Thoughts about Food

In this edition Steve remembers matches to the modern taste of Ghana, Suzanne shares her thoughts about food in Ghana, a recipe for a favorite Ghanaian dish, and the story of palm nut stew. There are lots of cool pictures with this post, but blogspot isn’t uploading my pictures right now so you can click on the links to see them in flickr.

When I was here before my favorite food-memory was these little packets of roasted peanuts (or groundnuts as they are called here) [ground-nut pacs] . In the fall of ’68 I attended the village school and the highlight of the day was recess where we could go out to the edge of the ‘football’ field and buy a packet of groundnuts for five cents. Preparing to move here I wondered if they were still as common as they were when I was a child, and if they were, would they taste the same? I think it was our third day that I found the courage to buy several little packets, and introduce them to my kids. They did taste just like I remembered them, and amazingly still cost five cents (or 500 cedi).

But the surprise to me was that the bread brought back a memory, one I had forgotten. I am not sure what it is, but the bread tastes so different, at least the bread you buy on the street. It has a sweet, and smooth taste that is unlike anything in the states. I’d forgotten it’s flavor, but on my first taste of it, my mind reacted, “Oh, I remember this!”

This evening we tried to have palm-nut soup. I had bought some palm nuts at the market, mostly because they are so colorful, and I thought I would photograph them. Ghanaians are funny about taking their picture. Mostly they don’t like it, but will comply if you ask nicely. Sometimes they ask for a dash, and I have no problem with that. Anytime you see a close-up of a person other than my family, I’ve had to ask to “snap, snap”. When I got home from shopping, our guard Emmanuel asks what I have bought at the market. He is very interested in the fact that I do much of our shopping at the market and not as many of the other obrunis do at the shopping centers that that cater to foreigners. When he learns that I have palm nuts he insists that his wife Vida come over and help me cook up the palm nut stew. I have several West African cook books that I’ve been working my way through, but for him, he wants to make sure I do this right. So he calls his wife, Vida.

Vida and Emmanuel have two girls, 4 & 8 and while he is our day guard, she has a shop at the really large market in central Accra. I have not been to that market, the largest in Ghana, and the thought of it scares me and Emmanuel knows this. On Monday, he tells me, “I will take you.” But today Vida has not been in her shop and so she goes to great trouble to buy the tools needed for tonight’s meal. It is remarkable what these humble but very colorful nuts can become, in the hands of an expert. First we wash them and then put them on to boil for 30 minutes. The water is discarded, and we heat up another pan of water with some hot peppers. Then the pounding begins, the straining, the pounding, the straining, and then we bring it inside to add three onions and Garden Eggs, a uniquely African type of eggplant, but I’ve forgotten the meat and so with disappointment, we postpone our feast for another night.

There is a strange tension in the kitchen with Suzanne and I there. I’ve heard about this from other expats that when they are cooking, say chopping onions, and their help will come over and take over, saying “I do this!” and I feel a bit of it in the room. Suzanne and I cook so comfortably together, and so this tension between Vida and us is awkward, not like a turf war, but like a servant-master roll reversal type of tension. Finally it breaks when Suzanne steps in and says she wants to finish the cooking by learning, and so it is a graceful exit—this is before we’ve discovered I’ve forgotten the meat. Anyway, we’re all smiles, and thankful for the experience. I’m sure they laugh all the way home at their strange American friends.

For those who want to taste Ghanaian cooking, I’ve included a favorite which my family will finish off in one setting. [groundnut stew]

Groundnut Stew
(Chicken Peanut Soup)
8-12 chicken pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1 t hot curry powder (cayenne)
1 c smooth natural peanut butter (not jiff or skippy) [groundnut paste]
8 c slightly warm water
2 medium-ripe tomatoes, pealed. We used about a cup of salsa

Season chicken with onions and all dry ingredients. Moisten with a little water and cook over medium heat in a large saucepan for 15 minutes. Stir as needed.

While chicken is cooking, mix peanut butter with warm water in a bowl until smooth (Ghanaians will use their fingers) Add peanut butter mixture to cooked chicken when it is ready. Bring to a boil at once and continue boiling for 30 minutes to an hour. At first the soup will be thin but cooking it for this long softens the meat and thickens the broth.

Grind tomatoes in a blender until smooth, or if a blender is not available, mash in a bowl and then pass pulp through a sieve. Alternatively, a cup of salsa requires no grinding. Add tomatoes to soup. Simmer until chicken becomes tender and oil begins to form in soup. Stir as needed.

Serve hot. We serve it over rice, but in Ghana they will serve it with Fufu, a sticky pounded cassava starch.

From: The Art of West African Cooking, by Dinah Ameley Ayensu 1972

Suzanne here:

First, I must say that the food in Ghana is very good. Second, I must say that it’s a good thing we’re from Texas and used to (what we used to consider) spicy food, or we’d be in big trouble. In general, Ghanaian food is spicy. Very spicy! Only once did we have a dish which was so spicy we really just couldn’t eat it – Steve and I made the mistake of ordering the same dish, so we went away hungry that evening. Even things we wouldn’t think would be spicy is. For example, the other night we went out to Chinese food, and I guess it’s understandable that we thought it would be like the Chinese food we were used to – American Chinese food. But, this was Ghanaian Chinese food. Very good, but boy were our eyes and noses running! Another time I ordered a meatball sandwich, again, thinking of a Subway meatball sub – the description in the menu made it sound like that. But, what appeared, while very good, was SPICY and not at all like a Subway meatball sub! I wonder how long it will take before my American expectations will finally leave and be replaced by Ghanaian expectations. Perhaps never.

[granola] We can buy many imported food things here, unlike even 10 years ago I’m told. There are two supermarkets, Koala and MaxMart, both pretty well stocked with American and other imported foods (English, South African, European, Middle Eastern and Indian are the other big imported foods). The price of imported foods seems to be a complex formula of distance of import, price in native country, weight, and size. A box of cheerios is about $8, a large can of Hunts tomato sauce is $4, 500kg of granola from South Africa is $5 (the same size bag of Ghanaian granola is $1), a small jar of salsa is $4. A small tub of imported ice cream is $8. We’re thankful there is so much available here, although our budget dictates that we be very careful with the willy-nilly purchasing of imported goods. Our kids are very understanding of this, and are doing quite well “going native.” Anna’s having the most trouble with the spicy foods – we try to have at least somewhat bland food at home for dinner every-other day or so. And, while many types of things are available, the selection is very limited – only one type of salsa, for example, and one type of potato chips. For us Americans (and Texans) used to a whole isle of chips, or ¼ isle of salsa, that is a big change. But, really, we are grateful that there are these things available at all, as an occasional treat.

[Pita Bread] Today we went out to lunch after church with some folks and I got some great food tips – first, where we can get cilantro and other fresh herbs and good fresh vegetables at a stand not too far from our house (thanks, Laurie! – a missionary from Alberta, Canada). Second, how to make tortilla chips – which are not available in stores here – though, we did learn that the commissary has them. We don’t have commissary privileges, but a friend of Grace’s (and, we’ve become friends with the Dad) does, and he took Grace the other day – she bought 3 bags of Tostitos at $4 each. We haven’t opened them yet, but… back to the homemade tortilla chips: take pita bread (which IS readily available) split it open, brush it with oil and sprinkle with salt and possibly other spices as well, and toast in the oven (our first oven use!), let them cool and then break them into pieces. They’re great – a lot like baked tortilla chips. You might even try it in The States for a low-fat alternative or when you have leftover pita. We’re enjoying some right now with some Steve’s homemade salsa (wouldn’t you know, it’s SPICY…) We’re glad to get these tips from other ex-pats – we’ll continue to keep our ears open.

To see more pictures of palm nut stew adventure [click here]

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