Saturday, August 4, 2012

Food Part 1

I'm not really sure of the best way to go about writing this, so it's just going to be a stream of consciousness.  I'm going to try to organize it by categories, but we'll see how that goes.
Most Ghanaian food is eaten with your hands, and that doesn't sound too difficult until you realize that most Ghanaian food is a soup or stew.  Granted, you get a starchy ball of something to help you eat the stew, but kind of like eating rice with chopsticks, it's really hard unless you grew up doing it or have a lot of practice.  I could probably write a 2000 words about the proper way to eat each food, but I won't get into that now.  Just don't eat with your left hand; it's considered incredibly rude and disrespectful because that's the hand you wipe with.
Here's another interesting thing about food that I've noticed: people have the set way of making something and only that specific way is the proper way.  Different families prepare things differently, and no one quarrels about that, but if an American tries to add a sauce or vegetables to something that it doesn't  belong on, the Ghanaians will let you know.  For example, many of us wanted to put cabbage on our hamburgers one day (no lettuce so why not) when we had a caterer, but they insisted that we couldn't do that because the foods weren't meant to go together.
Fufu, bankou/akple, kenke, and rice balls  are the four most common starches eaten in Ghana (or at least Southern Ghana, I'm not sure about the North).  Besides rice balls which are just balls of white rice, the starches are made from some combination of corn, cassava, plantain, yam, and/or coco yam. 
Fufu is made by pounding boiled plantain and cassava (although yam and coco yam can be substituted) in a giant mortar and pestle with water.  The mortar and pestle is only used for pounding fufu, and it's bad luck to pound an empty one.  The pestle is just a big stick as thick as a forearm and usually about four or five feet long.  The business end is flat because of the beating it takes, and its edges are all curled back up to keep splinters and pieces of wood out of the fufu.  The mortar is a big heavy hourglass-shaped piece of wood carved from a single block.  They are usually about 16 inches in diameter, and the part that takes the pounding is flat.  It takes a lot of work to make fufu because you have to pound the ingredients until you get a sticky ball the consistency of bread dough.  Basically you are adding air into the starch until it's smooth.  Also, you don't chew it, you just swallow the chunck that you "cut" from the ball with your index and middle fingers.  In my opinion, it's mostly tasteless.
Bankou, also known as akple in the Volta region, is a ball made by "driving" fermented corn dough together with fermented cassava.  Different regions eat different strengths of bankou (I don't like it after it ferments for too long), and truth be told, akple is actually different from bankou, but I don't really know why yet.  You just mix the fermented doughs together in a big pot over a fire and stir vigorously; this one also takes a lot of work because you have to cook it for at least 30 minutes stirring constantly so it doesn't burn. Bankou tastes like a grainy, earthy, sour ball of corn flour.
Kenke is made by steaming corn dough in corn husks or sometimes banana leaves; it's a lot like a tamale but it's not filled with anything.  Bankou and fufu are usually balled up and put directly into the bowl of soup, but kenke is usually served on the side and dipped into a sauce or thick stew.  It's often eaten with "pepe" (Ghanaians trying to say pepper), and it's pretty similar to salsa.  It's also eaten with stewed meats.  Kenke doesn't have much flavor either, and just tastes like corn.
Rice balls are just made by mixing over watered rice until you get a starchy mass.  They are the easiest thing for me to eat here because we eat rice all the time in America.  They think rice is an American food, and I just find that hilarious because we consider rice to be an Asian food.  Rice balls are generally served in the soup directly like bankou or fufu.
All the soups here have the same basic ingredients as American soups: onions, tomatoes, peppers (the hot ones), pepper powder (think chili powder), salt (or a processed spice packet made by Magi that is mostly salt but also has other spices), and water.  By adding tomato paste and a meat (usually smoked and dried fish) to those basic ingredients you get what they call light soup.  It's basically a simple tomato soup, and it can be eaten with any of the starch balls.
The vegetable soups that I've had are contumiri, okra, and garden egg (egg plant), and unless you specifically tell them not to, they will add smoked and dried fish.  They all have less tomato than the light soup, and but otherwise it's the same.  Contumiri (I have no idea how to spell it) is the green leaf of the coco yam, and if you don't boil it for a really long time, the acid in the leaves won't break down and can cause kidney stones.  Also, the older a leaf is the more acid it has, so many Ghanaians only eat the young leaves that grow from the center of the plant.  Contumiri stew is usually eaten with boiled yams or coco yams, or occasionally bankou (no fufu though); it kind of tastes like spinach.  Okra stew it really sticky and slimy because the okra is just boiled and then ground or diced.  Ghanaians insist that okra stew must have fish in to be okra stew, and it must be served with bankou.  Okra stew is not my favorite, but it's not too bad either.  Garden egg is what they call egg plant over here, and an egg plant is they plant itself.  They really do look a lot like eggs here because they are white not purple and much smaller (you guessed it, egg sized!)  The soup had a nice taste of vegetables, and I think I had it with bankou.
I've also eaten palm nut soup and groundnut soup.  Palm nut soup is made by boiling a big pot full of little red palm nuts, then beating them in a special mortar and pestle to separate the flesh from the seed.  The flesh is rich and nutty, and it makes a delicious soup full of umami and savory flavors that I am unable to describe.  It's prepared similar to light soup, but they use red oil (palm oil) to add more flavor and calories.  I like it best with chicken and fufu.  Groundnuts are peanuts, and the soup is a thick peanut broth that I think goes best with beef and rice.  I'm not sure how it's made because my host mom hasn't made it for me.
I've only been here for about two months and I've already had a crazy amount of meat variety.  I've eaten fishes of all variety including shark, chicken, beef, pork, snail, snake, squirrel, rat, cat, and dog.  Probably more too, but that's all I can think of now.  Most have been smoked and dried to preserve the meat (because there are no refrigerators here) and then added to soups, but occasionally they will be fried in red oil or stewed.  By adding the meats to soups you greatly improve the soup, but you tend to lose a lot of the meat flavor and just get a bland smoky flavor.  Also, the extra cooking made the squirrel and rat particularly tough.  I haven't had a steak since I left America, and the beef, chicken, and snail have only been served in soups.  Besides eating fish with pepe, fish is usually just smoked, dried, and added to soup also.  The pork and cat have been two of my favorites so far.  The pork that I had was cooked on the street and stewed in a giant pot.  Because we were eating it late in the day, they only had fat and skin left, but the fat had been cooking for a long time and melted into sweet, salty, pork goodness in your mouth.  Cat was first fried in red oil and then stewed in a tomato based sauce with lots of spices.  We ate it with kenke, and the meat was succulent, juicy, and sweet.  I've only eaten dog I've had has been smoked fresh and then added to rice jollaf.  It was good, but mostly tasted like smoke.
Up next: Street food, fruit, and everything else!