At home in his West Los Angeles apartment kitchen, reggae singer-composer Rocky Dawuni slowly inhales the steam from a pot of Ghanaian-style baby eggplant soup. He lets the pepper-spiced aroma linger at the back of his throat. "It smells like Sunday in my Koforidua neighborhood," he says with an exhale that reveals his nostalgia.
As Dawuni talks about Ghana's food, I get a vivid picture of eating in his small West African nation. In Accra, its capital, he says, you simply have to go to the bus stations or traffic circles, or up Kojo Thompson Road leading to Makola Market, the city's main outdoor shopping scene. There, amid the swarm of tro-tros (minibuses) whizzing by and shouts of the drivers calling out their stops, vendors sell food.
There are plenty of customers, Dawuni tells me. To supplement their customary two meals a day, Ghanaians snack all day long, and the snacks are nutritious. There is always kelewele , an elaborate concoction of sweet plantain chunks coated with ground fresh peppers and ginger, then fried. With this you always get a tiny bag of groundnuts (peanuts) that the vendor has freshly roasted at home. Other sellers, mostly women, hawk deep-fried yellow yams, bean fritters or corn on the cob, which is dipped in a salty brine before it is handed over to the customer. Smoke from portable kitchens rises above the traffic in a blue haze.
Fast food is everywhere, but it's not always the multinational chain-store variety. Around the city, local specialists peddle their wares: Kenke , a tamale-like bar of ground corn wrapped in corn husks, gets a salsa-style garnish of ground fresh chiles and onions or of shito , a searingly hot blend of chile, ground dried fish and condiments cooked down to a thick, sambal -like sauce. A favorite side dish for kenke is a fried turkey wing or turkey tail.
Every neighborhood has its bean stands, where rich, soupy black-eyed peas are sold wrapped up in banana leaves. As a topping you get fried sweet plantains, a sprinkling of toasty gari (roasted ground cassava) and a dribble of meaty-tasting palm-nut oil. Sometimes people, especially children, bring their own bowls to the stands. Everyone knows who makes the best beans. "There's always a long line at one particular bean stand at Zongo junction," Dawuni says.
A step up from the street-food sellers are fufu bars, the Ghanaian equivalent of a lunch counter or chili parlor. As a topping for your fufu-- a mashed potato-like dish of pounded yam or cassava root--you can choose from a selection of well-spiced stews and soups, just as Americans would choose pizza toppings or fillings for a submarine sandwich. You eat to the dull thud-thud of the fufu pounders in the background and you can usually see them at work at their huge mortars. Pounding the fufu takes practice: As one person pounds, another must turn the slightly sticky ball between strokes of the pestle.
Chop bars, Dawuni explains, serve a broader selection of the starchy dishes that are always the center of a Ghanaian meal. You might choose white rice or ebba , which is gari cooked up like a thick mound of oatmeal, or banku , a ground, fermented maize dough that one could call the polenta of West Africa.
As always there are thick stews--called "chops" in the West African patois--to top the starches: groundnut chop boasts a fiery peanut butter gravy, palava sauce is a stew of leafy greens. You might find a thick soup based on okra, or one based on smoked fish and ground egusi , the nutty melon seeds used as a tasty thickener. Much of the selection depends on the whims of the cook and the ingredients of the season.
Dawuni, the former lead singer of the Ghanaian reggae group Local Crisis, has spent much of his adult life shuttling between Los Angeles and Accra. But in the small, quiet town where he grew up, he learned to cook by helping his mother prepare food for his seven brothers and sisters. Marketing was a daily ritual, and a mortar and pestle--the Cuisinart of Ghanaian cooking--was the basic tool of the kitchen. Like most cooks in Ghana, his mother used one kind of mortar to pound cassava root for fufu and another kind to grind hot chiles and onions for her pepper-laced stews and relishes.
Here in Los Angeles, Dawuni often cooks Ghanaian dishes for his wife, Cary Sullivan, who is a vegetarian. The two met at the University of Ghana when she was on a UC Santa Cruz study exchange program there.
Occasionally Dawuni uses instant fufu mix from a local African market. It's not exactly like the fresh stuff, but, as he dryly notes, "You can't exactly pound yams in an apartment."
"Vegetarian is no big deal in Ghana," Sullivan says. If you go to a fufu bar or a chop bar, you can ask for your entree--whether it's beans or soup or stew--to be served either with or without meat. Meat costs more, so people who are short on cash may end up eating a vegetarian meal whether they're intentionally vegetarian or not.
In Ghana, Dawuni and Sullivan shopped at Accra's famous Makola Market across from one of the main bus stations. It is a multi-block riot of color, noise and heat, where people buy everything from blankets and glass beads to pineapples by the bushel or a white yam weighing several kilos. Shoppers and sellers in togas or sarongs and turban-like head wraps of brightly printed West African wax cloth mingle with people in Western dress haggling over the price of goat meat or a bundle of plantains.
Most of the sellers are women who act as middlemen. They might get fresh fish from the fishermen, smoke it, then sell it at their stalls, or they might cook up several dishes to sell to lorry drivers and other vendors. If you strike an agreeable deal with one of them, she'll "dash" you a little extra as a bonus. "Dashing" is something you're not likely to encounter in Accra's mostly fixed-price supermarkets.
Each market stall specializes. There will be all grades of bright orange palm-nut oil in one area, frozen meat or housewares in another. There are packaged goods such as sweetened condensed milk, canned sardines, Bird's custard mix and, for some reason, Maggi bouillon cubes, which have caught on with a vengeance. "People use them in everything," Dawuni says.
After the riches of such a marketplace, how does a Ghanaian cook survive in Los Angeles? After a certain amount of prodding, I persuaded Dawuni to share his recipes. But I would need help, I said, to find the ingredients. We went shopping and found most of the fresh produce at regular supermarkets. We even found the small white eggplants Ghanaians call "garden eggs" at the Vons Pavilion in Beverly Hills.
Then we drove around to a handful of Caribbean and African stores looking for specialty ingredients. Not surprisingly, Caribbean cooks, many of whom are descended from West African slaves, rely on the foodstuffs their ancestors found in the New World. It was white yams, smoked and dried fish and meats, flavorful greens and plenty of hot peppers the slaves used to replicate their native dishes in their new home. Later these foods, among them cassava, tomatoes and corn, made their way back to Africa, eventually becoming staples.
We found the best selection of ingredients at African Central Produce on Washington Boulevard, and at the Akka Caribbean & African Market on Crenshaw Boulevard. There were even cans of forest snails in brine. In Ghana, these fist-sized gastropods--a sort of giant land escargot--are roasted over coals and served in palm-nut oil with parsley, salt and pepper.
Dawuni, like most Ghanaians, is an intuitive cook; his familiarity with kitchen measuring implements is nil. "Don't worry," I said encouragingly. "Just cook; I'll watch and take notes." We decided our first recipe would be palava sauce, a stew of greens in a tomato-onion-chile sauce thickened with egusi. A shopping list was formulated and I shopped for the ingredients. Finding the right greens required some experimentation.
In Ghana, Dawuni would use kontomire , a tropical spinach unavailable fresh here. So I bought canned kontomire plus several kinds of greens. We laid them out like a little garden plot on the kitchen table. The canned greens turned out to be an unsavory mass of overcooked puree, the stuff that makes little kids hate spinach; it was promptly poured into the garbage. "You need fresh greens for this," Dawuni insisted.
Turning to our panorama of fresh greens, we first tasted the mustard greens--too strong. Kale leaves were next--nice flavor, but not quite right. Collard greens seemed a good bet. I'd hoped this African-American staple would come close, but Swiss chard turned out to be his final choice. "Tastes almost the same," he said approvingly.
Since Dawuni never uses recipes, we placed the cut-up ingredients in mounds on the table. Eyeballing the proper amounts of onion and garlic and ginger, he began to heat the oil. But before any ingredient went into the pan, it went into a measuring cup or spoon. As we progressed, adjustments needed to be made. 'We need a little more tomato or a bit more water," he would say, heading toward the pot. "Stop," I would insist, brandishing a measuring cup. "In here first." Nerves were frazzled until we got the hang of it.
Dawuni turns out to be an exacting cook in many ways. Drawing his paring knife through carefully stacked leaves of Swiss chard, he insists they be cut evenly into fine ribbons. He sniffs the opened bottle of peanut oil I'd brought along for telltale signs of rancidity. The greens in his palava sauce still have a slightly resilient texture. In Ghana, he admits, everyone would cook the greens much longer. "He's been California-ized," Sullivan offers.
Palava sauce traditionally goes with boiled white yams. Despite their huge size, and a knobby, scaly exterior that makes them look like something out of a monster movie, they turn out to be deliciously similar to potatoes. Their bland starchiness is a great mellower for the spicy heat of the palava. (Our version of the sauce has been tamed slightly, but feel welcome to add extra chiles.)
Over lunch we discuss what to make next. A light soup of garden eggs seems a good choice for California food sensibilities. Dawuni points out that the dish is very healthful even if you add meat. To be sure our recipe would confirm his claim, I had bought lean turkey breast tenderloins for the dish. Ghanians often slow-cook their meat or chicken (which might be tough goat or venison) in a separate pot. Next, the vegetables get cooked in the broth and pureed to thicken the soup. Some cooks add a few tablespoons of ground egusi if they want an even thicker soup.
Palm-nut soup, our second choice, is based on the flesh of the nuts. You can buy frozen crushed palm nuts at African Central Produce, but you'll have to go through the messy and kitchen-staining task of squeezing the puree from its husk. I prefer using prepared, canned puree, which turns out to be much less expensive--you need several packages of the frozen pulp to get enough puree for a small recipe.
To accompany our soups we cook instant plantain fufu , which is actually based on cassava and merely flavored with plantain. It comes in a powdery form that you cook like oatmeal. Dawuni says it is made for export, mostly for West Africans living outside the country.
He tells me that cassava fufu is traditional in southern Ghana. In the north, where his grandparents are from, white yam fufu is more usual. Sullivan admits that although she spent more than a year in Ghana, she never mastered the official technique of fufu eating. "Ghanians don't chew their fufu ," she explains. "They twist off a little bit, scoop up some soup and then swallow it; it's something I could never get used to." She says she prefers other forms of starch to fufu , her first choice being ebba , which is simply gari cooked like fufu (to make it, you can use the same proportions as the fufu recipe we've worked out). Ebba's texture is less stringy, so you can cut off hunks and bite into them. Plain rice or boiled white yam chunks can always accompany the soups.
Although we made two of our three main dishes vegetarian-style most Ghanaians would add meat when they can get it. They would probably also use more oil. But our dishes are California versions. And that suits Dawuni's taste just fine.
Not really a sauce in the European sense, palava sauce is a stew of greens in a peppery tomato broth thickened with ground, nutty-tasting squash seeds. Swiss chard replaces kontomire, the tropical spinach from Ghana--in fact they taste almost identical.
PALAVA SAUCE WITH WHITE YAM
1 fresh habanero chile
1 yellow chile
1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, peeled and minced
5 large cloves garlic, minced
About 7 tablespoons peanut oil
2 cups chopped white onions
1 bunch Swiss chard, rinsed, white stems removed
1 large tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon tomato paste
Bouillon cube, crumbled
1 teaspoon hot curry powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons ground egusi seeds or pine nuts
2 pounds white yams, peeled and cut in wedges, then rinsed
Seed chiles for less spicy taste, then chop coarsely.
Mash chiles, ginger and garlic into rough paste in blender, or in plastic food bag with rolling pin. Set aside.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in large, heavy skillet over high heat. Add onions and reduce heat to medium. Stir constantly 1 minute. Cover and cook onions until tender and translucent. Add remaining oil and raise heat to high. Add chile mixture, stirring. Return heat to medium and cook until garlic is translucent. Meanwhile, stack about half of chard leaves together and roll up lengthwise. Slice roll crosswise to get 1/4-inch wide ribbons of chard leaves. Repeat with remaining chard. Add tomato, 1/2 cup water, tomato paste, bouillon cube, curry powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper to taste and egusi seeds. Mix well.
Add chard to skillet and cook over low heat until leaves are tender but slightly resilient and become darker green, about 8 minutes. Add more water if needed during cooking.
Put yams in medium soup pot, cover with water and add 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring water to boil. Cook yams until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on age of yam.
Adjust sauce seasonings to taste. Serve sauce over cooked white yams, or rice balls, or cooked white rice. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
644 calories; 467 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 32 grams fat; 85 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 4.27 grams fiber.
Small round eggplants, usually white, pale yellow or green and the size of large lemons, are known as garden eggs in Ghana. The long, thin Asian eggplants or even equivalent amounts of peeled purple globe eggplant may replace garden eggs.
Ghanaians prefer to eat light soups as an evening meal or when they're not feeling well because the soups are easy to digest. They accompany soups with fufu, breaking off pieces and using them to scoop up the soup. With fufu or not, the soup is delicious straight as an alternative to a salad or as a vegetable course.
LIGHT SOUP OF GARDEN EGGS
1 1/4 pounds skinless turkey meat
2/3 cup chopped white onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 small Asian bird's eye chiles, or serrano chiles
1 bouillon cube
6 to 7 large basil leaves
4 small white eggplants, or 2 large white or purple Asian eggplants, cut up
2 Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon salt
Cut turkey meat in 1 1/2-inch cubes. Puree onion, garlic and chiles in blender, or mortar and pestle. Combine turkey, chile mixture, crumbled bouillon cube and 1 1/2 cups water in soup pot. Simmer 20 minutes. With slotted spoon, remove turkey and reserve.
Meanwhile, stack basil leaves and roll into cylinder. Slice crosswise into very thin strips. Add half basil leaves, eggplants, tomatoes, tomato paste and another 2 cups water to pot. Cook 25 minutes. Cool slightly. Then puree mixture in blender or food processor. Return to pot. Add more water, if soup is too thick.
Add reserved cooked turkey and simmer until turkey is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add remaining basil, salt and pepper to taste. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer 5 minutes more. Serve with fufu. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
180 calories; 534 mg sodium; 69 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 1.39 grams fiber.
Puree from frozen palm nuts tastes a little better than the canned puree, but it is a messy job to extract it from the crushed, frozen nuts and they are expensive. Fortunately the palm-nut puree comes ready to use in a can. Serve the soup in a bowl with fufu on the side, or in a mound in the middle of the soup .
VEGETARIAN PALM NUT SOUP WITH GREENS AND MUSHROOMS
2 to 3 yellow or jalapeno chiles
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 (1 1/2-inch) piece ginger root, chopped
6 large cloves garlic
1 roma tomato
1 (28 1/4-ounce) can palm-nut puree
1 1/2 bouillon cubes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 green pepper, cut in thin strips
2 large shiitake mushrooms, sliced
3 large collard leaves or Swiss chard leaves, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch wide strips
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground egusi seeds or pine nuts
In blender or mortar and pestle, coarsely puree chiles, onion, ginger, garlic and tomato. Put palm-nut puree in large soup pot. Add 3 1/2 cups hot water. Over low heat, stir constantly until mixture is smooth, about 5 minutes. Do not boil.
Add chile mixture, crumbled bouillon cubes and tomato paste. Cook 10 minutes. Add green pepper, mushrooms, collard greens, salt and pepper. Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in egusi seeds. Adjust water, if needed. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve with fufu, eba or boiled white yams. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
533 calories; 933 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 56 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.79 gram fiber.
Older beans take longer to cook and need more liquid so these cooking times and water measurements are not absolute. You may need to add more water and cook the beans longer. Presoaking is optional, but it reduces the cooking time and results in more evenly cooked beans.
BLACK-EYED PEAS GHANIAN STYLE
2 cups black-eyed peas
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup heated Seasoned Palm-Nut Oil
2 ripe plantains, peeled
Gari (toasted cassava meal)
In bowl soak peas in water to cover overnight. Or in pot bring peas in water to boil, remove from heat and allow to stand 1 hour. Drain peas and add 6 cups fresh water to cover. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and cover pot, leaving lid slightly ajar. Simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes. If necessary, add more water as beans cook. When beans are tender, but not mushy, stir in salt. Beans should be slightly soupy.
While peas cook, prepare Seasoned Palm-Nut Oil.
Cut plantains in half crosswise, then lengthwise. Heat about 1 inch oil in heavy skillet. Fry plantain pieces 2 to 3 minutes on each side, turning with slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels.
To serve, divide cooked peas among 4 bowls. Place 2 pieces plantain at sides of beans. Sprinkle each serving with about 2 tablespoons gari. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons oil over all. Adjust seasonings to taste. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
796 calories; 462 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 56 grams fat; 59 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 4.17 grams fiber.
Seasoned Palm-Nut Oil
1 cup palm-nut oil, warmed in hot water until pourable
1/4 cup minced white onion
1/2 habanero or jalapeno chile
1/2 small roma tomato, chopped
In heavy skillet, heat oil to sizzling. Add onion, chile and tomato. Reduce heat and cook, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Pour oil through strainer and discard seasonings. Makes about 1 cup oil.
We found the package directions for instant fufu to be inadequate and the proportions did not work for us. After several tries, here is our recipe.
INSTANT PLANTAIN FUFU
Plantain fufu flour
Large quantities of fufu are difficult to stir. Prepare no more than 4 servings of fufu at once. This takes only few minutes. Let fufu stand at least 10 minutes before serving.
For 2 servings, bring 3 cups water to boil in 3-quart saucepan. Remove 2 cups water. Set aside. Over medium heat, sprinkle 1 cup plantain fufu flour gradually into water in pan. Stir with wooden spoon, gradually adding additional 1 cup water. Mixture will look like soupy mashed potatoes. It will have floury taste that should disappear when fufu is done. Continue to cook fufu over low heat while spreading dough over bottom of pan, turning over constantly so each part of fufu gets cooked. If dough is extremely stiff, add little more hot water.
When mixture turns noticeably darker yellow, loses floury taste and becomes very slightly stretchy, shape into 2 large balls. Serve with soup.
For White Yam Fufu: Use 2 cups boiling water and 1 cup yam fufu mix. Follow preceding directions.
* Takahashi's Mino stoneware bowl and Grassflower pottery platter from Yamaguchi, Los Angeles.