Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Conference and Jamaica

It's been a challenge keeping last month's promise to post 2-3 recipes a week. I've managed so far, but now through June 15 are busy with conferences and travel, and I make no promises until I return in the middle of June. The exciting thing is that, barring the unforeseen, I plan to be in Jamaica the second week of June. This is somewhere I've never been before! I'll get to taste some Caribbean things I've only read about or eaten in U.S. restaurants. Since the last few weeks I've been immersing myself in cassava (e.g., manioc, tapioca, mandioca) history, I'm especially excited to taste bammy and cassareep. Also, I've always wanted to see how the dish callaloo compares to Ghana's nkontomire stew. The bottom line is, postings will be irregular at best, and likely will not include recipes. Consider me on vacation for a couple of weeks, but I will post as I am able.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Recipe #6: "Tom Brown" porridge

My recent "Ashanti fowl" recipe took me 3 days to post, so here's a quick and easy breakfast food for recipe #6.

A friend who just returned from Ghana stopped by recently with 2 bags of toasted cornflour. I've been wanting to make the porridge called "Tom Brown" the past few days, and was happy to have it.

She said she knows I like "aprapransa" (a palm soup/stew dish with the toasted corn flour I'll share another day). I corrected her that it was my husband who really loves it, but every time I make it he complains that it isn't as good as his grandmother's was. She assured me that no matter what I will do, it will NEVER be as good as he remembers hers, so I should "just let go of that burden." Thank you, Connie.

The "Tom Brown" porridge recipe is quite simple. The hardest part is getting the right corn flour. In Ghana they lightly toast the corn before grinding it. For years I tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the process. The corn in Ghana is not sweet corn, it is hard like Indian corn. One recipe said to use ground popcorn, toasted lightly in a dry frying pan. It's much simpler to check with an African market that specializes in West African ingredients and get it from them. This is a favorite student breakfast food I remember fondly from my days teaching at a boarding school in Nungua, along the coast of Ghana.

To make enough for 2 people, one simply brings 1/2 cup of water to a boil in a pan. While it is heating, add 1/2 cup of the flour to 1/2 cup of water in a bowl, and a little salt to taste and mix thoroughly (I use a whisk). When the water in the pan comes to a boil, reduce the heat and slowly stir in the flour/water mixture. It will cook in just a couple of minutes. I ate mine with some honey, evaporated milk (the way I learned to eat it in Ghana), and chopped peanuts on top. If you like a thinner porridge, just add more water.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Stuffing and roasting Ashanti fowl, Part 3

Once the chicken is deboned (see yesterday's post), it is time to stuff it. When we did it in Ghana we first seasoned the chicken with (sigh) a crushed chicken Maggi cube, plus some salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and about 1 teaspoon dried ground red pepper, then closed up the chicken and let it marinate a few minutes while we prepared the stuffing . I skipped the Maggi cube, and wished I'd had some fresh ginger and pepper, but used salt and dried red pepper.

In Ghana we also prepared fresh spices to coat the outside of the chicken, as is often done in Ghana when roasting meat (some fresh ground ginger [1-1/4 teaspoon], about 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 2 cloves of crushed garlic, about 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper, and a medium onion, grated). If you wish to use these, prepare them and set them aside until you have finished stuffing and sewing up the chicken. Other recipes simply call for coating the outside with oil and salt. That's what I did this time, basting it with its juices as it cooked.

For the stuffing, in Ghana we simply peeled, boiled and mashed about 1 pound of African yam (and thought we should have used more, like 1 1/2 pounds) or one could substitute an equivalent amount of potatoes with 2 ounces of flour). The cook in Ghana added salt and a sliced onion (about 1/2 cup). I found this stuffing too bland, and followed the earlier precedents of making a sauce of chopped onion, crushed garlic, blended tomatoes, salt and red pepper, a few tablespoons of natural-style peanut butter (I had crunchy on hand) and mixed that in with the yam. When I went to peel it I found much of my yam had spoiled, so I had to supplement the yam with boiled potatoes, and still didn't have as much as I would have liked for the stuffing. After boiling the yam and potatoes, I mashed them (and threw in a little butter) and set them aside while I prepared a sauce.

Some recipes for Ashanti chicken call for frying or cooking an additional pound of chicken meat separately, but I do not think that is necessary, either (and we did not do that in Ghana when I made it there.) Actually, while I was deboning the chicken, I threw the bones with the bits of meat clinging to them, and the neck and giblets, into a pot with some onion, garlic, tomato and salt to make stock, and just removed the bits of cooked chicken from the stock bones to add into the stuffing mixture. I followed earlier recipes by throwing in a few tablespoons of natural style (crunchy) peanut butter as well. I didn't have exactly what I wanted, but used what I had handy. I think North Americans would like to add other ingredients, like maybe chopped mushrooms or parsley. My creative husband suggested experimenting with chopped okra and/or dicing but not mashing the yams.

At any rate, when I had my sauce ready I mixed everything together, then stuffed the chicken and sewed it up with some kitchen twine.
One needs to place some foil over the pseudo wings and drumsticks to keep them from browning too quickly, and I also found I needed a little foil on the top of the chicken, which I roasted uncovered in a regular roasting pan at 375 degrees Farenheit for about an hour and a quater to an hour and a half (when my thermometer pushed into the thickest part of the chicken reached 185 degrees Farenheit).

As I mentioned, I basted the chicken in the oven from time to time to keep it from drying out, and basted it with a little oil and salt. And there you have it. Serve it with some Ghanaian gravy, and a side vegetable.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Recipe #5: Step-by-step Ashanti fowl, Part 2

I did an online search to see just what people had to say about "Ashanti fowl," a boneless stuffed roasted chicken. The Congo Cookbook probably had the most comprehensive information, especially about its similarity to Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme's "turducken." The Congo Cookbook listed (and other people followed its lead in stating there were) only 2 written recipes: Alice Dede's and Barbara Baeta's. Not quite correct: Alice Dede's 1969 version is an adapted version from the earlier Gold Coast Nutrition and Cookery (GCNC) published in 1953. That recipe for "Ashanti Fowl" (p. 146) is identical to Dede's, except that Dede substituted 2 slices of yam for 2 slices of bread. The original recipe using bread seems to indicate some European influence (perhaps a Ghanaian chef experimenting for expatriates?) Please note that Dede is referring to African yam, NOT sweet potatoes or American yams. In Barbara Baeta's 1972 version (see photo on left, from her printed recipe cards), she calls for cooked mashed yams or potatoes. REPEAT: sweet potatoes are nowhere mentioned--this substitution in online recipes is likely due to the confusion over American "yams," which are not at all the same as African yams (I know, I know, I keep saying this over and over). A starchy potato, like a russet, would be a far better choice if African yams are not available. But if you can get them, puna yams from Ghana are best! Or, go back to bread stuffing. By the way, "a slice" of bread or yam is quite imprecise, as you'll see when we get to the stuffing mix part in another blog posting.

Interestingly, in GCNC the recipe immediately preceding the one for the roast fowl includes the "African method" of roasting fowl, which means stuffing it with ground red pepper (as in freshly ground chili peppers), onions, salt and tomatoes. This is consistent with Ghanaian spicy flavor principles. The GCNC book also includes a recipe for making gravy to serve with the roast fowl. This is a Ghanaian-type gravy made from heating a little oil, then browning a tablespoon of flour in it, adding chopped onions, chopped tomato, ground (fresh red) pepper and salt, then adding water, letting it boil for 5 minutes and stirring it well.

I think making gravy to accompany Ashanti fowl is a good idea.

Okay, fast forward to the 21st century. When I was spending time with Barbara Baeta in Ghana at Flair Catering a few years ago, I asked if we could make Ashanti Fowl since I'd always wondered how to do it. She arranged to have one of her young assistants, "Henry (Henrie?)," show me his version, which varied somewhat from Barbara's original recipe.

However, making Ashanti chicken is not for the faint-hearted nor the person in a rush. It's pretty complex, so I'll break it down into parts.

Today I'll talk about the first part, which for me was the biggest challenge, de-boning the chicken. Most recipes simply say "de-bone" or vaguely "remove the bones from the chicken" (I'm sure you could use another "fowl, " like guinea fowl, but in this case they always seem to mean chicken). I'm not trained as a professional chef, and maybe you learn de-boning chickens in chef's school, but for the rest of us, here's how I did it. Sharpen your knives before you begin!

Fortunately, I didn't have to kill and pluck the chicken and remove its insides. Here are the photos I took, messily, as I worked in the kitchen:

1. Wash and pat the chicken dry with paper towels. I used a roaster chicken, heavier than the 3 or so pound chicken usually recommended. A roasting chicken is "harder" than a fryer and thus easier to debone.

2. I should have started by cutting of the wings at the joint (that caused a problem at the end), but instead I began at the top (back) by the neck end and carefully cut alongside the breastbone, cutting down to around where the thigh is and turning it around and cutting back the other way. Notice, I didn't cut all the way to the end.
3. My notes said "cut the drumstick free and loosen both sides." I gather that meant cut it free at the joint, loosen the skin from the chicken, then flip the drumstick (without its skin) outside so that, holding the fat end of the drumstick, you can scrape to the bone to
release the meat.

4. Using a cleaver (or other heavy knife), break the bone so that about a half inch of the end of the drumstick is left. This is the only bone that will be left in the whole chicken at the end.

5. Push the drumstick end back into the chicken and repeat with the other drumstick.

6. Loosen the skin all down the back, starting from the neck end to the tail. I had trouble with this near the end because the skin wouldn't easily loosen from the bone and wanted to break.
7. The next part was cutting the backbone off and separating it from the breastbone. That was kind of messy. I was breaking bones and trying to figure out how to separate the two. It finally came out. It looks like I forgot to take pictures near the end (it was getting late, everyone was hungry, and I was trying to hurry).
The net result was, I eventually separated the breastbone and backbone, scraping as much meat as possible off the bones before I removed them.

8. After I did all that, I should have had all the bones out (except for the token end of the drumstick, which is part of the final presentation). However, since I had not taken care of the wings earlier (at the beginning, right after blotting the chicken), I had to cut them each off at the joint, and remove them.

9. By this point the chicken was deboned, and I just realized I didn't take any pictures of it flattened out before I stuffed it. The next one I took was when I had already stuffed it. Whoops. At least you get the idea. Check back soon to see what I included in my stuffing, and the rest of the adventure. My apologies to all of you who can neatly and efficiently do this deboning bit. Are there better online resources showing how?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Recipe #5: on its way: Step-by-step Ashanti chicken

I returned from Washington DC at 1 a.m. this morning, played catchup all day, and then at 7 p.m. started to make the recipe I had planned, the legendary "Ashanti fowl (chicken)." I'm rough at deboning chicken, so it took me a couple of hours to get the stuffed chicken into the oven, and now it won't be ready until 10:30 p.m or so, so I've changed our dinner menu, and also will have to post the recipe tomorrow. To whet your appetite, here are a couple of the pictures as I went through the process: patting the chicken dry and as I just put it into the oven to roast. Tomorrow look for the history behind this dish, and my experiences making it. Check back for "the rest of the story."

Friday, May 15, 2009

Question #7: Isn't the food really unhealthy?

Let's begin with the negative and work to the positive: The stereotypical image of sub-Saharan Africans is either an emaciated starving African, gaunt and haunted, or else a sweating, corrupt, obese politician. If you've never read Binyavange Wainaina's witty and astute 2005 "How to write about Africa," please do.

"Everybody" knows that, unlike the "healthy" Mediterranean diet, Africans suffer from malnutrition, iron and/or calcium deficiency, parasites of all kinds, goiter (especially caused by iodine deficiency), have very short life spans, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes it's also suggested that "Africans" are lazy, childlike, and/or unresourceful (again, see Wainaina's article). It's important to reflect on these images and unexamined assumptions.

Of course, in many ways colonialism and slavery and other disruptions of the past few hundred years played havoc with the food systems that existed previously in more or less harmony with nature. Things like cash cropping pushed out traditional food crops, forced labor removed workers from their farms to work in mines and on plantations, war and violence decimated normal agricultural cycles. Poverty and powerlessness became common.

I recently came across an interesting article in a 2003 issue of the
Journal of Historical Geography ("French beans for the masses: a modern historical geography of food in Burkina Faso") by Susanne Freidberg examining how French green beans entered the diet in Burkina Faso. In addition, Western and Western-trained agricultural "experts" too often made disastrous recommendations to farmers (e.g., eliminating inter-cropping when planting, utilizing crops requiring expensive inputs, neglecting research to improve local varieties of foods, adopting inappropriate technologies, such as irrigated farming or mechanized tractors and straight row planting).

Remember, when sub-African countries first gained their independence in the second half of the 20th century, most were self-sufficient in food production. That situation is completely reversed nowadays. What people can get to eat may not be what they prefer to eat.

Once again, it's necessary to disaggregate the many countries in Africa according to geography and history, economies, religion, natural endowments, etc. Some are arid or semiarid, some are tropical, some are nomadic, some settled, some wetter, some drier, some landlocked, some coastal. The westerners of Victorian England labeled Africa the "Dark Continent" or the "White Man's Grave" because things like anopheles mosquitoes and tsetse flies spread malaria and "sleeping sickness." "Malaria" literally means "bad air," and people thought somehow the wet places and swamps infected the air causing white people to get sick and die there.

Many foods common in African diets, from corn to cassava or peanuts, replaced earlier ingredients like millet, sorghum, fonio or bambara beans, and that is part of the normal change in diets and food migration. However, powerful influences coming from outside of Africa are able to foster and maintain preferences for "elite" foods, such as wheat and rice and seasoning cubes (or, tobacco, coca cola, or baby formula) that may have negative long-term effects on national diets. Multinationals may be able to supply emerging urban markets with their grain surpluses at lower prices than traditional farmers and thus change diets. Ghana, for example, is not able to raise wheat and yet there in high demand for it: in 2002, 90% of Ghana's imported wheat came from the U.S.

Last year I was part of a discussion on health concerns of emerging African diets (which parallel those in many developing and developed countries), such as diabetes.

But let's look at some healthy aspects of many African diets. Here are a few observations:

Many use protein sources like meat or seafood or poultry sparingly to flavor soups, stews or sauces, rather than in excessive amounts. Diets also include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
Often there is a use of fresh, less processed ingredients.

Steaming and roasting are common food preparation techniques.

Many sub-Saharan country diets are characterized by
much lower sugar consumption than in the U.S., with a preference of fresh fruits over fat- and sugar-laden desserts and snacks.

Often, many African countries' diets are gluten-free or lactose-intolerant friendly.

In many parts of Africa, there is liberal use of
onion, garlic, and chili peppers, each with health-promoting qualities.

The same is true of many cooked greens and tomatoes and ginger.

Notably, the hunter-gatherer San people of southern Africa are believed to have historically had a very healthy diet, about 80% vegetables, eaten fresh, and including dozens of plant species and about 17 edible animal species. Their young were said to show no signs of malnutrition, and it was through the San people that the ingredient P57, an anti-obesity drug from the hoodia cactus, entered Western consciousness.

Similarly, the southern African herbal teas made from
rooibus (Afrikaans for "redbush") are now popular in North America, and the dried hibiscus flower is increasingly becoming common in herbal teas, as are other teas such as North African mint tea or lemongrass tea.

One common complaint I hear is how unhealthy West African palm oil is. As I mention in my article
"We Eat First With Our Eyes: On Ghanaian Cuisine" we often confuse palm kernel oil with palm fruit oil, neglect to consider palm oil may be refined or unrefined, and that there are various grades of quality, just as there are with olive oils. We are unaware of the findings reported in the Cambridge World History of Food that ". . .when palm oil is added to a Western diet, the level of plasma HDL cholesterol typically rises, leading to a better LDL:HDL ratio, and this ratio--rather than the total amount of total plasma cholesterol--appears to be the better indicator of the risk of coronary artery disease." That document concludes that ". . . now that the wider nutritional benefits of palm oil’s natural carotenoids are becoming more generally recognized, perhaps it is time to rediscover the fully flavored red oil and promote its use, not only in Africa and Latin America but also in Asia and the West."

When one observes people in the U.S. stuffing down hamburgers and French fries and chips and drinking super-sized soft drinks, or the pastries and mega-size sugared drinks being consumed in coffee shops, one has to wonder about the claims of superiority of the Western diet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Recipe #4: Puha, refreshing tamarind drink

Did you know that the name of the capital of Senegal, "Dakar," comes from the Wolof word for "tamarind"? Also, that tamarind originated, not in India, but in Africa [even though its common English name comes from the Arabic tamar-u'l-Hind, meaning "the date of India"?] Or that tamarind is the "secret" ingredient in many barbeque sauces as well as Worcestershire sauce? Tamarind has a wonderful sweet-tart flavor that makes it a favorite for drinks throughout Africa. For more fascinating detailed information about it and its varied uses on the continent, check out Vol III of the Lost Crops of Africa.

I once spent a pleasant afternoon in Tamale, northern Ghana, with the industrious Mrs. Comfort Awu Akor and her daughter Amadu George Shetu learning to make a popular tamarind drink known by the Hausa word "Puha." Comfort made it in commercial quantities (over 13 gallons) to sell from her home in little plastic bags chilled or frozen in her refrigerator and/or freezer, but I have modified the recipe. Also, she used "2 bags of masoro." Masoro is the Hausa name for a kind of spice also known as " Ashanti pepper" or "false cubeb pepper" in English, or "soro wisa" in Twi. It's unavailable to me where I live in State College, Pennsylvania.

While in Ghana the tamarind is processed into balls and sold in the outdoor markets, in the U.S. it is possible to get imported plastic packages of "soft" or "wet" tamarind from places like Thailand and India. The one I have right now from Thailand has salt added to it, so I'm using the Indian package (about 8 ounces), even though I've read that the Thai tamarind tends to be sweeter and the Indian more sour. (BTW, I cut the Indian package before I remembered to take a picture). The Indian tamarind was from our local Wegman's. It's also possible to buy tamarind concentrate, which would probably make this process faster and easier, but I'm sticking today with a more traditional approach. This recipe makes about 1/2 gallon. I'll include photos I took as I worked. They're not fancy, but if you want to see how the process goes, they should do the trick.

Puha (West African tamarind drink)

Boil 3 cups of water and add about 4 oz (or 125 grams) of packaged tamarind (without salt). Stir it to break it up and let it steep for an hour or two.

While it is steeping, gather the other ingredients:

1 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns (I'm substituting black peppercorns for the masoro, reducing the quantity, and hoping they won't be too strong)
about 3 tablespoons of peeled, ground or grated ginger
2 cups of sugar

As far as special equipment goes, besides the pan for boiling the water you could use a small mortar and pestle for breaking up the cloves and peppercorns, a frying pan for lightly toasting the pepper, a large strainer, a smaller tea strainer, several (stainless steel) bowls, measuring spoons, a vegetable peeler for peeling the ginger, a grater for grating it, a container for storing the puha (and an ice cube tray if you decide to freeze a little of the puha as I explain below).

After the water with the tamarind has cooled, I use my (clean!) hands to squeeze it thoroughly to remove the pulp from the seeds before I move on to the next step. (This is similar to how one squeezes palm nuts to remove the pulp from the seeds when making palmnut soup from the actual palm nuts.)

Peel and grate the ginger, lightly toast the peppercorns for a minute or so, then crush the cloves and peppercorns in the mortar and pestle.

Put about 3 cups of cold water in a clean bowl, set the large strainer over a different bowl, and pour the tamarind/water mixture into the empty bowl, shaking it and using your hand to squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the mixture. In several batches, pour some of the 3 cups of clear water in the other bowl through the strainer, continuing to strain as much of the water/pulp mixture into the bowl you first strained into. When you have finished with the 3 cups of clear water and have as much tamarind liquid in the bowl as possible, discard the seeds, and other pieces of tamarind in the strainer, and rinse it clean. Put about 3 more cups of water into the empty bowl, and add the ginger, pepper and cloves in the bowl. Stir them and let them sit in the water for several minutes. Then, using the tea strainer, strain the water with the ginger and spices into the tamarind mixture. Discard the ginger/spice mixture. For the final step, I usually strain the mixture one last time, then put a few cups of the tamarind mix into a bowl and add about 1 3/4 cups of sugar (in Ghana they likely use more sugar to make a sweeter drink than I prefer), or to your taste. Mix it until the sugar dissolves, then add it back into the bowl with the other tamarind mixture.

Voila! Puha. My favorite way to serve puha is to freeze it into small cubes and use it as a palate cleanser between dinner courses, but it is also a refreshing cold drink, which people claim has various health benefits. Incidentally, tamarind drink is also popular in Mexico and Asia. Goya and other companies sell it in cans, as shown below. However, the can below contains only water, tamarind pulp, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup. I prefer freshly made, slightly spicy West African puha. And for those who are concerned about sugar intake, it should be a simple matter to substitute something like Splenda for the sugar.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Recipe #3: Pot Luck Gari foto

Last Sunday for a fellowship meal at church I made some gari foto (Americans would say "Gary PHOto") a one-pot dish that's hearty, quick and easy and inexpensive to prepare, and a new (but not too new--Ghanaian gari has a mild taste that is quite acceptable and accessible to North Americans) flavor combination. Basically, one whisks and cooks a couple of eggs as you would for Chinese fried rice, sets them aside and makes a simple stew of oil, chopped onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and red pepper (and, if you like, something like canned corned beef, or tuna or sardines, or any other leftover meat or fish; I imagine tofu would work, too), and mix it together with some gari that has been pre-moistened. If you are not near a market that sells African ingredients, locate one online that will ship it to you.

As I mentioned recently, gari is a form of cassava (aka, manioc, yuca) that has been soaked, grated, fermented, dried, and roasted to make a convenience food that is reminiscent of couscous and is gaining in popularity in urban areas of Western Africa. Gari is especially popular in Ghana and Nigeria. Another day I'll talk about a delightful cousin of gari from Côte d'Ivoire called attiéké.

Gari foto is also called gari jollof, and is similar to classic West African jollof rice, which is a one-pot stew and rice dish. The main difference is that gari foto is faster, since you don't have to wait for it to cook as you would rice. While it was once a humble end-of-the-week-leftovers dish, today it is just as likely to be served at dinner parties in Ghana.

I'm putting recipes up on this blog and hope you will try them out and send me feedback, but I've been advised that I should mention that each of these are original recipes and are copyrighted ;-) ©Fran Osseo-Asare, 2009

Basic Gari foto with Corned Beef (this is the way I most commonly make it)

1 onion, chopped
2 large fresh tomatoes, or 2 cups grape tomatoes, chopped (or 3 drained canned tomatoes, chopped), seeded if preferred
1/2 tin of canned corned beef (or about 6 oz., or 1 cup of any leftover fish, meat, or beans), in chunks
1 Tablespoon tomato sauce (optional)
6 Tablespoons of peanut or other vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups of gari
3/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons red palm oil (if available)
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger (or 1/2 teaspoon dried ground ginger)
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (or to taste, or a little chopped fresh hot pepper)
parley for garnish, optional [that's a Western touch ;-)]
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced or pressed in a garlic press (optional)

Prepare ingredients: chop onion and tomatoes, grate ginger (if using fresh), peel and mince or press garlic (if using), open the corned beef can (if using), tomato sauce can (if using), break eggs in a bowl and beat well, measure out the gari in a separate bowl. Assemble other ingredients: oils, salt, ground red pepper, etc.
Measure out 3/4 cup of water and add a little (1/4 teaspoon) salt, and gradually sprinkle it over the gari, mixing it in with a fork (I usually just use my fingers so I can judge how wet it is). The gari should be dampened, but not dripping wet. Let the gari sit while you prepare the eggs and stew.

For a fancy version, you can fry a little of the chopped onion in a tablespoon of peanut or other oil, then mix a tablespoon of the tomato sauce into the beaten egg, and fry it as you would an omlett, then cut half of it into strips to garnish the finished gari foto (I usually omit this step for family meals, and just basically scramble the eggs and set them aside to break up and mix into the gari foto after mixing the gari in with the stew.)

After removing the eggs from the pan (I use a heavy cast iron skillet, but any heavy pan or pot will work), add the 2 Tablespoons red palm oil (this is called dende oil in Brazil, and there's a special spiced red palm oil from Ghana called zomi, if you can get it) and 1/3 cup, or 5 Tablespoons, peanut oil (or any other vegetable oil you like. Some Ghanaians have started using imported olive oil in cooking because they hear it is healthier, but that is not the traditional flavor). You can adjust the proportions of palm and peanut (or other oil, like canola) to taste. I usually use a light hand with the palm oil for those unfamiliar with it.

When the oil in the pan is hot, add the chopped onion and saute it until it is clear, then stir in the corned beef, if using. It will disintegrate as it cooks, which is good. After a minute or so, add the garlic, then the tomatoes, ginger, and red pepper. If you are using half of the egg mixture to garnish the dish keep it aside, then break the rest into small chunks, and stir into the stew. If you do not wish to garnish, add all of the egg into the stew. Turn the heat to low and mix in the gari mixture, using a fork to break up any lumps of gari. Keep turning it until the stew saturates the gari and there are no dry white (or yellow) lumps of the gari. Add salt to taste.

If desired, garnish the finished dish with fresh parsley and decorative egg strips.

Hints: Gari foto may be eaten alone or with a vegetable side dish, with a pepper sauce, or may be accompanied by a red bean stew.
A couple of teaspoons of dried ground shrimp may also be stirred in with the other seasonings to give it a distinctive West African flavor.
If you are leery of grating and chopping fresh hot pepper and/or ginger, just throw them into a blender with a little water and blend them together to add them. Remember that the more membrane and seeds you include from any hot pepper, the hotter it will be. I recommend using ground red pepper to have more control over the heat of this dish, which is usually not served spicy.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Question #6: What makes YOU the expert, white American lady?

When my book A Good Soup Attracts Chairs came out in 1993 I made a conscious decision not to put my photo on the book jacket. A few months after the cookbook's publication I was speaking to the African-American book buyer for our local university and she looked at me dismissively and said (more or less) "If I'd known you were white, I'd never have gotten the book." Not everyone feels that way, but some, especially African Americans, resent white people telling them how to cook the foods that are part of their heritage. They want to write (and read) their own cookbooks, such as those by Jessica Harris. I can accept that, and understand it. That's why when I do presentations before large groups, if possible I try to be with a (black) African co-presenter.

On the other hand, I don't believe people today think Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was somehow inadequate because she wasn't French. I would never presume to call myself the Julia Child of Ghanaian cuisine, but there are a couple of parallels, particularly in her ability to make French cooking accessible to ordinary people in the U.S.

Since the 1970s I've been eating and learning in the kitchens of family, friends, and colleagues how to prepare Ghanaian food. As a sociologist, a writer, and a "foodie," I've also looked for the stories behind the food. Since marrying my Ghanaian husband in the 1970s I've spent decades looking at his culture from the inside out, and/or the outside in, at a different level than most foreigners will ever have the opportunity to do. I've lived and studied and worked in Ghana. Finally, as a doctoral student in rural sociology during the late 1980s and early 1990s doing ethnographic and survey research, my field work took me around Ghana talking to women and men about the food they eat and grow and purchase.

Did I mention I truly love Ghanaian cuisine? We cook and eat it in our home every week, so in that sense I know what I'm talking about (of course, we also eat Mexican, Brazilian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, Korean, Mediterranean, Eritrean, Moroccan, French, Chinese, regional American, etc. food, too!) Learning to cook Ghanaian dishes, to adjust them for Western palates and substituting for or locating unusual ingredients has taken me years. My first attempts at fufu, for example, were disastrous, as were my early efforts at fermenting cornmeal to make kenkey or banku dough. I remember with pride, though, the stunned look years ago on one Ghanaian university student's face when a group was over at our house chowing down from a huge pot of palmnut soup (along with fufu and omo tuo, or rice balls. He kept looking around, disbelieving that I was the cook. He couldn't even look at me. "But, but, but," he stammered, "she's white. How could she?" I'll always treasure that memory.

Though Ghanaian cooking is basically an oral tradition, I possess an unsurpassed collection of West African and Ghanaian cookbooks as part of the African Cookbook project. I have spent months shadowing master cooks at Flair Catering in Ghana and received a travel grant to travel throughout the country to study cooking in all 10 regions, including the unfamiliar northern regions of Ghana. That makes me able to fill in the many blanks in other's books and experiences, frequently written or explained by Ghanaians who do not quite understand how much North Americans don't know about their country and culture or that Ghanaians modify (unnecessarily) to please the imagined foreign palate. Other culinary writing by short-term Western visitors to Ghana frequently suffers from "stranger's eyes" who miss a lot and make lots of amusing (and incorrect) assumptions. I have finally recognized my place at the intersection of two worlds is a strength.

As I've said before, I got fed up (pun intended) hearing the negative and distorted nonsense people said about West African cooking, so started writing about it from my perspective (see link under features to the article "We eat first with our eyes: on Ghanaian cuisine." ) I also ended up doing a lot of cooking demonstrations for schools, 4-H, scouting and other community, church, etc., groups, including the African and nonAfrican community (faculty, staff, and students) at Penn State where my husband teaches and where I earned my doctorate.

After the 1993 book I insisted I'd never write another cookbook. It was a very time-consuming and detail-oriented project (undertaken while I was completing my doctoral dissertation and raising 3 children), I had to learn to be a food photographer, and the multiple recipe testings part was a hassle, too. Nevertheless, that book catapulted into the world of culinary professionals, and I joined a group Julia Child helped found, the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). My career has shifted dramatically since that time, and in 1997 I founded the African Culinary Network. In the mid-1990s I was approached several times about writing the sub-Saharan Africa volume for an upcoming Greenwood Press series on Food Culture Around the World, including several persuasive emails from series editor Ken Albala. The first few times I brushed the idea off because I was no expert on sub-Saharan African food: I only knew a bit about Ghanaian and Anglophone West African cooking.

Finally, I recognized that if I didn't write it, it might not get written at all, or else someone who didn't care as much as I did might do it and not get it right. I began immersing myself as much as possible into sub-Saharan African culture (travel, books, films, restaurants, internet research, interviewing people, etc.) Several years and trips to Africa later, by the time the book came out in 2005, I realized that I do in fact know more about African cuisines that most people in North America. Also that most people I know in Ghana and other parts of Africa do not have the luxury of studying and writing about their cuisines, and appreciate my efforts. I also realize that people outside of Africa (or in other parts of Africa) ARE interested, and curious, and that is another reason behind this blog.

Finally, I've been fortunate to live in different parts of the U.S., from Berkeley, CA to Cambridge, MA; from Golden, Colorado to central Pennsylvania; beyond the U.S., from Ghana to Japan to the U.K. to Brazil. Plus I've been able to travel extensively: Hawaii, Louisiana, Texas, Nigeria, China, South Africa, France, Tanzania. . . You get the idea. Mix all these experiences together and you understand that I have quite an international perspective. When that is blended with my specific set of personal experiences: my writing career, my community organizing and sociology backgrounds, raising my own 3 children and 2 adopted nephews from Ghana, my teaching and instructional design experiences, my love of good food, etc., they have created in me a passion (I use that overworked cliché warily, but it is at heart a wonderful word) to share what I know.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Great gari: Recipe #2: Simple Gari (Ghana's first fast food)

The response so far to my ambitious proposal of a couple of days ago, while thoroughly encouraging and supportive, is: "don't go crazy (and make us crazy) trying to bang out a recipe a day: focus on quality, not just quantity." That's good advice. I'll revise my plan to just 1 or 2 recipes a week.

Also, some people have written to ask if putting recipes online might not imperil a cookbook contract. I remember when I worked at Penn State as an instructional designer for their "World Campus," and there was a great emphasis on controlling the information available in online courses so that it didn't escape "out there" in the cyberworld. A year or so later our family spent a sabbatical at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the school announced they were making all of the information from their online courses free to anyone who wanted it. They were not marketing their knowledge, but their expertise. I guess I feel the same about my upcoming cookbook. Besides, all of the recipes won't be there, nor will those that are be in their final form, nor will the professional photos from Ghana be included, nor the supplemental information, and a lot of the stories.

At the end of May I'll be talking at a conference about cassava, a hugely important staple in many parts of Africa (and other tropical countries outside of Africa from Brazil, where it originated, and spread to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Indonesia and Asia). Particularly important in West Africa is the coarse cassava meal known as gari. Gari (aka gali or garri) is a processed form of cassava (or manioc, mandioca, yucca, yuca, singkong, ketela, or ubi kayu, depending on what part of the world you are from and what language you speak). When I was in Brazil in 2007, I explained that it was similar to the Brazilian farinha de mandioca. It is a popular convenience food in West Africa due to its low cost, easy storage, long shelf life, and ease of preparation, plus it is very filling.

Gari is made from cassava, a root crop we in North America really only know when processed into the starch tapioca, which we use to make puddings and thicken things. But there is much more to the cassava than that. It is a staff of life to many people in tropical places, and especially in West Africa. There's no room here to go into a detailed history (plus there are already a lot of places on the web you can get that info: just do a google search on cassava); the same is true of West African gari (just don't confuse it with Japanese pickled ginger: that's a totally different gari!)

The processing of the cassava root involves washing, peeling, grating, soaking, pressing, drying, and toasting. The net result is a kind of cassava "couscous," that can be served simply by adding lightly salted water. I always boil my water before I sprinkle or pour it on the gari, but that is just me. Gari is very filling. It swells up when water is added, and can be eaten as a side accompaniment to a stew.

Preparing gari this way is faster than rice, and easier than couscous. The picture above shows 1/4 cup of dry gari on the left, with 1/4 cup gari sprinkled (and then stirred and let sit until it swells) with 1/2 cup of boiling water. There's a wonderful tangy smell from the fermentation of the cassava that releases when the water hits the gari.

Serve with a stew or sauce. For example, put a little oil in a frying pan, slice some onion into it, saute until golden, open a can of Goya sardines (rich in omega oil!) in tomato sauce, add it to the pan, sprinkle in a little red pepper if you want (and/or some beaten egg, or spinach if you like), and you have a meal in less than 10 minutes, even if you have to cook the spinach in the microwave before adding it to the stew. I've served gari to many North Americans who had never tasted it, and it was a very accessible flavor: it's mild, and makes a good canvas for a variety of stews, or when cooked into a one-pot as in
gari foto. Incidentally, not all gari is the same texture: the Nigerians prefer a much coarser cassava meal than Ghanaians. However, you will have to find an African or International market to find it, or order it online since you will not be able to find this at your local supermarket. By the way, it's also very inexpensive.

There's a lot more to say about how to eat gari, but not today. (I just finished hosting a symposium luncheon for all the students in one of my husband's graduate courses, and as we were finishing up discovered a Ghanaian family is in town for their son's graduation, and I've invited them for dinner, so it's back into the kitchen. BTW, I made plantain chips to serve as an appetizer today to use up four plantains I had left over and they were a huge hit with students from: Nigeria, India, Japan, China, Ghana, Brazil, and Pennsylvania!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Recipe #1: Green Plantain Chips

I hope you read yesterday's post about my new challenge to myself. I calculate that if I put up a recipe (at least a draft) every day, taking Saturday and Sunday off, for the rest of the year, that will be 171 recipes. That should cover most of the book. I'll begin with a very popular item throughout Sub-Saharan Africa: green plantain chips. I make these frequently--twice in the last week: once with a cooking class on "The meaning of food" (see the photo on the right) and once for the local Chamber of Business and Industry "Spotlight" for members. Both times we had them with bissap, a hibiscus iced tea, but that recipe is for another day.

BTW, green plantain chips are a great way to impress your friends if you're from Pennsylvania where they're exotic (but not so if you're from, say, Florida), they're cheap and easy to make, and I never have any left over! Our local African Market owner says they're the one sure seller in her store, too. Freshly made chips have it over those packaged ones in the stores any day.

Start with big green plantains. Since they sell them by the "each" in our stores here, I always buy the biggest, greenest ones I can get, but that's not necessarily the most flavorful. Most people won't know the difference. If you plan to use a vegetable peeler to make them into strips, it's a good idea to try and find plantains that are fairly flat as opposed to really curved.

Here's the basic recipe:

1. 2 or 3 large plantains will make enough for several people for a snack

2. vegetable oil for deep frying (I usually use canola)

3. salt to taste


1. a sharp knife a sturdy vegetable peeler (I'm partial to my Farberware one) or mandolin or grater
2. a strainer basket or colander lined with paper towels for draining

3. a heavy deep pan for frying (I use a deep fryer or my large cast iron skillet)

4. cutting board (optional)

5. a long-handled slotted spoon

Rinse the plantain and peel it by slicing off each end, then make a long slit along the length without cutting into the plantain itself. Make a cut around the circumference of the center of the plantain peel, also avoiding the actual plantain. This allows you to remove the peeling in pieces.

Use the tip of the knife to pry the peeling loose to get started. Scrape off any fibrous strings on the plantain with the knife.

There are different ways to slice the plantain: some like to cut them into thin circles or ovals on a cutting board. I prefer to make elegant long slices using a potato peeler (or you could use a grater or mandolin). These are easy to make very thin and crisp.
Fill the pan or deep fryer not more than half full, then heat the oil to about 365 degrees Farenheit (185 degrees Centigrade). [If I'm using my stove top, the medium high setting will give me approximately the correct temperature, but I do have to turn it up and down to keep it from getting too hot. If you drop a piece of plantain into the oil and it sits on the bottom, the oil is too cold. If as soon as you drop it in it comes to the top and almost immediately begins to brown, the oil is too hot.]

You can either make a bunch of slices and then drop them one by one, or drop them in as you slice each one. I usually get about 1 1/2 dozen slices ready and then put them in. Don't add them all at once or they'll clump. I usually keep nudging them as I put them in to keep them from sticking to each other. Stir with a long-handled spoon to make sure they cook evenly. After a few minutes, remove the chips when they are golden and drain them on a lined colander. If the chips "bend" they're not fully cooked: they should be crispy, like potato chips.

Salt the chips while they are still warm. After they cool, store them in an airtight container.

Hints: I often just lie a plantain on a cutting board and run the peeler along it a few times, turn the plantain over and do the same thing, then turn the plantain a quarter turn to do it again (and finally rotate it one more time, then repeat as necessary. This keeps the slices nice and even and it works for me. If it's too complicated for you, do whatever is easiest. Also, if you don't want to fuss with long slices (or they won't fit in your fryer/pan), just cut the plantains in half and make shorter slices.

Variation: if you prefer spicy, sprinkle the chips with salt AND ground red pepper to taste.

Chips go well with any cold drink, from beer to iced tea.
Also, you can make these from plantains that are somewhat yellow, but not soft. They'll look a little darker, and be just a little sweeter. School children particularly love to help make plantain chips (just make sure an adult handles the deep fryer, and that young fingers do not go into the oil or splash it when adding the plantain slices). Oh, by the way, when you get as many plantain slices as you can before the plantain begins breaking apart, don't throw out those odd pieces: fry them up and enjoy them yourself them or hand them out to an observer! If you try this recipe or have any other tips, suggestions, etc., please let me know here (comment) email me (fran@betumi.com), or twitter me.

Here's a not-so-great plantain I have in the kitchen right now. At least it will give you the idea.