Mushy, gooey, fragrant, grainy, tasty, starchy, spicy, creamy, rotund, freaking amazing—these are just some of the adjectives bloggers use to describe Ghanaian cuisine. From Seoul to London, Guangzhou to Tamale, people are blogging about Ghanaian food.
Ghanaian food expert, Fran Osseo-Asare, has much to offer readers of her blog about Ghanaian cuisine. There she explains her motivation for writing about food:
I got fed up (pun intended) hearing the negative and distorted nonsense people said about West African cooking, so started writing about it from my perspective…Since the 1970s I've been eating and learning in the kitchens of family, friends, and colleagues how to prepare Ghanaian food. As a sociologist, a writer, and a “foodie,” I've also looked for the stories behind the food. Since marrying my Ghanaian husband in the 1970s I've spent decades looking at his culture from the inside out, and/or the outside in…
And Apoorva gives her interpretation of the concept of ‘food’ in Ghana:
Food’ here…is roughly translated from Gonja, Dagomba, Twi, Nanumba, or any other Ghanaian language as “the starchy portion of what we eat”. This is in contrast with “soup” which refers to “the stuff, which contains the meat or fish that we pour on the Food”. All people have Food, most people have some Soup, and if you are not poor, you will have abela [meat] in your Soup.
The philosophy of heavy main meals in Ghana was described by Fran Osseo-Asare after interviewing hundreds of Ghanaians about it:
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.
Another way of putting it is: “Belly full, blow horn.” In other words, if you want to work hard, as work traditionally is in Ghana, you have to fill your stomach. And Fran lists Ghanaian cooking basics at her blog:
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).  …The starch component of the meal…most likely it consists of rice, yam, cassava, plantain, millet, cocoyam, or white corn/maize… ). The starch can be creamy, crunchy, tangy (or sometimes bland), grainy, fluffy, elastic, or chewy.
And there is “the ingredients”, as her Ghanaian sister-in-law, Afua, taught her when she began recording recipes in the 70's that ultimately became a book, A Good Soup Attracts Chairs:
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
Of course, a discussion of Ghanaian cuisine would not be complete without fufu, the cult classic and staple of Ghanaian chop bars, restaurants and family compounds across the country. St Peters Trekker wrote:
…fufu sits in its bowl like a rotund butter colored island rising up through the lake of fragrant stew.
And Ampoorva explains why the big deal:
Fufu…you make in a GIANT mortar and pestle and pound the living be-hoobies out of…
Indeed, preparing fufu is a labour intensive process, as St Peter’s Trekker found out:
The making of fufu takes special equipment and teamwork. Fufu is made with a large mortar and pestle. The pestle is made from a tree limb or sapling about as tall as a person and as big around as can be comfortably grasped by an adult hand. The pole is smooth, stripped of its bark and pounded on one end to look like a frayed mushroom cap. This is the end that crushes and mashes the vegetables into just the right consistency, working them until the dough sticks together and forms a smooth ball. The mortar is a large flat bottomed bowl mounted on a low stand. One person, standing above the mortar, pounds cooked wedges of cassava and chunks of plantain together with the pole while a second person sitting on a low stool next to the mortar moves the vegetables around the bowl in between strokes. The person sitting beside the bowl has only a tiny window of time to stir the dough before the beating stick comes down again.
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.
Fufu even made the history books, as Betumi cites:
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.
So intrinsic to Ghanaian life is fufu, that many sayings or proverbs include references to it (as they do the entire food spectrum in Ghana). At her blog, This is Ghana, one blogger wrote that during a speech to the bride and groom at a wedding ceremony, a Ghanaian woman dispensed wisdom, comparing fufu to a relationship:
The analogy in Ghanaian folklore follows that creating a good relationship is like making fufu: one partner is the cassava and the other is the plantain (or yam if you're up north). When you pound cassava and plantain into a sticky ball of fufu, which ain't easy, like you're average long-term relationship, you hit lumps, like you're average long-term relationship. So, what next? Ghanaians believe that it is the sole responsibility of the two to address the issues–those lumps–in the relationship. In other words, to discard those things that don't help the relationship, and keep pounding away at the rest. And to solve it yourself…
And then there is the soup. Of ground nut soup, facing the wall exclaims:
Ah, how delicious you are, GS! Made of groundnuts (that's peanuts to most, monkey nuts to the weirdos) and groundnut oil. Eating this gives you huge pectoral muscles and increases your tolerance for Celine Dion ballads. Easily one the best things in Ghana to eat.
On a trip in Ghana, Mickey Ashmore is invited in to watch ground nut soup being prepared in a restaurant:
Groundnut soup is rich, nutty, and brown; thickened by its main ingredient, groundnut paste, which is boiled with a touch of water and churned with an instrument resembling a small canoe paddle for several hours. Before adding the groundnut paste to the stew, a whole chicken (cut into pieces) is stewed with previously boiled tomatoes, onions, and hot red chilies plus a whole bunch of ground ginger (done by mortar and pestle), chopped garlic, and raw chopped onions. For added flavor, standard Maggi chicken seasoning is added to the stewing pot. After cooking the chicken with these ingredients for a while (not sure how long), the rich groundnut paste is then added and stewed for many more hours making sure the chicken is tender and falls off the bone.
Betumi gives more details about the three main soups of Ghana, which accompany fufu, and which she serves her family:
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.
Now: To swallow or to chew? That is the question. While all self-respecting Ghanaians swallow fufu, many foreigners struggle not to chew. So many visitors have blogged about this that the ‘chew challenge’ almost seems like a traveler’s rite-of-passage. One goes so far as to declare chewing ‘unethical’.
First, Betumi explains the correct way:
Fufu is not chewed, but swallowed whole, carried down the throat by a soothing peristaltic motion. Eating it is a very sensual experience.
Apoorva explains the reality:
Like all Food you must rip off a piece, dip it in the soup, and eat it – and by eat I mean SWALLOW IT WITHOUT CHEWING. Complicated stuff people. Chew accidentally and suddenly the whole circle of eaters are guffawing at you and you are looking confused and bewildered.
Facing the wall blog wrote:
…the method is to pull of a piece about the size of a large shooter marble, dip in the sauce, and swallow whole without chewing (or gagging, for those trying it for the first time.)
Accra flight cautions:
…if you are eating fufu in front of some African person then try not to chew it but just swallow it, as in Africa it is considered unethical to chew fufu. But no matter how you eat fufu, it tastes great…
Indo Dreamin’, who was on a mission to find Ghanaian food in Guangzhou, describes the challenge when he finally found fufu:
The unique thing about fufu is that you do not chew it. You have to cut a piece using your index and middle fingers, form a small dimple in the piece you have cut (using your thumb), dip the piece into the piping hot soup, and once placed in your mouth you swallow. You DO NOT CHEW FUFU.
You don’t chew fufu, you simply pick up some with your fingers, yes soup with fingers is much more fun than with a spoon, and put the fufu in and swallow. It’s not that it’s bad; it just doesn’t have a whole lot of taste…
Gunbunnycrosswalk gave another explanation:
you are not supposed to chew fufu as it is considered rude to the cook…fine with me…gets it out of my mouth sooner…
A McGraw seemed relieved:
I’ve finally learned not to attempt to chew fufu or bangku but just to swallow…
So that Ghanaians and foreigners alike can get their hit of fufu wherever they may be, Betumi lists sites that you can visit to find fufu near you:
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).
Arguably, next on the hierarchy of Ghanaian favourites and most blogged about, is Banku. Of Banku, Facing the Wall asks:
What happens if you let maize ferment in a pot for three days and then pound into a thick sour mush? You get banku of course! This is actually really tasty, but it's an acquired taste for some. Often served with light soup or okro stew.
Mickey Ashmore writes about his experience learning to eat Banku while living with a Ghanaian family:
Eat your ball!” “Use your ball!” “Look, I am eating my big ball!” A dinner at the Kukobo house (our homestay) with banku or akple is entertaining..The size of the ball of banku is determined by the size of the person eating. Naturally, our father gets the largest ball. To eat like a true Ghanaian, one would have to use your hands. Our father tears of portions of his “ball” and sloshes it in the stew sopping up flavors, juices, and a bit of vegetable such as okra (known here as okro stew). Personally, to tolerate the fermented flavor of Banku, I have to tear my ball into very, very small pieces dropping it into my stew to sponge up other spices and sauces…
This is our father’s favorite dish. Therefore, it gives him great pleasure as I begrudgingly reduce the size of my ball. “You have too much ball left, Mike!” he notes. If I start to favor my stew with a spoon and no portion of Akple, he quickly notes, “You are not using your ball, Mike!” “Use the big ball.” Then, often, he will demonstrate – licking his fingers clean of sauce and fish while comparing the size and amount of his ball that has disappeared. “Look at my big ball … almost gone, Mike!
I cannot breathe, Mike.” he moans. “I have taken too much food.” “My stomach is now a big ball!” he laughs. Of course, our father understands that Banku or Akple is not enjoyed by the typical western tongue. But I try my best to impress him
The variety of food eaten in the northern half of Ghana differs with that of the south, partly due to the environment, costs and distance. Ampoorva explains:
There is only one real growing season in the north – that is now. Farmers plant around the first rains (Early to Mid-May) and harvest through to September. Because (as I have mentioned before) not only is the word Food solely associated with the starchy bits of the diet, so is the cultural idea of Food. Famine occurs when there is no maize, no cassava, no yam, no rice (well there is never no rice, thanks to the goddamn cheap dumping of American rice here – but that is another story). Why? Gonja, and Dagomba and other northern tribes are Sub-Saharan peoples. Their main caloric intake comes in the form of the carbohydrates and starch obtained from grains. Animals are only so many and cattle are not even originally native to the area – so to keep a family, and a people alive, they farm grain.
And the staple of those living north of Tamale is derived from maize and millet grown during the rainy season. Facing the wall describes the staple, ‘TZ’ for short, like this:
TZ, pronounced tee-zed, is almost like banku. Instead, regular old corn meal is boiled into a thick paste. Typically eaten with okro stew. This dish is much more popular in the north of Ghana than in the south.
Ghanaian Maximus Ojar writes in the Ghanaian Journal of TZ:
I don’t want to keep you from your Tuo Zaafi any longer. Did you even cook it yourself? Just thinking about the one cooked at Asanka local on Sundays is making me hungry. Enjoy your meal. A-chi-ray. Chop time no friend…
“Chop time no friend” is often said with good-humour in response to “You are invited”. The latter is an invitation for you to come and eat. The former means, “don’t worry about me, go ahead…”. In other words, survival (chop/eating) first, friendship second—and they are heard everywhere.
Seoul-based blogger, Aliensdayout took a metaphorical trip down memory lane and a real trip around Seoul in a quest to uncover Ghanaian food in South Korea’s capital:
For those of you who don't know me, I grew up in Ghana (and also Ivory Coast). Ghanaian food is freaking amazing. Groundnut stew, fufu, banku, fried plantain, jollof rice…my mouth is watering. I miss it all sooo much.
I heard a long time ago that there's a West African restaurant in Itaewon, since there's actually a little West African community here in Korea. I've been meaning to try the restaurant out with my whole family so that we can reminisce about our glory days, but so far, that hasn't happened and I've been getting impatient! So this week, I FINALLY went to check it out and order some takeout for myself.
Even though the restaurant wasn't much to look at, something about walking into that space and hearing the different languages made me feel like I was back in Ghana….Since it was my first visit, I decided to go with my all-time favorite West African dish: Red Red (although the menu just calls it “beans”). This dish is made with black-eyed peas and is traditionally accompanied with fried plantains. I was going to order the plantains too, but the waiter said that they didn't yet have plantains ripe enough for frying. I guess you can't blame them for that… It's hard to believe they can get plantains in Korea at all. They must ship them in from somewhere. The waiter/cook also confirmed for me that they don't put fish in the red red (sometimes in Ghana, fish sneaks its way into the dish). I actually got to chat with him for a bit about about how/why I'm vegan. He said he's from Nigeria, but upon hearing that I lived in Ghana, he pointed out which of the men sitting around the restaurant were Ghanaian. haaa. While we were chatting, my Ghanaian accent was just itching to come out! hehe. I was suddenly very aware of how Americanized my accent has become. So anyway, I got my takeout and couldn't wait to get home and eat it. It was delicious! It was slightly thicker than the red red I've had in the past, but it absolutely had the same African taste. And it was spicy, just like it should be. I'm definitely returning to try their jollof rice, fufu, and fried plantains.
And IndoDreamin’ wrote about his unique mission to find Ghanaian food in Guangzhou:
Now my cousin, having been born in Ghana, has never really lived there. I figured it might be a cool experience for him to finally taste the food of the country he was born in 35 years ago. I had heard about a Ghanaian restaurant in Guangzhou…I found the building in one shot…I went up to the 24th floor and stepped out of the lift. The aroma of home cooked food and spices hit me like manna from heaven. There were no signs to follow or people to ask directions from, so I just followed the smells…finally I found the elusive Ghanaian restaurant. The establishment even had a name, Ghana Dish, run by Madame Atta…it makes a huge difference when Ghanaian food is served by a large Ghanaian woman. It just feels more authentic. She is from Kumasi and has been living in China for 3 years now. It was great fun chatting with her…the restaurant had a few flags up on the wall and even played highlife music on the stereo…They only offered a few simple dishes though like Banku, Fufu, light soup, groundnut soup, Kokonte, gari, and rice…So I ordered us some fufu and light soup…My cousin had no idea what he was into…Needless to say, I was an extremely happy camper…my mouth is watering just writing this…GHANA DISH is the best Ghanaian restaurant I have been to in Guangzhou.
A food demonstration for a group of bloggers held in London and sponsored by Cadbury’s to promote fair trade chocolate made Kelsie and Mel of Travels with my Fork reminisce:
Since the evening last Tuesday, lots of food memories about my time there have come back. Street food is ubiquitous from the city to the bush. My favourites were beans and gari at a particular stall in the car park across from the National Theatre. In Makola market you could pretty much find anything either in living or cooked form. Goats, chickens, turkeys, the most amazing fresh fish and seafood, snails, vegetables, and then stall after stall of chop each with their own speciality. I tried most things there including kenkey and pepper, grilled tilapia, fried plantains, groundnut stew, fufu and even akpetesie.
My memories of Ghanaians are that they are extremely generous, welcoming and full of vibrancy. The family and community are core.
Fast forward to last Tuesday evening where Kelsie and I and a choice handful of London Food Bloggers congregated at the Underground Cookery School to participate in a Ghanaian cooking workshop and then enjoy a meal. The event was organised by Lea and her agency on behalf of Cadbury, with help from Jollof Pot catering.
We split ourselves into two groups. One group got to listen to a brief overview of the food culture of Ghana presented by Albert from Jollof Pot.
And the other group set about preparing the spice mix and zebra meat for our meal. Yes zebra meat. Not sure why they chose zebra, i don't remember ever seeing a zebra in Ghana and would have preferred goat.
The evening was quite animated with lots of wine flowing and the excitement of putting faces to twitter names. I made a beeline for the kitchen where the kind UCS chefs let me ‘help’ prepare the meal with Evelyn from Jollof Pot.
For starters we had an assortment of canapes: cassava chips, fried plantain rounds with mackeral, fried rice balls. The main meal was one of my favourites — jollof rice served with the zebra stew.
We were sent home with goodie bags containing more Cadbury fair trade chocolate and recipes from Jollof Pot so that we could try the dishes at home.
All in all it was a very enjoyable evening, well organised and informative.
Fran Osseo-Asare has the last word on Ghanaian cuisine:
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.
This was fantastic! Feel free to go to my blog: http://www.mickeyashmore.blogspot.com to read about my time in Ghana! It is a wonderful place.
what an utterly fabulous post. thanks for the mention and the amazing collection of insights here.
i’m wondering if you or any of your readers can possibly give me a hint on how to prepare that amazing ginger/pepper marinade for grilled tilapia. craving it at the moment.
also looking for an easy step by step method for the trinity of ingredients (habanero/tomato/onion) you mention above — i had that most days for lunch with kenkey and sardines and remember the pepper just being ground on a wooden board or ridged mortar.