ground onion, ginger, and
red pepper. The fish is commonly fried or roasted. Besdies tilapia, red snapper, herring, or catfish are also
used. The combination of salty, crunchy mild fish flavor with sour dough
and a highly seasoned pepper sauce is an acquired taste for many Westerners,
but one that satisfies and comforts me. I also have memories of eating kenkey as a "fast food" with canned sardines
or canned corned beef and a pepper sauce. In the early years of my marriage
in the U.S., I tried unsuccessfully to ferment masa harina, but now content
myself with the coarser stoneground white Indian Head cornmeal mixed with
a little cornstarch.
There are several types of pepper
sauces that accompany kenkey and fried fish (a.k.a. komi and kenan). Ghana's entry into the "hot pepper" sauce
category is a sambal or relish called "shito" (SHEE-toe) or "shitor." It is made in varying degrees of
hotness, and there are many prized family recipes for preparing
it. There is a fresh salsa-like vegetarian version without
oil that will only keep a day or so, but children often
leave for boarding school with a cache of the dark fried
which will keep unrefrigerated for weeks or months and
which they snack on with gari. Shito is commonly made by grinding dried
shrimp, sometimes dried fish, fresh or dried hot peppers,
onions, ginger, a bouillon cube or two, salt, and a little
tomato paste, then frying the mixture in vegetable oil.
(In Ghana the favored fresh peppers are "kpakpe- shito," a small, usually round green pepper;
the favored dried peppers are long red chili peppers.) Shito does not have a strong fishy taste,
and is pleasantly salty. It can
accompany almost any stew and is somewhat parallel to,
though far spicier than, the mandatory bottle of Tabasco
or ketchup found on restaurant countertops in the U.S.
In Ghana, "gravy" refers to a basic vegetarian sauce made
by frying hot peppers, onions and tomatoes together in
oil. Some recipes call for other seasonings, such as garlic.
Ghanaian gravy, or shito, or fresh pepper sauce, add zing
to balance the blandness of starches.
Though kenkey is popular in Ghana, I prefer the
soured corn dough of banku. For banku, the dough is mixed with boiling salted water and stirred over medium heat
until cooked. The cooked dough, which is formed into small
loaves, is softer and creamier than kenkey.
Banku and okra stew (or perhaps garden
egg stew) go together. When cooked with "the ingredients," a
little oil and lamb or fish into a stew, okra is one of
the meals I most request on trips to Ghana. Slow simmering
of the finely chopped okra produces a lovely green stew
that coats the banku generously, and savoring the interplay
of smoothness, tang, and spiciness is like eating "Rhapsody
Humor, and Celebration
Ghanaians have been described as "among the most hospitable people anywhere
in the world."
Hospitality is a major Ghanaian virtue:
If a stranger is polite enough to ‘greet' and is not suspected
of foul intentions, he is given all the assistance he requires,
including free shelter, food and sometimes money. This
is considered a duty and one cannot ignore it without losing
face very badly. ‘The stranger does not sleep in the street,' and ‘one
need not be begged to eat' are two Akan proverbs which
are literally true to life.
Anywhere Ghanaians are eating—even
when just snacking on peanuts and roasted ripe plantain
slices while riding on a bus—they will hold out their hands
to you, a stranger, and announce "You are invited." Of
course, Ghanaians also expect to be at the receiving end
of hospitality. Among themselves they tell stories about "white
people" who will send you into the other room if you come
to their house while they are eating—a practice antithetical
to the Ghanaian culture of sharing.
Ghanaians know how to persevere in
the face of hardship and suffering. I once visited the
subsistence cassava farm of a Ghanaian friend, who is a
divorced mother with three daughters. "We have a saying," she
told me, "‘If
an ant bites you, laugh.'" She explained, "If you don't
laugh, when it pains you, you will cry." Ghanaians have
known their share of sorrows over the past decades, and
they have responded with tenacity and resilience. During
the dark days of the 1980s when the Ghanaian economy hovered
at the edge of collapse, Nigerians, I am told, claimed
that Ghanaians were "magicians." The magic consisted of
having less than they needed to survive and, yet, still
This tenacity, humor, and ability
to celebrate is evident in the many festivals of Ghana,
at which drumming, dancing, and food contribute to the
pageantry. The essence of Ghanaian cuisine, in fact, is
difficult to discover in a Western-style restaurant , so
much is it tied to such communal and ritualized events
as naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.
Oto, a sacred dish made from hard-boiled
eggs, mashed yam, and palm oil, is an Akan as well as a
Ga tradition. Oto is commonly served at the naming ceremony for a new baby
(an "outdooring") or the purification of the mother after
birth; at puberty ceremonies for girls; at festivals associated
with twins, whom the Akan and Ga people consider sacred;
at special occasions after the birth of the third, seventh
or tenth child of the same sex (sacred numbers in the Akan
and Ga cultures); at harvest celebrations; after the first
and third weeks of deaths in a family, when not only family
members eat oto, but the house is sprinkled with oto to satisfy the dead; and on special
days in the Akan calendar known as "Bad Days" or Dabone.
based on the belief
that on particular days the spirits inhabiting forest or farmland will be
offended if anyone invades their territory, so people stay home and away
from their farms to avoid meeting or offending the spirits. Thus, oto is served to both the living and
the dead. In addition, on other
special occasions in normal adult
life, e.g., recovery from illness, escape from accidents,
birthdays, oto is
the customary dish prepared to thank the nsamanfo (spirits) by sharing a meal, oto, with them. The nsamanfo are believed to dislike food which
is highly seasoned. Hence oto is given without salt or pepper.
For ceremonial uses, oto is prepared without onions or tomatoes
because "these products are foreign and are not in keeping
with the fetish rites."
Oto is always accompanied by hard-boiled eggs. Eggs, a key symbol
in Ghanaian culture, are often used for sacrifices, at
purification rites, as pacification fees, gifts, for thanksgiving
after illness, and at numerous other occasions.
The very oval form of the egg is the symbol of female beauty
and, at the same time, bears an element of ‘cleansing power.' The
egg is laid by the hen with what the Ghanaian considers
to be amazing ease; it is therefore made to symbolize easy
labour and fecundity.
When eggs are carved on the staff
of a "linguist" (the king's spokesperson), they proclaim
that the king "wants peace with everyone (for there is
no bone or any hard substance in an egg) and that he is
a careful, patient, and prudent person (for an egg is so
fragile that without these qualities it would be broken)."
During a visit to Ghana, my son was
given a wooden carving of a hand holding an egg; his friend
used this proverb to explaining the carving: "Power is
like an egg: if you hold it too tightly it breaks, and
if you hold it too loosely, it drops and breaks."
The Ga of Ghana have an exuberant
harvest festival. A story is told of ancient times "when
the rains stopped and the sea closed its gates. A deadly
famine spread throughout the southern Accra Plains, the
home of the Ga people. When the harvest finally arrived
and food became plentiful, the people were so happy that
they celebrated with a festival that ridiculed hunger."
The festival is called Homowo, which meants to "hoot" or "jeer" at
hunger. Homowo begins with the planting of crops around the beginning
of the rainy season in May and culminates in August. The final festivities
begin on the Thursday before the main celebration, when Ga people return
to their hometowns. Beginning a month earlier there is a ban on noise, including
drumming , as "it is believed that the gods need a quiet environment when
they come into the midst of their people to bless them, for noise will drive
Then, on the final Thursday before Homowo Day itself, which falls on
the Saturday before the Ga new year, musicians parade through the streets,
and people spend time visiting and courting. On Friday a Memorial Service
honors those who died during the past year, and there is a celebration of
twins and other multiple births, including the preparation and consumption
of oto. On Saturday, the sub-kings in each city sprinkle kpokpoi (also known as kpekpele) mixed with palmnut soup at various places as offerings
to God and to the lesser gods and the ancestors. Guns are fired into the
empty sky, accompanied by prayers, music, dancing, laughter, and conversation.
During Homowo, kpokpoi is eaten with palm soup. The actual
preparation of the kpokpoi involves first soaking and grinding corn. Some recipes call
for fermented corn dough, some unfermented. Either way, the corn meal is
sieved and steamed, then mashed before mashed boiled okra, salt, and palm
oil are added. Kpokpoi is
eaten with palmnut soup; for Homowo, the soup is made only with fish,
both fresh and smoked.
think of Ghanaian cuisine as a kind of culinary jazz. The
pepper, tomatoes, and onions, and possibly the oil, form
the rhythm section. The stew is one musical form, like
blues, the soup and one-pot dishes are others. Like a successful
improvisation, the additional ingredients—vegetables, seeds
and nuts, meat and fish—harmonize and combine into vibrant,
mellow creations. While Ghanaian cuisine is very forgiving
and flexible, there are certain "chords" or combinations
that go together, and others that do not. Part of mastering
the cuisine requires learning these chords and developing
the sense of what goes with what: gari or fried ripe plantain or tatale (ripe plantain pancakes)
with red bean stew; kenkey with fried fish and a hot pepper sauce like shito; banku with okra stew; chicken with groundnut soup; soup with fufu; palaver sauce with boiled green plantain or yams or rice.
rich variety of tastes and textures in Ghanaian cuisine
deserves further exploration. The more we learn, the more
our "strangers' eyes" will be able to see.