Recently a friend put out a call on Facebook to his travelling friends to tell him about their street food experiences. He’s long had a love for street food and I’m anticipating he will blend his findings about it into a post or several on his most appetising and excellent food blog: Buth Kuddeh.
Sadly I am not travelling, but his request aroused all my nostalgia for Ghana’s street food – so here’s the first instalment of my street food adventures.
According to historian Claire Robinson, quoted in Stirring the pot: A History of African Cuisine, Ghana was probably home to fast food before the US, Europe, and other parts of Africa, with ‘women selling ready to eat food on the street before the colonial era.’ (That’s quite a long time; the Portuguese established the first forts in Ghana in the 15th century.)
Such a long history would account for the wonderful variety of street food that’s available most places you go, at all times of day an night. Even DadaK’s rainforest village offered quite a few options, including his own favourite, konkonte.
Konkonte is made from cassava that’s been dried, pounded & boiled into a stiff, starchy, sticky dough, which is traditionally served with peanut soup (nkatiakwan) or with palm nut soup (abenkwan). Unlike the original root, konkonte is very brown, which I believe is the result of how it’s been dried. When my son AM and I first stayed in the village he got into a lot of trouble for jumping around on the corrugated iron sheets where the cassava pieces were drying. Well, he was only three; he didn’t know they were food. Let alone that they were raw materials for his Auntie Akosia’s breakfast business.
Most mornings that we were there, Akosia and various other family members would cook up a big iron pot of konkonte which they served with abenkwan to a stream of people who wanted a solid breakfast on their way to their farms. I love abenkwan but I wasn’t so keen on this version, as it contained squishy, gelatinous cow skin instead of meat. Okay, call me squeamish.
DadaK tells me that he prefers konkonte with nkatiakwan, which he also likes with banku. In my own experience, banku is ground, fermented corn steamed in corn husk wrappings. According to the internet tho, it can also be made with grated cassava. Unlike in Australia, where the only corn we know is yellow, sweet and soft, Ghana corn is white, tough, and a bit plain tasting, which is perhaps one of the reasons so many corn-based foods are fermented. (More on that in my next post.)
AM had banku for breakfast every morning when we visited DadaK’s home town Odumasi. The neighbours were selling it for breakfast with a creamy soup – presumably nkatiakwan. I honestly can’t remember what kind of soup it was because what has forever stuck in my mind is that if my brother or I was feeding AM, we would have to pick zillions of tiny bones out of the fish that was in the soup; but if one of the Ghanaians fed him, he would crunch through the bones like a local. I would say, that when AM was three, that was definitely his favourite street food. It’s also the favourite street food of his cousin/brother Kwasi-D, who shakes his head in wonder at the light breakfast that most Australians consume. He says he doesn’t eat breakfast these days, but I expect that’s for want of banku.
My own favourite street-food breakfast in Ghana is waakye (sounds like waa-chi) – rice cooked with red or black eyed beans, and if available, millet stalks. The beans (AM’s stepmother Obaapa uses adzuki beans) and/or the millet stalks colour the rice a deep dark red. As street food waakye is often served in plastic bowls with shredded lettuce, maybe onion slices and a bit of tomato, some shito (a rich, thick sauce made of chilli & dried, ground prawns), a boiled egg, a sprinkling of gari (grated, dry-fried cassava), and sometimes a spoonful or two of vermicelli.
I love waakye. It’s rich and earthy and the freshness of the salad keeps it from being too heavy. I’d have it for breakfast every day, if I was any good at cooking it (note to self: practice). I’m not so keen on it if there’s no salad. But in Ghana at least, it may be that you add salad at your own risk. Only last week I found out that in Ghana, human sewage is being recycled as fertiliser – for the above-mentioned lettuce.
It’s actually a good news story as poo is full of nutrients that in cities like Sydney just get flushed out to sea, and in Ghana would end up on the dump, potentially causing far more health problems than the 1 case of mild diarrhoea per person cited in this article. Hopefully by the time I get back there they will have cleaned up their act, so to speak, and improved the way they manage this fabulous fertiliser.
Last time I was in Ghana I didn’t get nearly as much waakye as I would have liked because we weren’t living close enough to anyone who sold it. Instead, my breakfasts were usually yams and a wonderful, oily eggplant stew made by AM’s Auntie Serwaa. However as it usually took several hours for this to appear on the table, I’d often have some koosé (also known as akara) and koko early in the morning to tide me over.
When I asked AM’s brother Abrantie what his favourite street food was, he immediately thought of koko, which kind of surprised me. It is not, as you may be imagining from the name, a delicious chocolate drink. Far from it. It’s a fermented porridge made of either corn or millet. It’s grey, sour & thin. Once I had some version of it that had ginger – or perhaps chilli, which seemed to me a bit extreme for a breakfast food.
This was an incredibly cheap meal. The children always wanted me to buy it and I often would, because for a couple of dollars I could buy enough for several people. They’d knock on my door in the morning offering to go up to the small crossroads where a woman and her daughters would set up every morning with a big pot of koko. She’d quickly and neatly ladle it into a small plastic bag, add sugar if requested (lots of it please, did I mention how sour koko is?) while one of her daughters wrapped several koosé in newspaper.
The first time I ate koosé it wasn’t for breakfast. It was late afternoon in a market in Tamale in northern Ghana, and they were being cooked in a giant wok full of hot oil. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted such good koosé since then, but then I’ve never again had them so freshly made. They were light & fluffy and I could hardly believe it when DadaK told me they were made out of beans. The basic recipe is:
- Soak some some black-eyed beans
- Rub all their skins off
- Add seasonings such as ground onion, salt, chilli (or not)
- Deep fry in spoonfuls
- Wrap in newspaper and enjoy /arrange tastefully on a plate with delectable chilli sauce accompaniment as per recipe
Google koosé or akara and you will find plenty of different versions.
I was excited to discover a reference to koosé /akara as far back as the early 1700s, quoted on Stirring the Pot:
‘Here are several sorts of small Beans in very great Plenty, amongst which is one species, of which People make Oyl-Cakes, which are as light as ours in Holland; and those here who are used to them, like their Tast well enough. They are called here Acraes.‘
Well I would have to concur with 18th C Dutch trader Mr Wilem Bosman, who is quoted above. I liked them well enough. And usually better than the western style breakfasts that were also available as street food. Just about anywhere, you could get an omelette (fried with onion & tomato) cooked on the spot and stuffed into a slab of tea-bread (white, stodgy & a bit sweet), served with your choice of Nescafe or Milo.
I liked the eggs; the bread & Milo not so much. But just occasionally it was a pleasant antidote to home-sickness, eaten under the spreading green boughs of the massive trees in Kumasi Cultural Centre …. Nah. Who am I kidding? It was just a last resort when I couldn’t find any waakye.