I‘ve had this conversation about American Food with several of my Ghanaian friends. It usually starts out with us talking about the different traditional foods of Ghana, and me asking about the ones that are from their village. I don’t mean Fried or Jollof Rice, Red Red (beans and fried plantains), or Groundnut Soup for which variations are available across the country, I’m asking about the local dishes unique to that area, and what sets them apart.
My friend will then ask about America’s food, and I say “Ahhhhh, not so much. American is a country of immigrants, and so when we are think about what to eat for supper we think “Shall we have Chinese? Mexican? Italian?” Americans adapt and adopt foods like Pizza and Hamburgers but a purely American food, we don’t have. But maybe I’m wrong about that, after all there is Meatloaf, Roastin’ Ears (for all you non-Midwesterners : corn on the cob), Casserole Dishes, Jello, Fried Turkey…
But in the States I don’t see the almost infinite variety of dishes, and the pride in them that Ghanaians have for their food. I wonder about the Francophone countries that surround Ghana, if they have that same variety, or did the French cuisine overpower the local foods like they did with their language.
Ghanaian Home Economists, Christine Joyce Boahene, author of The Best of our Foods, classifies food into four groups: proteins, fats & oils, carbohydrates, and minerals & vitamins. Her understanding of the roles that proteins and carbohydrates play is consistent with what is taught in the west, but having a separate classification for fats & oils, and minerals & vitamins, only makes since once you get to know the culture of food here. She writes that fats & oils “keep the body, warm,” which I would think wouldn’t be a problem here since its already so swelteringly hot. When I ask Shelia about fats and oils, she says “We believe that they are necessary to help the body sweat.” Again I think, this should not be a problem. She continues “When you take plenty oil, your body may sweat well.” I wonder if she is talking about stored energy, which would be more consistent with our understanding of the roll fats and oils play in the diet.
[Scott & Lorrie & Essian] In this culture, being what we would consider overweight is a desired appearance. Our friend Lorrie, who along with Scott (her husband) and Essian (their dog) stayed with us their last few weeks in Ghana, told a story about eating with a Big Man in Kumasi. In this case Big Man refers to both his girth and his importance to the community. He was so large he used to just sit at the table, and nod off with these enormous plates in front of him. At one point when they were staying there, they offered to help pay for their boarding. Big Man was offended, and stood up saying “I am a Big Man, look at me, look at my size, I am a Big Man, and can afford all that I want.” I guess the answer was no, they couldn’t help pay.
When we returned from a summer in the states, our friend Emmanuel came over to visit, and seeing Suzanne come down the stairs, said, “Madame, you are looking FAT,” and it was a complement but confirmed what had happened to us all that summer.
Red Red is this wonderful dish of beans and fried plantain that is served for lunch, but not later as Ghanaians believe the beans with give you trouble with digestion. In its most basic form, its like refried beans with a lot of palm oil added. The name Red Red comes from the twin sources of red palm oil leaking from both the beans and the fried plantain (which is fried in red palm oil). I asked Shelia to make it one afternoon, and against her better judgment she did, except it was going to be a late dinner so she reserved the last step until everyone was home and ready for dinner. The last step was reheating it and adding three cups of a special red palm oil that had had onions fried in it.
[Plate of Red Red]
Its hard for me to get my brain around the way oil is used as an added but necessary ingredient in Ghanaian food. For example Palaver Sauce (or its cousins Okra Stew, Cabbage Stew, Garden Egg Stew) all contain pal oil, and canned tuna, and not only the can of tuna, but all the oil of the can too. I watch Shelia dump the whole thing in, and shutter. She too must shutter when she sees me drain the oil making tuna fish salad. [Shelia, my cooking Teacher]
This may be Suzanne’s favorite dish here in Ghana, at least when she is eating at the Ashesi Canteen. Its so good that she regularly asks Sheila, our house keeper to make a batch, and me, to learn how to make it. The name Palaver actually comes from the Portuguese, and means a meeting between important people to achieve a common understanding. Tradition tells that when the Europeans came to Ghana and met with the chief in Elmina to negotiate trade, the food served at that Palaver, took on its name.
[Cocoyam Leaves] Its more traditional names are Kontonmire, Kentumere, or Nkontommire, which are local names for the cocoyam leaf. Interestingly, by just changing the main vegetable, it can also become Okra Stew, Garden Egg Stew or Cabbage Stew, all equally as wonderful.
Palaver Sauce, Okra Stew, Garden Egg Stew, or Cabbage stew can all be served with rice, though its just as good with boiled yam or boiled plantain, called Ampesi.
4 Roma tomatoes
10 small green hot peppers
5 cloves of garlic
1 finger of pealed ginger
An onion sliced in quarter moons for one minute, then add a chunk of salty, really smelly dried fish called Momoni. I suppose canned herring or anchovies could be substituted (for cabbage stew Shelia says omit).
After 2-3 minutes, add the puree and stir in well over high heat.
[Momoni] [Adding Momoni to stew]
Cook until onions are soft, but not brown.
1 medium can of tomato paste
1 cube of Maggie (like bouillon or flavoring cube)
Stir well. After 2-3 minutes, add
3 T of dried shrimps. – If Maggie omitted, add extra dried shrimps.
A word about dried shrimps – these are small shrimp, that are dried, ground and rather salty, and give a dish that quintessential Ghanaian taste. Sheila will buy it as needed in the market.
Cook for 5 minutes
2 cans of tuna packed in oil. DON’T DRAIN THE OIL. Tuna can be flake, chunk or solid. If tuna is packed in water, then may need to cook a bit longer until the water is cooked out. Stir and blend the tuna in well as it cooks.
Add correct vegetable for what type of meal you are making
Palaver Sauce – (1 pound) add chopped cocoyam leaves, or chopped spinach.
Garden Egg Stew – (1.5 pounds) add steamed Garden Eggs with the skins slid off. But only use the long ones, as the more round ones tend to be bitter. Do this first to give the Garden Eggs time to cool, so the skins can be slid off without burning fingers.
Okra Stew – (one pound) add okra chopped in half inch chunks.
Cabbage Stew – (one head) add thin sliced cabbage, don’t chop.
[steamed garden eggs] Add one cup water and cook on medium heat (may need to add more) for 30 minutes until vegetables are soft (cook less for Garden Egg Stew since garden eggs already cooked).
If serving with boiled yam add 3 T of ground melon seed, called Agushi.
Add 2 cans of solid tuna (and the oil) but don’t blend so much, leaving chunks of tuna visible. Keep on fire until tuna is warm, or cover until ready to serve.
Serve with the starch of your choice, rice, boiled yams, or boiled plantain.
I didn’t take this picture, but I could have.