I can’t recall if I’ve raved about abenkwan (palm nut soup) on this blog before. I probably have, because I love it. Tonight AM and I cooked a pot together for the first time and I’m pleased to say it was very tasty and AM – the toughest food critic in this household – went back for seconds.I still have a vivid memory of my first encounter with abenkwan. DadaK and I had not long moved in together and it was a few years before I went to Ghana or AM arrived on the scene.
In those dim days before any African grocery stores had opened up in Sydney, when DadaK had to make do with potoatoes instead of yams and was still experimenting with the best substitutes for Ghana-style smoked fish, the arrival of a food parcel from his Mum back in Ghana was a big event. And not just any food parcel – it was a smallish blue & white tin that had once contained plain biscuits and was now stuffed almost to implosion point with pounded palm nut fibre.
DadaK has since claimed that he completely messed up his first attempt at cooking that palm fibre. I think he threw out the fibres at too early a stage of cooking, or something like that, thus losing a lot of flavour. But I didn’t notice. One mouthful of that rich, earthy, succulent, aromatic soup and I was hooked for life. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. Really. It’s only because it’s packed with saturated fat that I don’t eat it all the time – and it took me around 20 years to actually cook it for myself!
I have so many fond memories of abenkwan: DadaK cooking the soup for my Mum & Dad when they visited us in our new home, not long after he got that package in the post; DadaK feeding me up on abenkwan for days on end when I’d just come home from hospital with baby AM; the Christmas day abenkwan DadaK’s friends made, that really wasn’t as good as his, even made according to his instructions with snapper, blue swimmer crab and beef. DadaK is a very good cook. Or maybe he’s just very good at knowing how to cook for me.
Then there’s the amazing abenkwans eaten in Ghana: DadaK’s childhood friend’s wife included beef and big chunks of melt-in-the-mouth garden eggs (mini eggplants). Kumasi Cultural Centre’s version featured big chunks of tender beef. Some Accra restaurant we went to made it with – you guessed it – big chunks of – fresh white fish. Then there was the Aburi Gardens roadside stall version that looked awful but tasted perfect. And of course, in the village, DadK’s sister-in-law made a cheap version of abenkwan to sell as breakfast every morning, using cow skin instead of meat. (I just drank the soup.)
Sorry, eating it tonight has gone to my head. I’ll stop gushing now. Here’s my obruni cheat’s version recipe.
Put around a kilo of big chunks of chuck or stewing steak into a large pot with one finely chopped onion, salt, beef stock cubes in proportion to the amount of fluid you expect to use, and around a cup of water. Put the lid on and let it steam for 2o minutes or so. Next time I may add some beef bones at this stage & see if they add to the flavour.
In a small pot, boil a whole, peeled onion, one or two tomatoes (water to cover) and as many whole chillies as makes sense for your family. I find that one smallish habanero is bearable for me and acceptable to AM, whose chilli tolerance is very high (Habeneros being among the hottest of the chilli family). When the onion is soft, leave around a cup of water in the pot and blend everything else.
Mix the left-over hot water with around 400g of canned ‘palmnut cream’. This is basically palm fibre processed so you don’t have to strain out the inedible bits & it’s a remarkably good substitute for the fresh version. You can’t get the real thing here in Australia anyway unless your relatives in Africa send you an emergency relief parcel – and possibly they wouldn’t get it through quarantine these days. I buy mine from the African Market near Newtown station. Do not expect to find it in the International Foods section of your local supermarket.
When the hot water & ‘palm cream’ are smoothly mixed together, add in the blended onion etc. & mix some more, then stir the whole lot into the meat that’s been simmering away. Add a couple of tablespons of tomato paste & more water if you think it needs it. Then you just leave it to simmer some more – an hour or more, depending on how tender you like your meat. If you want to do the fish / crab thing, add them right at the end so they don’t overcook. It seems to be a very Ghanaian thing (or perhaps West African?) to mix fish & meat. I like DadaK’s version but I don’t feel up to grappling with crabs in my kitchen so I’m sticking with beef for now.
The soup is ready when it’s thickened up a bit & red oil has started to gather on the top. Some brands of palm cream are more oily than others. If it’s too much, scoop it off & keep it in the fridge. It will solidify but don’t be alarmed, that’s normal for saturated fat. You can make a very nice bean stew with it (fry up onions, chilli, tomatoes, canned red beans, palm oil) to eat with yams, cassava, taro, or if you’re relly out of luck, rice.
Serve the soup with rice that’s been slightly overcooked and mashed then formed into balls. Or instant fufu if you insist, but that’s a whole other enterprise I’m not planning to attempt.
And then if you’re really keen, you can round off your night, like I did tonight, with a batch of extra hot ginger biscuits – made to order for Treasure’s 7th birthday tomorrow. I use my Mum’s recipe with extra ginger so that the Ghanaians in the family can actually taste them. Just another night in the fusion family kitchen.