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" We Eat First With Our Eyes": On Ghanaian Cuisine

 

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. [1] Another student, Kwamena Okyere, introduced me to the Twi language and to Ghanaian cuisine.

Kwamena [2] 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, [3] 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. [4] 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 Central Africa. [5] 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.

            During 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.") [6] 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. [7]

 

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." [8] For me, a twentieth-century traveler from Berkeley, California, fufu held an immediate attraction. [9]

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 [10] --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 be simmering.

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 for obroni. 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, and gravies.

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). [11]   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 [12] ). 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 good earth." [13] 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.

 

Ode to Abe (Palm Fruits)

Palm oil may have been part of the Ghanaian diet as early as 3000 B.C., [14] perhaps even earlier. The oil palm, indigenous to West Africa, has been described as ". . .probably the most useful tree in West Africa." [15] 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. [16] Traditionally, all parts of the tree are used, and not only for eating—fronds, roots, sap, stems, flowers, fruits, kernels, pulp, and oil:

 

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. . . [17]

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. [18] (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 E. [19] 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 disease. [20]

 

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 [21] produce the best-flavored oil, though he cannot identify what those varieties are. [22]

 

 "It Takes a Full (Heavy) Stomach to Blow the Trumpet"

 

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." [23] 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. [24]

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 nor complex" [25] 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 South." [26]

Outside 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." [27] 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.

 

More Favorite Things 

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. [28] 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 black shito, 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 in Blue."

 

Hospitality, Humor, and Celebration

 

Ghanaians  have been described as "among the most hospitable people anywhere in the world." [29] 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. [30]

 

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 surviving.

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. [31]

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. [32] Dabone is 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. [33]

 

For ceremonial uses, oto is prepared without onions or tomatoes because "these products are foreign and are not in keeping with the fetish rites." [34]

           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. [35]

 

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. [36]

 

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)." [37]

 

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." [38] 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 them away." [39] 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.

Conclusion

            I 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. 

            The 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.

 

 

 



[1] That story was documented in my book A New Land to Live In (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977).

[2] Day Names: The Akan people, including the Twi speakers of Ghana, have a custom of giving children a "day name" that is determined by the day of the week on which they are born. This special name, used within the family and among close friends, has no special characteristics; no one name is more desirable than another. Since there are only seven names for girls, and seven for boys, children are also given other names that are used in school, work, and formal settings. Thus "Amma" refers to a girl born on Saturday, "Kwamena" (or "Kwame") to a boy born on Saturday, "Kwadwo" to a boy born on Monday, "Afua" to a girl born on Friday, and so on. The current Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has the name of  a boy born on Friday. Kwame Nkrumah, the famous Pan-African scholar and first Prime Minister of Ghana, was born on Saturday. Slightly different spellings occur, depending on the ethnic group (Fanti, Twi, Ewe, etc.). Since day names are not common in the U.S., Ghanaians abroad often use their day names as first names.

[3] Jessica B. Harris was discovering Francophone West African cooking and culture just as I was being introduced to its Anglophone counterpart. She has explored the connections between West African and New World cooking in books such as Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking (New York: Atheneum, 1989) and The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[4] Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Joy of Cooking (Indianapolis/New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company 1975), 180, 462.

[5] For more background on fufu. see Doug Himes's Web site The Congo Cookbook

(http://www.geocities.com/congocookbook/).

[6] A slightly different version of this proverb is found in C. A. Akrofi, Twi Mmebusem: Twi Proverbs (London: Macmillan and Co., 1958), 82: "Ohoho ani akeseakese, nanso enhu man mu asem."

[7] Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 88, 92.

[8] Cited at The Congo Cookbook Web site, from Wanderings in West Africa (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991; originally published by Tinsley Brothers, London, 1863, as Wanderings in West Africa, from Liverpool to Fernando Po (vol. II, Chapter IX, "A Pleasant Day in the Land of Ants" [Accra]).

[9] My fondness for fufu and West African cuisine is shared with other "strangers": Peace Corps volunteers developed "The Friends of Togo Fufu Bar" Web site, where one can find, among other things, reviews of African restaurants world-wide, including whether or not they serve fufu (http://www.concentric.net/~jmuehl/togo.shtml); Doug Himes, who holds degrees in African Studies and Economics, has established The Congo Cookbook Web site to make available literary and scholarly information about West African gastronomy, including historical information and recipes for fufu (http://www.geocities.com/congocookbook/); Ellen Gibson Wilson published A West African Cook Book, which includes fufu recipes "out of necessity," since her "British husband, who spent some happy and formative years in West Africa, developed an appetite for African food which could not be satisfied solely on widely spaced return visits."(Ellen Gibson Wilson, A West African Cook Book [New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1971]; see p. 92.); Elizabeth A. Jackson, a nutritionist born and raised in Nigeria, also published a West African cookbook and has since developed a helpful African culinary Web site (Elizabeth A. Jackson, South of the Sahara: Traditional Cooking from the Lands of West Africa [Hollis: Fantail, 1999]; http://lizard.home.inr.net).

[10] Kofi Sefa-Dedeh, "Questions and Answers" column on Ananse's Web: The African Culinary Network (http://www.betumi.com/ananseweb.html).

[11] Wilson, A West African Cook Book, 30.

[12] Sefa-Dedeh, http://www.betumi.com/ananseweb.html.

[13] Akrofi, Twi Mmebusem: Twi Proverbs, 102.

[14] Sean Francis O'Keefe, "An Overiew of Oils and Fats, with a Special Emphasis on Olive Oil," in Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild ConeŹ Ornelas, eds., The Cambridge World History of Food, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 381.

[15] F. R. Irvine, Woody Plants of Ghana: With Special Reference to Their Uses (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 777.

[16] Abena Osseo-Asare, Twenty-one Palmnuts: Maternal Mortality and the Development of Midwives and Traditional Birth Attendants in Ghana, 1919-1998, unpublished B.A. thesis, Harvard-Radcliffe, 1998.

[17] Irvine, Woody Plants of Ghana, 777-779.

[18] See Irvine, West African Crops, 30; K.G. Berger and S.M. Martin, "Palm Oil,"in The Cambridge World History of Food, vol. 1, 401; and O'Keefe, "An Overview of Oils and Fats," 382.

[19] Malaysian Palm Oil Promotion Council Web site, September 13, 2001 (http://www.mpopc.org.my/abtegfu3.htm#Nutritional%20Attributes%20Of%20Palm%20Oil).

[20] O'Keefe, "An Overiew of Oils and Fats," 382.

[21] In his classic Woody Plants of Ghana, Irvine identifies nine distinct types of oil palm: King Oil Palm (Twi: Abehene, Begoro); Mantle Palm (Twi: Abe-si-abem); White Oil Palm (Twi: Abefita, Abefufu); the Dura or Ordinary Thick-shelled (Twi: Abepa); False or Crazy Oil Palm (Twi: Abedom) Semi-dura (Twi: Abetuntum); the Tenera or Thin-shelled variety (Twi: Akekabe); another Thin-shelled type (Abobobe);  a type with only an Ewe name (Ewe: Defuta). The most common variety is said to be communis, and within communis, most common is the thick-shelled dura, with its bright red fruits, whose tips are often dark or black when young. Dura have medium-sized, oil-rich kernels. The fatura have fruits that are entirely reddish-orange, or reddish at the base with greenish-yellow tips that are green when young. The semi-dura fruits are completely black or dark when young and dark red at the base, and almost black at the tip when mature. The tenera, the thin-skinned ones, have small bunches of fruits that are completely red, and the pericarp (the covering over the seed kernel) is thick and oil-rich. The tenera type is said to give one of the best combinations of pulp and pericarp oil. See Woody Plants of Ghana, 776-779. In his West African Crops, Irvine identifies another type, the pisifera, which is shell-less. See West African Crops, 24-25. The more recent Cambridge World History of Food characterizes only three main types: the dura, the pisifera, and the tenera. See O'Keefe, "An Overview of Oils and Fats," 381.

[22] Hassan Aboagye-Marfo, owner, African Market, 2285 Washington St., Roxbury, MA. Personal communication.

[23] ibid., p. 56.

[24] Fran Osseo-Asare, field work, Summer 1989.

[25] Elisabeth Rozin, Ethnic Cuisine (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 78.

[26] Elisabeth Rozin, Crossroads Cooking (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999), 5.

[27] Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach, The Whole Chile Pepper Book  (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990), 180.

[28] Mercy Owusu-Nimoh, Rivers of Ghana (Tema-Accra: Monim Bookland, 1977), 33-34.

[29] Peter Sarpong, Ghana in Retrospect: Some Aspects of Ghanaian Culture (Accra-Tema: Ghana Publishing Company, 1974), 66.

[30] ibid.

[31] The best Ghanaian chefs, such as the legendary Barbara BaĎta, are generally the most popular caterers, or their catering schools. BaĎta, who founded Flair Catering Services, Ltd., has catered numerous State banquets.

[32] E. Chapman Nyaho, E. Amarteifio, and J. Asare, Ghana Recipe Book (Accra-Tema: Ghana Publishing Corporation, 1970), 118-9.

[33] ibid.

[34] Dinah Ameley Ayensu, The Art of West African Cooking (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), 126.

[35] Sarpong, Ghana in Retrospect, 106.

[36] ibid., 109.

[37] ibid., 104.

[38] Rev. Peter Addo's Web page (http://www.relnet.com/addo/homowo.htm), September 23, 2001.

[39] Chris Andrew N. Yebuah, Accra Academy Ghana, Web site (http://festivals. Projects.eun.org/Ghana/homowo.htm), September 23, 2001.

 
 

 

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