Ten Insights into Ghanaian Culture: #2 – Ghanaian Cuisine
What do people in Ghana eat, you might ask? First, give me a moment to stop my mouth from watering at the images of hundreds of delicious dishes now involuntarily floating through my mind…. Yum! OK, now that I’ve gotten that over with, let me make it clear that Ghanaians consume dozens of items from each of the major food groups, and each of them can be prepared in another dozen different ways––therefore Ghanaian cuisine is not only very varied and nutrient-rich, but also absolutely delicious.
There are many foods, you may be unfamiliar with––either because you have seen but never eaten them, or because you know them by a different name. Pawpaw, for example, is a fruit referred to as papaya in most countries. Cassava is referred to as yuca in South America and can be sundried and processed to form nkonkontey or gari, otherwise known as farinha de mandioca in Brazil. Gari is also a star accompaniment to about a million Ghanaian dishes. Groundnuts are universally referred to as peanuts outside of West Africa; but while you are in Ghana, call them groundnuts.
The False Friends
Some foods are false friends––such as yam, which you may know as a small, potato-like, orange vegetable, but is actually an entirely different beast in Ghana: huge, all gnarly bark on the outside, and firm and snow-white on the inside. Yam is the champion of such delicious concoctions as oto, aka etor, and yam chips.
Some foods are no strangers––such as plantains, maybe cassava, definitely garden eggs (aka eggplant in other countries), and possibly okro (aka “okra” or, in Brazil, gombo). If you are from Mexico, South or Central America, or the Caribbean, chances are you not only know these but also eat them as a regular part of your diet. Vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, and lettuce, do grow locally, though freshly consumed vegetables are typically chopped into a salad, rather than eaten alone, and prepared for festivities and special occasions, rather than for regular meals.
Then there are foods I’m sure you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve already spent some time in Ghana––such as nkontonmire (a key ingredient in the mouthwatering dish, palaver sauce––fun fact: agushi, another key ingredient, is made from the soaked and mashed white seeds of watermelons ); cocoyam; and the palm nuts used to make palmnut soup and palm wine.
Putting It All Together
Most root vegetables (eg, yam, cocoyam, cassava), grains (eg, corn, rice, millet), and even fruit (eg, plantain, palm nut) can be prepared in a variety of different ways, each recipe creating a unique dish with a unique flavor. Some recipes depend on a certain degree of ripeness (eg, there are recipes for plantains, from unripe, to ripe, to almost rotten), while others depend, rather, on a certain extent of fermentation (eg, banku vs kenkey, vs coco porridge), or dehydration (cassava vs. gari). Once the first-pass treatment (drying, fermenting, etc.) is completed, each ingredient can be combined and cooked with other ingredients to elevate it to Ghanaian food heaven, whereabout live the likes of dishes such as fufu and light soup/palmnut soup/goat soup/groundnut soup; wakye and kelewele; kpekple (aka kpoikpoi) and palmnut soup (a signature dish of the very important Ga festival of Homowo in August); red red and fried plantains; jollof rice; banku and okro soup…mmmmhhhh…and so many more. Sauces and soups all consistently comprise the base ingredients of tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, and chili pepper. No variations. Except maybe to go easy on the pepper, for foreigners who can’t handle the heat.
Then there’s the magical fermented corn paste––corn soaked for a few days in water, then milled at local shops to form a paste of raw ingredient serves as the basis of countless dishes, such as banku and kenkey––of which there are 2 types: Ga kenkey and Fante kenkey. All of these are normally served with some type of soup or stew, or either fresh pepper (blended tomatoes, onions, and chilli peppers) or dried pepper sauce (the rather unfortunately named “shito,” which, if you give it a chance, will blow your mind because it is so good, and rather healthy since it is made up of all kinds of dried vegetables, spices, and seafood, sautéed together in a little oil and stock). There is also a whole host of breakfast porridges that originate from fermented corn or millet, including coco porridge––either regular coco or spicy and sour Hausa coco, and my personal favorite, Tom Brown porridge (the corn is roasted before being milled, together with roasted peanuts and roasted black eyed beans and/or roasted soybeans). All of these porridges are fantastic with a little bit of sugar and milk.
Foods that do not exist locally and may be purchased as imported products, depending on household revenue, include vegetables such as broccoli, celery, zucchini, squashes, and potatoes; fruit such as berries, cherries, kiwis, apples, pears, peaches, plums, and pomegranates; virtually all nuts and seeds except for groundnuts; and processed products like pasta, polenta, and pizza dough.
We haven’t even covered snacks and desserts yet! Or the 101 kinds of bean/vegetarian, meat, and seafood dishes in Ghanaian cuisine! But that’s all I can cover here without writing a novel––sorry, folks!
To sum up, the lesson in all this, for your trip to Ghana, is to be knowledgeable and inquisitive about the diversity of the cuisine; to be open-minded about trying new things; and to specifically request a hold on the chilli pepper if you have a sensitive stomach; by default, soups and sauces are always peppery hot. Oh, and on that note, if someone holding a bowl of food ever says to you, “You are invited,” feel free to decline two times, before accepting the offer. In Ghana, it is considered rude to eat in the presence of someone else without “inviting” them to share your meal. (Remember that culture of hospitality and generosity.) It is also rude to accept the first offer to share someone’s meal. But if you decline twice, and the diner insists a third time, then they really mean it and it’s OK to take them up on their offer.