I think I should put it on record that when it comes to Ghanaian food I am not a completely hopeless cook, even by ActionMan’s standards. One dish that I have cooked for him, and he has come back for more, is nkatiakwan, or peanut soup.
Nkatia is the word for peanut in Twi. In English they call it groundnut, which I suppose reflects the surprise of early European explorers, to find a nut growing on the ground and not on a tree. This term seems to be common throughout Africa. A quick internet search on the origins of the word “peanut” found that “groundnut” is indeed an old usage, and “peanut” was first used in 1807. It doesn’t say by whom, where or why, but it did tell me that peanuts were taken to Africa from South America by 1502. And in spite of Garrison Keillor’s cynical remark that “Peanut butter has survived everything that has been done to improve it”, what great things Africans have done with the peanut ever since!
Before I go into the wonders of peanut soup however I will digress briefly and say that it’s really worth looking around to see what enormously creative things people all over the world have done with the very concept of peanut. For example there are scholarly works such as this one on the importance of the peanut to 19th century Gambian trade networks. Unfortunately you have to pay to read them. There is also a faulous conspiracy theory about The Truth which the powerful and ruthless Peanut Cartel is hiding from us all (that peanuts are to nuts what hot dogs are to meat and you don’t want to know what the shells are made of…).
If you are allergic to peanuts it would probably be best to avoid dinner invitations from Ghanaians because you may risk accidental death by peanut soup. But peanut allergies amongst Ghanaians themselves are rare or possibly non-existent. Allergy researchers have noticed this fact and have been looking into it. It may be due to the number of bugs in Ghanaian guts (known to offer a protective effect against allergies generally), or it could come down to cooking methods. Apparently peanuts are more dangerous when roasted. When boiled they don’t provoke a reaction. (The Foods Matter site summarises research. For more detail you will have to subscribe to something like one of my favourite mags, the New Scientist. It’s where I first read about the research.)
In Ghana peanuts are eaten boiled in the shell as a snack – I used to buy 20 pesewas worth for Nana from a hawker who passed by our place every morning, until Maame Yaa told me the doctor had advised against her eating fatty foods. Or they are roasted, ground and then boiled in peanut soup. The ground peanuts are sold in the markets in plastic bags; obrunis l met in Ghana were very happy about this because it’s a bit of a comfort food, and apparently tastes even better than peanut butter back home. I never tested this, becuase I’m not a fan, but I can believe it – so many of the nut products we get from supermarkets taste slightly rancid to me, but Ghanaian peanuts are definitely fresh. And here’s a tip off: Asians like boiled peanuts too, and you can sometimes buy them in Chinese or Vietnamese grocery stores.
However peanuts are also eaten roasted in Ghana. You can buy tiny quantities tied up in plastic or in newspaper twsits and eat them as a condiment with roasted plantains, or add them to etoh, which is boiled, pounded cocoyams mixed with palm oil. In my opinion you need quite a lot of peanuts and if possible avocado as well, to make etoh really enjoyable. AM thought it was disgusting and so did his brothers, but it’s one of Obaapa’s favourite foods. Before she left for Ghana I asked her what she wanted to eat first when she got there, and it was etoh.
However I think you would be hard pushed to find a non-allergenic person who didn’t like peanut soup. I haven’t found anyone yet – even when I’ve only been offering the version that I cook. Although of course, my version has been anglicised for western tastes. I don’t include the dried fish to which Obaapa seems addicted, (I think she just puts it in everything, regardless), and I cheat and put in some diced chicken breast as well as the whole jointed chicken (right at the end of cooking the soup, or it will be too tough). I do use boiling rather than roasting fowls when I can but I probably don’t put in enough chilli. I do, however, use the correct chilli: habanero. It still doesn’t taste quite right, but it tastes good.
Here is the recipe. I have this recipe because a few years ago AM’s primary school decided to capitalise on how multicultural they were and produced an international cookbook. I thought it would be great if Obaapa contributed so I followed her around the kitchen taking notes one day, ran it through my own test kitchen and then submitted it to the school. The kitchen-stained page linked above is the result. Whenever I despair of feeding AM, this is the page I turn to. Enjoy.