Ghana street food #2: main meals

I wanted to eat palm nut soup, but was happy to settle for RedRed. Have you spotted the Milo tablecloth?

Fried chicken with RedRed.

The first time I went to Ghana I was in such a state of culture shock that I was desperate enough to make myself a salad. This was a dismal failure and my first lesson in the perils of trying to mimic Australian food with Ghanaian ingredients, but it resulted in a lot of vegetable peelings and scraps which I thought the local hens would enjoy, just as my Auntie’s chickens did back home.

Wrong. The scrawny birds that darted in between my feet at mealtimes to peck at dropped fishbones and chilli-saturated grains of rice had absolutely no interest in carrot peel or lettuce leaves. I felt snubbed. And amazed. But later, I wondered if this is why Ghana chooks tastes so much better. Not only are they free range, they eat incredibly tasty table scraps.

This freedom is probably only true of the chickens in the village. I’m sure the chicken I ate in the cities must have been factory-farmed (and a quick Google on ‘Ghana chicken farm‘ confirms this) but they are doing something right, because it’s full of flavour – unlike most Aussie chicken which I find tends to be dry and bland.

Strictly speaking, the chicken I ate when not at home wasn’t usually street food, but was served in cafes with jollof rice, or fried plantains with black-eyed beans in a sauce of palm oil and ginger (known as Red-Red and another of my favourite Ghana foods). But it was so good that I feel I have to mention it. And come to think of it, I never ate Red-Red at home in Ghana, it was always out, so perhaps it does qualify.

[Just as an aside, here are two recipes for Red-Red. I haven’t tried either of them, but I can’t resist linking to ‘the greatest recipe known to humankind‘, even though I think Betumi Blog has the more authentic version. The Betumi blogger also knows that the name refers to ‘red’ (ripe) plantain and red palm oil, which is how DadaK explained it to me. But they are both wrong when they suggest you can substitute another oil, or other starch. It might still taste ok but it wouldn’t be red-red, or anywhere near as divine, in my opinion.]

Ok, back to chicken on the street …

Chicken gizzards are sold as street food in the form of kebabs. When AM and I were confined indoors in Bolga one rainy afternoon we cleaned out the hole-in-the-wall style kebab shop that was a quick dash through the rain from our hotel. We had the skinny beef kebabs though, not the chicken gizzards, being spoilt squeamish westerners. They were delicious – rubbed with some spicy mix before grilling. Perhaps a similar mix to the one that Obaapa uses on chops at our family christmas barbeque each year: garlic salt, chilli, other secret ingredients.

Fried chicken wingettes and legs also accompanied the fried rice that I sometimes had for lunch or dinner on my way home from shopping in Kumasi. A woman was selling it out of a small marquee at my bus stop on Sunyani Road. She’d whip it up in a wok, and I’d eat it on wooden bench while waiting for a taxi home.

When AM’s brother Abrantie turned 8 we ordered enough fried rice and chicken to feed our family of 18 plus at least another 6 or so neighbouring children, but by the time we had waited for someone to do the return trip by taxi to collect it, it was all disappointingly cold, a bit greasy, and not nearly as good as when hot from the wok. She wasn’t really set up to cater for functions.

I can’t help feeling that fried rice is not really authentically Ghanaian – it wasn’t as spicy as most Ghana food, for a start – and I don’t recall seeing it on previous visits, but it did have one very authentic ingredient, added at the very end: Maggi’s Arome flavouring. Maggi stock cubes and sauces are everywhere in Ghana, even in a ‘gourmet’ cooking show on TV.

The other authentically African ingredient is the rice. I suppose it’s due to having grown up in Australia where rice is so strongly associated with Asian food, that whenever I ate rice in Africa I sort of vaguely assumed that rice recipes such as jollof and waakye were relatively recent arrivals in african cuisine. I wondered why countries like Senegal and Mali appeared to rely on rice as a staple food when it seemed to be an expensive import. In Ghana when I was last there in 2008, rice cost much the same as it did in Australia, and there was much concern about the impact of global shortages.

But it turns out that rice has a very long history in West Africa. In fact rice enthusiast Olga F. Linares says there are only two species of cultivated rice in the world – Asian rice, Oryza sativa, and African rice: Oryza glaberrima, which was first cultivated in the Niger Delta 2,000 – 3,000 years ago. Okaaaay, I stand corrected. 

The rice I ate in Ghana was probably Asian rice, which was introduced to Africa a few hundred years ago and has been steadily taking over ever since because it is easier to mill and has higher yields. However African rice is more hardy and resilient. It’s also more satisfying and tasty. Or so they say. I’ll have to track it down next time I’m there, and find out for myself.

A new hybrid of the two species has been developed – Nerica – as an attempt to get the best of both worlds, but this has been controversial. Olga Linares sees it as the beginnings of a ‘green revolution’ in Africa; biodiversity advocates fear it may wipe out the basis of Africa’s ‘food sovereignty’.

In spite of its fascinating history, I don’t think rice is as widely eaten in Ghana as it is further west along the gulf of Guinea. Perhaps this is due to the cost (because at least in Ghana, I think a lot of it is imported), or perhaps its because of Ghanaians’ deep attachment to the forest foods – plantains, yams, taro, cassava, and to that brash newcomer on the African scene, corn.

Corn seems so firmly, deeply embedded in Ghanaian food culture that it is hard to believe that it doesn’t have roots as deep as rice, but of course corn arrived only a few hundred years ago with the Europeans, who brought it from the Americas. In Stirring the pot: A History of African Cuisine, historian James McCann describes how corn swept through the continent, sweeping various native grains such as millet more or less into oblivion.

Well, perhaps ‘sweeping’ is a slight exaggeration. It actually crept across the continent, but – surprisingly – only really supplanted the local grains in Southern and East Africa during the 20th century, after men started leaving the farms to work in mines and industry. In their absence, women had to raise the staple grains. They chose to grow more corn, because it’s easier to grow and process. It was so popular it now constitutes more than 50% of all food consumed in a number of SE African countries, according to McCann. And he would know, having devoted a whole book to the subject – Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop 1500-2000.

In Ghana corn constitutes a less impressive 10-16% of the diet, but it is prepared in a multitude of ways. McCann lists around 13 of them, of which 8 are fermented. I mentioned one of them – banku – in my last post on Ghana street food. AM used to have it for breakfast when he was three. Ten years later, he’d have banku’s badass big brother for dinner: kenkey.

AM and his cousin Owuraku would sometimes head down to the junction of an evening to get a ball of kenkey wrapped in plantain leaves, a piece of fried fish, and a dab of the rich, pungent – scorching – chilli condiment, shitoh. Nana (their grandma) was very fond of kenkey so she would often abandon whatever had been cooked for her dinner and put in an order as well.

Kenkey (also known as dokonu) is ground corn that is fermented for several days, then wrapped in leaves or corn husks and boiled. Here’s how it’s done:

To say kenkey has a strong flavour is to err on the side of caution. Imagine the meal I’ve just described above – pungent, spicy, fishy flavours competing with the intensely sour kenkey, so substantial it sticks to the roof of your mouth. I surprise myself by liking it. But it’s not for everyone. Another blogger has titled his post on kenkey: I never met a ferment I didn’t like … except …

One final interesting fact about corn in Ghana is that it is apparently named after Europeans … This blogger was told by a Kontihene (deputy chief) that Obruni, the name for white people, is a contraction of a phrase meaning “They who brought new proverbs” (i.e the Bible). Corn, also brought by the Europeans, is therefore called aburu.

I just rang DadaK to get some independent confirmation of this claim, but he knew nothing about it. He regretted that his mother was no longer alive to ask. ‘So ask around at Church,’ I said. ‘No-one is old enough to know,’ he told me. Sad to think that knowledge may be lost, here in the far outposts of the diaspora. It begs the question, what other stories may have gone?

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9 thoughts on “Ghana street food #2: main meals

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