I have received a ton of emails from friends asking what food is like in Ghana. Well allow me to first address a few misconceptions: 1). There is food here 2). It is good 3). Ghana hosts one of the best sushi restaurants I’ve ever been to. Now, let me perpetuate some stereotypes: 1). The staple foods here are void of nearly any nutritional value, 2). Sanitation issues plague the local seafood market (this is anecdotal from a friend in the sanitation industry).
Daily snacking of vegemite and zatar
On a day to day basis, I normally survive on a few imported food items:
Vegemite and toast – vegemite is an Australian import and is an incredibly acquired taste. It is a thick, goopy, black, yeast extract with a bitter, salty taste. I recall the taste from my childhood travels with my family – which is probably why the nostalgia mitigates the, what some might describe as “acrid”, taste.
Zatar and pita bread – Zatar is a ubiquitous Middle Eastern condiment and since I’m in West Africa, I’m not that far from Arab cuisine – I’m also not that far from the Arab uprising but that’s a reality which I choose to ignore. The dried herb selection varies between different iterations of Zatar, but most have dried sumac, sesame seeds and salt, along with other Middle Eastern herbs. Add a touch of olive oil and you have a savory green paste which, when sopped up with a piece of pita, provides a simple pleasure from the Middle East. (If you’ve ever been to a Middle Eastern/Lebanese restaurant, you have probably been served zatar as a complimentary condiment.)
Those are my staples chiefly because they are easy to procure and provide me with just enough energy to get through long days in 95 degree heat. I sampled the indigenous cuisine during my first week here and while the food was delicious, I found it difficult to operate on the heavy meals in such daunting heat. From living here for the past 2 months however, I understand why Ghanaians eat such heavy, calorie laden meals. For most Ghanaians, meals are few and far between and many indigenous acquaintances I’ve made only eat a single substantial meal a day. It stems from a survival characteristic borne through the days of the “Gold Coast” – a meal that shares similar roots with our American “soul food”.
Ghanaian staples: banku, fufu, and plantains
The first quintessentially Ghanaian meal which I had was Banku which is cooked fermented corn and cassava. The texture feels like raw dough and is gummy. The controlled rot adds an acerbic kick to the back end of the flavor. Banku is a close comp of a south Indian dish – idli – frequently cooked by my own mother. Idli however is a steamed rice cake with fermented black lentils. The banku is traditionally served with okra stew and or fried tilapia. Learn how to make banku here.
My favorite Ghanaian dish by far is fufu and Groundnut Soup with Goat Meat. Fufu is pounded cassava and plantain and essentially is a volleyball sized orb of carbs – run girls! A recipe of fufu is here. As if that wasn’t heavy enough, fufu is traditionally served with groundnut soup. Groundnuts are the equivalent to our everyday planters peanuts but of a different cultivar. Most African peanuts or groundnuts are of the Spanish cultivar and are very small (pea sized) and have a higher oil content than their larger cousins from Virginia. The soup is made from fish broth, ground peanuts, palm oil, and different spices. Usually a piece of tough sinewy goat meat is left in the soup to braise. When finished, the soup is poured over the fufu and the dish is ready to eat – by hand of course. I was actually lucky enough to witness two women making fufu using the traditional method, with a mortar and pestle, right outside of my office window (video below). My Ghanaian colleague Freeman narrates what is going on.
Alternatively, I usually opt for a snack in lieu of meals in Ghana and go for a few grilled plantains with groundnuts – a deconstructed African counterpart of the Elvis favorite – peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It’s pretty easy to find roadside grilled plantain stands – and it’s a relatively safer bet than some of the other food vendors around Ghana.
The food in Ghana is the type of food your mother makes – full of love and not meant to conform to your diet. That being said, I would encourage anyone who comes to Ghana not to be afraid of digging in. Sometimes the presentation may be a bit daunting but the bold flavors are redolent of influences from the Portuguese and Dutch. Of course, if you need a break from the heavy Ghanaian fare, Monsoon located in Osu, serves up fantastic sushi. I don’t ask where the fish comes from because it’s one of my few indulgences in Ghana and frankly, I couldn’t care less.