Monday, August 31, 2009

How cool is this: 2009 Ghana Obama cloth

The U.S. and Ghana have a long history of friendship, even though relations have sometimes been strained. Ghana's first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, got his bachelor's degree at Lincoln University in 1939. There's a nice 1958 picture of him placing flowers at the Lincoln Memorial. I remember the joy with which President and Mrs. Rawlings and Ghanaians embraced President Clinton and his wife when they visited Ghana in March 1998. In 2008, during a visit by President and Mrs. Bush, Ghana's President Kufuor decided to name a future 6-lane road the George Bush Motorway.

But never has there been as much excitement as President Barak Obama's election generated. When President Obama visited Ghana in July, 2009, that joy overflowed.
Ghanaians honored him, as they do great leaders, by designing a special commemorative cloth (red, white and blue!) printed with the words "akwaaba," meaning welcome, and with important cultural symbols: the adinkra symbol "Gye Nyame," which means "except for God," and gives honor to God, and also traditional stools, symbols of authority, with a little exuberant yellow brightening things up. Definitely a cool, made-in-Ghana original(Akosombo Textiles Ltd). I've already gotten a couple of yards for a tablecloth, but I may get some more to have an outfit sewn. Available online from AfricaLiving.

Now, does anyone know what Obama ate when he was in Ghana? And has he eaten any African food at the White House? The day in November after he was elected, I called his office in Chicago and asked if I could send my book A Good Soup Attracts Chairs: A First African Cookbook for American Kids to his wife Michelle and their 2 children. I was told it was fine as long as the value wasn't over something (I forget the exact amount). I wrote a letter, sent the book, and waited. A couple of months later it was returned to me unopened. I was very sorry. I really think Sasha and Malia would've enjoyed making peanut soup or meat pies or twisted cakes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Recipe #13: Small chop: corn and coconut snack

We've been enjoying wonderful sweet corn lately from our local CSA (community supported agriculture) group, Plowshare Produce. Yesterday I prepared a quick and simple, but popular snack (in Ghana known as "small chop"). While North American sweet corn is much softer and sweeter than Ghana's corn, and thus cooks much more quickly, sweet corn can easily be substituted to make what proves to be a delicate and complementary combination of flavors and crunchy and chewy textures, and a hearty snack.

First, prepare a fresh coconut. Actually, the ones usually seen in supermarkets here are the hard, dried ones with a hairy brown covering. The really fresh ones (not the ones we want today) are green on the outside. When shopping for coconuts, I always shake them first to find one that seems full of liquid. If you haven't recently opened a coconut, I recommend some newspapers spread out on the floor under the coconut, a good-sized glass, cup, or bowl, a hammer and an ice pick or sharp object like a screw driver or clean nail, a knife and/or a vegetable peeler.

Hold the ice pick, or screwdriver over one of the 3 "eyes" in one end of the coconut, and use the hammer to make a hole there. Repeat for the other 2 eyes and then invert the coconut over the cup or bowl and drain out the liquid, shaking it if necessary to get all the coconut water out. If the coconut is fresh, this liquid will be very refreshing, and can be drunk by itself, poured into tropical fruit salads, etc.

Next, take the hammer and start whacking the coconut (make sure no one is standing nearby, and be careful of flying bits of coconut shells) until it breaks apart into pieces. Carefully use the knife to pry the coconut away from the hard brown shell. Then use the knife/vegetable peeler to peel off the thin brown coating on the back of the coconut, leaving only the white pieces. Once you can get past the idea that coconut has to be flaked and coated with sugar, this is a delightful combination. Rinse the coconut and cut it into slices or cubes.

To prepare the corn, boil the corn cobs in salted water, grill them over an open fire, or cook them in the microwave. Serve pieces of corn and coconut together. This is a great snack on a hot summer afternoon or evening, especially when accompanied by an ice-cold beverage of your choice, like ginger beer, bissap, puha, or beer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Recipe #12: Kenkey (Ghana's challenge to polenta)

I've posted before about the steamed fermented corn dough ball in Ghana commonly called kenkey (aka dokono, dokon, kokui, tim or komi). Here are the directions for making it from basically the same corn dough used to make banku. Banku is very soft, whereas kenkey is steamed (or sometimes, boiled) to make a much firmer ball that can be sliced or served whole.

As with the
banku, take white stone ground cornmeal (as finely ground as you can find, but not the degerminated type, nor masa harina), and make a soured dough by adding warm water as described below. As with Ethiopian injera batter, the longer you let the dough sit, the more sour it will be. I let mine sit for about 3 days here in central Pennsylvania, which has a cooler climate than Ghana's.

Mix together 3 cups of cornmeal/flour this time (plus add a tablespoon of corn starch if you wish to make it a little smoother), and about 2 1/2 cups of warm water (use a little more if the dough seems very dry) in a nonreactive glass or ceramic container. Keep it in a warm place, loosely covered and stir well every day, removing any mold that forms on top or on the sides (but don't worry about
aflatoxins--name brands of corn flour will have been properly processed). Some people say that if you don't want to wait for the dough to sour, you can just add a teaspoon or so of vinegar to the unfermented dough and use it immediately, but I feel like that's cheating, and I don't do it.

I prefer Ga-style kenkey because I first lived in Nungua along the coast of Ghana, so that is the kind I make (I'll post on other versions, such as the the Fanti style, which has no salt, is steamed in plantain leaves and formed into a different shape, another time).

Making kenkey involves several steps:

Traditionally Ga kenkey is wrapped in dried corn husks, which are available where Latin ingredients are sold. Ghanaians abroad often substitute aluminum foil (and also use plastic wrap now, too) but in my opinion, though convenient, this is a mistake unless you have no other option. The foil does not allow the balls to steam in properly, and also you lose the wonderful delicate flavor of the corn husks.
Plus I worry about the transfer of unwanted materials from the foil or plastic into the dough itself.

Before preparing the dough for steaming, put corn husks in a bowl of warm water to soften for about half an hour or until they are pliable, pushing them under the water to make sure they are covered. You'll probably need 2-4 husks for each ball of kenkey. The 3 cups of corn flour used to make the dough should form 3 or 4 good-sized balls. To prepare the kenkey, first prepare what is known as the "aflata," in which part of the fermented dough is cooked with water, then added to the uncooked part of the dough before being formed into balls and steamed or boiled.

To make the
aflata, first mix 2 cups of water in a 3-quart saucepan with a teaspoon of salt (or less) and half of the dough, then cook the mixture over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly with a heavy wooden spoon or paddle, being careful not to scorch or burn it. The dough will thicken in about 5 minutes, and by 10 minutes will be quite thick. If it gets too thick and hard to stir, you can add a little water around the outside of the pan to warm, and then stir it in to the dough.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the uncooked portion of the corn dough, mixing them together well.
To make the balls, Ghanaians would just hold the dough (about 1/3 or 1/4 of it) in one hand and expertly shape it into a ball by repeatedly tossing it up a little and turning it. For Americans like me, it's easier and safer to wet one's hands and use both of them to shape the ball, then place it on top of a good-sized corn husk, which should be softened by now (take one with no tears or holes in it) with the "fat" end facing the bottom.

Still holding the ball of kenkey and corn husk in one hand, place another corn husk over the uncovered part of the kenkey ball, making sure that it overlaps at least 1/4 " over the previous husk. Repeat the process if necessary until the ball is covered. Twist the narrow ends (at the top) of the corn husks together tightly and poke a hole in the topside
of the dough by pushing the corn husks apart at a place where they overlap), and push the twisted end into the ball of kenkey and cover it with the soft dough, then slide the corn husks back to the overlapped position. Do the same thing for the other end (this is trickier because the husks are thicker). My original 3 cups of cornmeal made 3 balls of kenkey. In Pennsylvania I simply put a steamer insert into a stainless steel pot with water and place the balls on top and steam them for about an hour, adding a little water as necessary.

In Ghana I was actually taught to put corn husks in the bottom of the pot and fill it with water, then boil the balls for a couple of hours, but I find steaming works fine for me.
When removing the balls from the pot (it usually takes mine a good hour), be sure to let them cool slightly before unwrapping them, so as not to burn yourself. They are best warm, but can be stored in the refrigerator or frozen and thawed. Classic accompaniments for kenkey include seasoned fried fish ( "kenan" or "kyenam," a recipe for another day), a fresh hot pepper sauce (also for another day) or the classic "shito" (coming up later, too). Kenkey and a stew or fried fish and pepper sauce is a great meal to eat with your hands, but kenkey is also often served sliced as a side starch.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recipe #11: Meat Stew with Browned Flour

This is an easy, tasty stew that uses familiar ingredients in familiar ways, but with a different twist. While wheat flour is an imported ingredient, it has found its way into many classic Ghanaian dishes, such as this stew my sister-in-law taught me years ago. The secret is that you begin by browning the dry flour in a heavy pan (I use the same cast iron frying pan I got with S&H green stamps when I was first married. You'll see it regularly in the photos I'm posting at the blog).

Begin with a clean, dry, heavy frying pan and heat it to medium, then add a couple of tablespoons of white wheat flour into the pan. Stir or gently shake the pan until the white flour turns brown. (I've never tried this with whole wheat flour, but it would probably be fine that way, too). It will probably take 10 to 15 minutes, but watch it carefully to keep from burning it. When the flour is brown, empty it into a small bowl so it doesn't keep cooking, and set it aside. Take the pan off the heat, too.

Slice a pound of meat such as chuck roast or top round into medium strips--not as thin as you normally would for a stir fry, but not as thick as you would for regular beef stew. Peel and chop or slice a medium-sized onion and peel a couple of cloves of garlic to mince or press in a garlic press. Seed and mince a couple of peppers (I used jalapenos for this, but depending on your taste for chili peppers, you could use a Scotch bonnet or habanero, or a milder pepper). If you are not used to cutting fresh hot peppers, remember that the oils can get on your hands and be careful especially not to touch your eyes. Many people advise using rubber gloves when cutting hot peppers, but I've never seen such a thing in Ghana, and cannot imagine doing so myself, though I've been known to hold peppers with a fork when mincing them. Another strategy is to remove the stem and throw peppers into the stew whole, eventually squeezing the hot juice from them into the stew, but removing the actual pepper to give to those who like them.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil (I used peanut oil this time) in the frying pan over a medium heat, the throw in a little of the chopped onion for a minute or two, then the meat, raising the heat a little so that it browns on all sides. Add a little more oil if necessary to keep everything from sticking. Add the rest of the chopped onion and the garlic and chopped pepper and stir well, then add a little dried red pepper to taste (begin with 1/8 teaspoon if you're not in favor of very spicy food), an 8-ounce can of tomato sauce, a teaspoon of salt or to taste, and a cup of water. Stir well. Sprinkle the browned flour over the stew and stir again. Lower the heat to simmer, cover the pan and cook the stew until the meat is tender, maybe 20-30 minutes.

Because I'd just received a bunch of fresh kale from our CSA farmers that day, and because I'm a big fan of one-pot meals, I washed and chopped it, and added it when I added the meat, so that they all cooked together. Check and adjust the seasonings (salt and red pepper) before serving.

By the way, I had no shito (Ghana's hot pepper condiment, also known as black pepper) handy, so I just grabbed a bottle of chili sauce from the refrigerator, and let everyone add his or her own at the table. We ate this stew with basmati rice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tubaane (steamed bean pudding), continued

I spent the morning re-making tubaane. It was better, but I'm still struggling with the batter: the moin moin recipe on the package says to use 1/2 cup of the powder to 1 1/2 cups of warm water, and let it sit for an hour. I tried that and it was a watery mess that could never be spooned onto a leaf, so I added more bean flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until I eventually ended up using 1 1/4 cups of flour to 1 1/2 cups of water. That seems like a lot, but anything less and the batter was too thin.

Next I used an electric mixer to beat it for 5 minutes (rather than by hand as we did in Tamale), added 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda (to replace the
kanwa we used in Ghana), and beat it for another 5 minutes, then spooned it into plantain leaves (and tried a few with parchment paper, but those crumpled up badly, whereas the plantain leaves made a smoother package).

Please note that the pictures of the tubaane above were taken in Ghana, whereas the leaves and batter I used in Pennsylvania today are in the other pictures. To form the packets, make a slight "cup" in your palm and, holding the leaf with the underside up, spoon a spoonful into it, then fold one side over, then the other, then the two ends, one at a time, as in the photos. Put a steamer insert into a large pot with a little water in it and add the packets, then steam them for about an hour. I probably could have taken them out sooner, since they were a little harder than I'd have liked. After unwrapping them, cut them in half on the diagonal (as I was taught in Ghana) and put them into a bowl.

In Ghana they were served
with some sliced onion sauteed in a little vegetable oil and added to the bowl (but I was told NOT to use palm oil), along with some salt and dried red pepper mixed together and sprinkled over it. It made a nice snack (or "small chop" as they say in Ghana).

The plantain leaves enhanced the delicate flavor of the beans, and the red pepper gave it a nice kick (if you're not fond of spicy food, mix in some paprika to cut the heat).

At the same time that I was working on the
tubaane, I was making some kenkey with some more corn dough I mixed up a few days ago. The next recipe will be Ga-style kenkey.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Recipe #10: Tubaane (Steamed cowpea paste cakes)

In March, 2007, I interviewed and shadowed Mrs. Sodeinde to learn how to make the famous Nigerian seasoned steamed cowpea paste cakes known as moin-moin (moyin-moyin, moi-moi), of which there are varieties ranging from simple to complex. Ghana has a cowpea paste cake steamed in banana leaves and known as tubaane (which I understand is called ekuru in Yoruba).

Cowpea paste is a basic building block of a number of West African recipes, including akara (kose, koose, akla). It is commonly made from dehulled dried black-eyed peas. The traditional way of preparing the black-eyed peas is to soak the beans briefly (experts recommend only for about 10 minutes so that the peas do not absorb excessive amounts of water), and use your hands and/or a food processor to remove the skins. The moin-moin posting above shows some video clips demonstrating how to do this. However, this time-consuming process is now simplified by 2 versions of convenience foods: both dried beans (peas) with the skins already removed, and a prepared powder that only needs to be reconstituted in water.

A couple of days ago I made some tubaane using the powder, but had problems determining the correct amount of water to add and also neglected to beat air into the paste the way they do in Ghana. My tubaane was too heavy and dry.

I'll try again tomorrow, using a mixer for 5 or 10 minutes to whip the paste before I wrap and steam it. In Ghana we wrapped the dough in plantain leaves, so I bought some frozen ones from an international market, and will see if I can use them. Otherwise, I'll opt for parchment paper. Hope you'll stop back to see how it works out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recipe #9: Okra/Eggplant/Fish Stew

Banku is often eaten with a stew made from okra and/or garden eggs (a kind of eggplant, which is what is often substituted in the U.S.), and smoked and fresh fish. I especially love smoked mackerel, but my husband was recently placed on a low-sodium (salt) diet, so we had to omit that and go with fresh salmon instead. I confess I missed the lovely flavor smoked fish adds. We tried to compensate for that by serving it with a little bottled chili sauce since I did not have any "black pepper" (shito) on hand.

The ingredients I used included: a medium eggplant (to get several cups, peeled and chopped), a large really fresh tomato (or 2), or substitute canned if you must, a large onion, chopped, a jalapeno pepper (or a hotter variety, more, etc., to taste), about 1 1/2 dozen fresh okra, (or frozen), 4 salmon fillets, 2 large garlic cloves, a couple of tablespoons of red palm oil (or other vegetable oil), a little fresh, peeled ginger (to taste, try starting with an inch or so), and some salt.

Salmon would not be a traditional fish (whereas tilapia, tuna, or red snapper would), but I've often had salmon served in West African restaurants in the U.S., and it works fine, especially the wild type, which are meatier.

First wash and prepare the eggplant. Peel it and chop it into cubes, then put it in a saucepan and
cover the eggplant with water. Cover the pan, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer it while you prepare the okra. If using fresh okra, rinse it, then trim both ends. According to your preference, you can 1) simply slice the okra into rounds, 2) chop it finely, 3) remove the seeds and slice it horizontally, 4) leave it whole. I generally chop it finely, unless I'm in a hurry, when I just slice it. When using frozen okra, I often leave it whole so it doesn't completely lose its body.

The stew can also be made with only one of the vegetables--either the okra, or the eggplant, but we like them combined, as they often are in Ghana.
When the eggplant is soft, remove it with a slotted spoon and puree it in a blender or food processor. Set it aside.

Similarly, peel and coarsely chop the ginger and garlic and tomato and puree them with a little water in the same blender container. No need to rinse it first.

Peel and chop or slice the onion. In a large, heavy pot or pan heat a couple of tablespoons of oil (I used a seasoned red palm oil from Ghana called "
zomi") and fry the chopped onion on a medium heat for a few minutes, then add the pureed pepper and tomato and garlic and ginger (if you're a perfectionist like me, you can strain out the seeds, or seed the peppers and/or tomatoes before putting them in the blender). Add the eggplant and fish, turning the fillets to coat them with the spices and vegetables, then add the okra and salt (to taste) and stir. If it's not spicy enough, add a little dried red chili pepper. Add a little water if the sauce seems too thick, cover it and lower the heat and simmer until the fish and okra are cooked. This stew also goes well with plain rice, and should serve 4 people. If you want more tomato flavor, add a spoonful of tomato paste.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Recipe #7, continued (banku)

We ate our banku with a stew. Today I'll mention the steps to finish the banku, and tomorrow #9 will be an okra/eggplant/fish stew that pairs well with it.

Basically, when using the fermented Indian Head cornmeal dough, just bring a couple of cups of water to a boil in a saucepan (about a 3-quart saucepan, with a handle), add a teaspoon of salt, and gradually stir in the fermented dough. If you stirred the dough every day it should not have mold on it, but if there is any, scrap it off before adding the dough to the boiling water. Incidentally, the more days you let the dough ferment, the more sour it will be. If it's your first time, probably 2 days will be long enough.

Lower the heat and stir constantly to keep it from forming lumps. Stir the banku for about 15 minutes using a strong wooden spoon or paddle (something flimsy will likely break), scraping the bottom of the pan and turning the dough as it cooks. If necessary, add a little water to keep it from scorching, and/or turn down the heat. Once the banku is cooked, remove it from the heat and let it sit a few minutes. When it is cool enough to handle, wet your hands and shape the banku into one large or several small loaves (I generally make individual servings). Banku is usually eaten warm or lukewarm.

Has anyone tried making banku in the microwave? Please let me know if you have, and how it worked out. The same basic procedure is used when making banku from already-prepared frozen dough, after defrosting it. If using the powder, one must of course add more water (I would add some water to make the dough, then bring more water to a boil and continue as with the Indian Head fermented dough).

Gosh, just remembering this is making me hungry again.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Recipe #8: Bissap, Hibiscus Iced Tea

It's summertime, the season of requests for bissap or bissap rouge. This is a refreshing iced tea popular in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. It is made from dried hibiscus flowers. I pictured a mango-bissap version in a blog last year. It is easy to make and the smooth, sweet-tangy combination tends to draw rave reviews. While I'm waiting for my cornmeal dough to ferment to make the banku (recipe #7), here's recipe #8. As I've said elsewhere, the dried hibiscus flowers pair well with other flavorings, from pineapple to mango juices. This recipe is the one I first learned in Ghana, and still make most often, but feel free to experiment with other flavorings.

I can usually find dried hibiscus flowers in international stores that stock Mediterranean goods, or African stores carrying North African (especially Egyptian) foods or West African ingredients. Since a Christmas version is popular in Jamaica, perhaps a Caribbean market would also be a good place to look. Lots of herbal teas contain dried hibiscus flowers, so a health foods store or tea shop might be another place to locate them.

Fresh lemon grass is available in Asian markets where it's inexpensive, or your local grocery store where it may be less fresh and/or pricey. Also, I always use real, not imitation, vanilla flavoring.

2 cups dried hibiscus flowers (
bissap or roselle)
1/4 cup fresh lemon grass, chopped (optional)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla or rum flavoring (or to taste)
sugar to taste (probably 1 to 2 cups; or sugar substitute)
5 cups of boiling water
1 cup of juice (optional, I'm using pineapple today)
You can mix and match flavorings according to your taste: e.g., 1/2 cup lemon juice, OR a cup of mango OR pineapple OR orange juice, OR mint sprigs OR a little fresh grated ginger. I have some pineapple juice handy, so I'm going with lemon grass, vanilla, and pineapple juice.

Bring the water to a boil. While it's heating, I generally put the 2 cups of hibiscus flowers in a metal strainer in the sink and rinse them lightly with water to remove any sand or grit they might contain (the dried flowers bleed immediately, so make sure you keep the strainer in the sink). Then I pull off the outside leaves of the lemon grass, rinse and chop it.

Put the rinsed flowers and the lemon grass into a large stainless steel or ceramic bowl, and pour the boiling water over all. I cover the bowl with a cheese cloth to protect it and let it sit for at least 4 hours.
Then bring another 5 cups of water (*see note below on reducing this amount of water and adding sparkling water when serving) to a boil. Place a strainer over a second large bowl and empty the liquid from the hibiscus/lemongrass mixture into it. Return the hibiscus/lemon grass to the original bowl and pour the just-boiled water over them. Stir the mixture well, and let it sit a few minutes, and pour it through the strainer again to add to the previously strained liquid, pushing down on the strainer with a spoon to remove as much of the water as possible (Actually, I use the cheesecloth I covered the bowl with to line the strainer before adding the hibiscus and lemon grass mixture the second time, and after pouring the boiling water through, twist it tightly to remove as much liquid as possible. In Ghana we don't waste a drop.) Discard the hibiscus flowers and lemon grass.

Now stir in the sugar to taste and your desired flavorings. Today, that's vanilla and pineapple. After all of the sugar has dissolved, carefully pour off the liquid into a pitcher or jar, making sure to leave any sediment behind in the bowl. Store the bissap, covered, in the refrigerator and chill. When serving, pour into a glass and add ice and/or water as desired. If you use a cheesecloth to line the strainer the second time you pour the water through the flowers, make sure to soak and rinse it well in cold water right away to keep from staining it.

*Sometimes I use less boiling water the second time (only 2 or 3 cups), and add chilled sparkling water when serving the bissap. Enjoy! But be forewarned: bissap is addictive.
Garnish: use fresh mint leaves, fruit slices, or a sugar cane swizzle stick.

Tomorrow: the corn dough is fermented now, so I'll finish the banku recipe.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Recipe #7: Banku, 4 choices

Yesterday I mentioned I'd begun fermenting some cornmeal to make the dough for the Ghanaian dish known as banku. The same dough can be used to make a firmer, steamed ball called kenkey (see the March 28, 2007 posting). It takes a few days to get to the right level of sourness, so it'll be a couple more days before I actually make the banku, and perhaps an eggplant or okra stew to serve with it. The way many Ghanaians make banku, and I did for many years, is to put 2 cups of white Indian Head cornmeal (or other similar stone ground cornmeal, but do not use masa harina) into a nonreactive container, like glass or ceramic) with 2 teaspoons of corn starch. Mix them together well (I use a wire whisk), then add 2 cups of lukewarm water. Mix thoroughly, cover lightly and leave to sit in a warm place (counter, stove top or oven) for several days, stirring once a day. The dough should begin to bubble up as it ferments.

The Indian Head cornmeal version requires no imported ingredients. If you're unable to find white cornmeal (the preferred one in most of sub-Saharan Africa, for reasons described well in James McCann's excellent 2005 Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter With a New World Crop, 1500-2000), go ahead and use any stone ground yellow cornmeal/corn flour.

While we're waiting for the dough to ferment, let me discuss other options for making banku. If you look online or live near a large city that caters to African immigrants, you will likely find several possibilities. The first drawback of the dough described above is that banku is generally made not only from corn, but also cassava (aka, manioc, yucca). Also, the traditional process for producing the corn dough includes first soaking the whole corn overnight, then grinding it. Usually people just take the corn to a local mill that grinds it for them. The result is that the flavor is different (this flavor different has to something to do with the starch/sugar relationship, I was told) and also the corn is ground much more finely than the Indian Head or other stone ground cornmeal available in the U.S. Finally, Ghanaian food scientist Professor Sefa-Dedeh once explained to me that the actual bacteria that grow during the fermentation process are specific to Ghana, and will also produce a different flavor to the dough. He advised me to dry some corn dough in Ghana and use it to make banku in the U.S.

Fortunately, many shops now import frozen dough or dried powders directly from Ghana. There are several versions. The first is a dried, powdered form to which you just add water. Many people like this, but to me it has an aftertaste. I prefer the frozen dough that includes, as does the
powdered version, both the cassava and corn doughs. Nina International produces both versions. Finally, there is also the option of having a corn only version of the frozen dough, which has the advantages of being closer to the original banku texture, but without the cassava. It can also be used for other Ghanaian dishes, such as a popular porridge called koko.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Question #9: Doesn't African cooking require specialized ingredients and equipment?

Preface to this blog posting: I saw the movie "Julie and Julia" last week, and it encouraged me to continue posting the recipes for the Ghanaian cookbook Barbara Baeta and I have worked on the past few years with basically no encouragement from publishers. Wouldn't it be wonderful to do for West African food what she did for French food? Of course, everyone already knew that French food was amazing, but for many people West African food has negative stereotypes and/or just seems inaccessible. Do try cooking some of the recipes I'll be posting, and see if you don't also fall in love with the dishes of Ghana.

Now to tackle question #9 about the necessity of having specialized equipment and ingredients to master African cooking.

I've lived in England, Japan, and Brazil and had cooking lessons in each place. I've also learned Indian cooking from colleagues from India, Italian cooking from Italian colleagues, Chinese cooking from Chinese colleagues. It's usually possible to re-create dishes from other cultures even without all the specialized equipment and ingredients that are native to those places.

The same is true of African cooking, whether I've been taking lessons on Moroccan cooking in Morocco, Ghanaian cooking in Ghana, or South African cooking in Cape Town . . . Of course, one cannot always get the exact ingredients and cooking equipment one might like outside of those countries, but one can generally substitute and adapt.

Plus, when things like
sushi or kimchi or pad Thai make their way into our lives, we discover seaweed or bamboo mats or pickled ginger or special spices or lemongrass are actually not all that hard to locate in our cities. With the rising popularity of Latin foods and cooking in North America, along with Asian cuisines, fruits and vegetables and starches that were once unfamiliar are making their way into mainstream grocery stores: all kinds of chili peppers, ginger, tamarind, fresh and dried coconuts, mangos, papayas, yucca (cassava), cocoyams (taro), African yams, plantains--the list is practically endless. Many of these ingredients are integral to the cuisines of tropical and sub-tropical countries of Africa. Their increasing availability provides opportunities to explore a whole new world of flavors and textures. It's a very exciting development to me after many years where such foods were inaccessible or prohibitively expensive.

I further rejoice to watch Americans discover and embrace specifically African ingredients like South African rooibos (redbush) or honeybush teas.

As more African immigrants/students/professionals abroad demand the ingredients from their homelands,
the market provides those things, from fresh vegetables and root crops to moinmoin powder, teff, fufu flour, smoked shrimp, dende (red palm) oil, fermented corn and cassava doughs, etc. "Ethiopian" teff is now grown in the U.S. (BTW, I'm trying to find a way to import some wonderful kpakpo shito peppers from Ghana, and have 3 organic farmers ready to grow them here! If anyone knows of any sources, please contact me at

Having said that, there are also many dishes that can be made using familiar North American ingredients, like stews using beef, onions, tomatoes, and oil, but combined with spices and eggplant or spinach or okra or mushrooms. There are curry and rice dishes, corn dishes, and bean stews, but with interesting twists like using canned sardines or corned beef or smoked fish or pureed nuts and seeds. Of course there are numerous chicken and fish dishes, too.

So, the short answer to Question #9 above is: No, African cooking does not require excessive use of unavailable ingredients and cooking utensils!

On the other hand, for purists, rest assured that if you wish to become a master chef of any African cuisine, you can move beyond the simple to the more complex--just like any of us can make tacos or fajitas or enchiladas or burritos, but someone like Rick Bayless takes Mexican food to a whole new level. For example, last week my
electric mitad arrived from Bethany Housewares. A mitad is a round griddle and lid that can be used to make injera, even though it was originally designed as a lefse maker for that Scandinavian flatbread. Incidentally, it can also be special ordered, without the lid, from Target. The previous week I was in Portland Oregon visiting family and stopped by some Ethiopian stores to buy some specialized ingredients: Ethiopian cardamon, green coffee beans, shiro powder, berbere, niter kibbeh (clarified, spiced butter), tea, alecha seasoning, and a woven mat that is used to remove the injera from the mitad. In other posts I've already praised my asanka (ridged grinding bowl from Ghana), and, yes, I have a tagine from Morocco. . . Do I absolutely need the special grill and spices to make my Ethiopian injera and stews? No. Certainly not. I made some fine flatbreads on a nonstick skillet on my stove, and I made a "make-do" version of the clarified butter myself, and even a "fake" berbere. I can also get many of the ingredients I need, from teff to millet flour to garbanzo beans and Ethiopian coffee, locally here in central Pennsylvania. And blenders and food processors do much of the work of African mortars and pestles.

However, I'm a perfectionist (I also have specialized ingredients and equipment for make other things like Japanese or Chinese foods). Since I do cooking classes, I can convince myself to spend a little extra money to purchase the spices and cooking equipment.
It's also always fun to serve meals with "authentic" serving dishes/mats/tablecloths, etc.

In summary, African cooking is quite forgiving and adaptable for novices, but there are also many layers one can explore to master more complex flavors. In other words, there's something for everyone.

As an example, today I've mixed up some corn flour/meal to ferment so that I can post the recipes for banku and Ga kenkey, two Ghanaian favorites. I have 4 options to choose from, using both local white Indian Head cornmeal and imported flours and doughs from Ghana. Check back tomorrow to learn more.

Question #8: Why so few African restaurants?

At a local community business event in central Pennsylvania recently I asked fellow business owners whether or not they'd eaten any African food. I got no positive responses. Zero. That included not having tasted the most popular and visible sub-Saharan African cuisine, Ethiopian. None of the people I spoke to had ever heard of injera (see my last few postings). I shared that information with Ethiopianist Harry Kloman in June, and he responded "There are about 250 Ethio/Eritrean restaurants in the U.S. There are more than 1,000 Chinese restaurants in New York City alone. Simple math!" (It's hard for me to believe the number can be that low for Ethiopian restaurants. Does anyone else have any information?)

People often ask me why there are so few African restaurants. An obvious reason is that they are non Euro-American cuisines, and not places where many North Americans have visited/done business/been stationed during a war/have family members, etc. The tourism industries that exist tend to favor safaris (Kenya or Tanzania) or wineries (South Africa), not culinary and cultural heritage. Thus there has been little exposure to and consequently, little hankering for, the foods of these places. The only exception might be small numbers of diplomatic, academic, religious or Peace Corps people.

Several West African restaurant owners have told me they had to include "Caribbean" in their restaurant names in order to attract customers (e.g., "Caribbean and West African Restaurant," or "Afro-Carib foods"). I've also been told that they need to include bar service and music groups to attract customers. Perhaps "Afro Pop" and "World Music" have an appeal that is better recognized than cuisine.

Another possibility is that there just have not been that many African immigrants into the U.S. Looking at recent
immigration figures and trends shows that in 1967 there were reported to be about 35,355 African immigrants in the U.S., but by 2007 that figure had jumped to 1.4 million, most arriving after 1990. The countries with the highest number of immigrants in the U.S. are Nigeria (13.1 percent, or 185,787), Egypt (9.6 percent, or 136,648), Ethiopia (9.5 percent, or 134,547), Ghana (7.4 percent, or 104,842), and Kenya (5.7 percent, or 80,595). The 2007 figures further show half of all African immigrants residing in 7 states, in the following order: New York (10.7%), California (10.2%) , Texas (8.4%), Maryland (7.9%), Virginia (5.6%), New Jersey (5.2%), and Massachusetts (4.9%). I'm hopeful that the rapidly growing number of immigrants may create a larger market for African restaurants.

However, I also realize that in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa there is not a tradition of restaurant-going equivalent to that
I've seen in Japan or Europe or Brazil. West African immigrants here say to me "Why would I go to a restaurant when I can make my own food, better, at home?" For weddings they may well hire an African caterer to provide quantity cooking, but they're not likely to go to a Nigerian or Ivorian or Ghanaian or Senegalese restaurant for a meal out.

Over half of the immigrants are from West Africa. So why are Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants the most popular of sub-Saharan African restaurants? Perhaps it has to do with war and immigration. Perhaps because Ethiopians are seen as somehow less "black" than other sub-Saharan Africans, and hence more acceptable.

Some people claim that West African food is less accessible to Western palates than other "exotic" cuisines. That is nonsense. (I've already stated my opinion of such things as the claim that Africans prefer "rubber tire" toughness to their protein sources (see my April 22, 2009 posting). Perhaps a goodly part of the blame falls to mistaken racist ideas that are linked to negative media images of Africa, and, by implication, the belief that African food is primitive, boring, "poor" in all senses: nutritionally, level of sophistication, variety, quality, etc. On the other hand, some of the family-style African restaurants (such as those favored by African taxi drivers) do pay scant attention to the presentation of the food and the surroundings in which it is served, and instead emphasize huge serving sizes. That seems to be changing as there are increasingly more places like Teranga, featured in my last blog, with increased emphasis on creativity, ambiance, and quality over quantity.

That is surely going to accelerate as more and more African restaurants emerge, especially in large cities. Oh, another thing I've learned about African restaurants--they're often undercapitalized, and it's hard for potential entrepreneurs to get loans and other community support.

I look forward to the day that we organize a voice for African restaurants, markets, farmers, processors, etc.--a professional African culinary association, to promote industry visibility and provide a public face that showcases Africa's fascinating culinary richness and diversity.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Teranga, new Senegalese cuisine in Boston

On my birthday on May 30th we had an African pot-luck feast at our house, but a week later (just before I left for Jamaica) when I was in Cambridge, my great family surprised me by showering me with gifts, time and attention. One highlight was a trip to the newly opened Teranga, the first (or, as one reviewer said, the "first serious") Senegalese restaurant in Boston (1746 Washington St., at the corner of Mass Ave. and Washington St.) For details about the menu, more pictures, and warm endorsements of the restaurant, check out the July 29, 2009 reviews in The Boston Phoenix or The Boston Globe. Let me simply say we had a delightful evening, fun and tasty, and I learned about the Vietnamese links to Senegalese cuisine (e.g., spring rolls called nems).

I wish the vivacious, talented owner Marie-Claude Mendy all the best. One thing I appreciated about the restaurant was its contemporary feel and the tasteful emphasis on presentation and overall ambiance, all too often lacking in "chop bar" type restaurants. We were there just after it opened in May, and they were still gearing up (not all their equipment and serving dishes had arrived on time), but the atmosphere was cozy and friendly, and as the evening wore on the noise level rose accordingly. This was clearly the place to be the night we were there.

I have since learned that, just as a lot of Ethiopian restaurants have names like "Awash" or "Red Sea" or "Blue Nile," teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality, is a favorite for Senegalese restaurants. The reason is clear: Marie-Claude is not just serving up good food--she's also providing an inviting window into a culture that is little known in the U.S. Stop by if you have an urge for a flavorable glass of bissap (hibiscus drink) or bouyé juice (a creamy white baobab drink), or some other Senegalese standards, like mafe, thiebou djeun, or accra.