Friday, January 29, 2010

Recipe #38: Cocoyam (taro, mankani) chips

While we were in Brazil in 2007, one night I  made cocoyam chips  for some colleagues who were over for dinner,  and they couldn't stop raving about them. When my husband and I were (literally) poor graduate students and married in Ghana in 1972, we cooked and served these at our wedding reception, and they were cheap, but elegant.

They're a little harder to make than plantain strips because the cocoyams (aka taro, mankani) are more slippery and harder to hold to grate or slice, but it's well worth the effort.

Cocoyam chips are similar to potato chips, but the cocoyams are harder so the chips are crisper and have a different flavor, though also mild. As with plantains, the thinner you manage to cut the chips, the tastier they are. I used a vegetable peeler to peel them, and used several methods to make the chips: a box vegetable grater, a vegetable peeler, and a knife. How I wish I had a mandolin! 

Follow the same procedure for frying and draining and salting them as for green plantain chips. Delicious!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nagaimo (Japanese mountain yam) and Okra, Cinderella of vegetables

Recently, when buying taro (cocoyams, mankani) at an Asian market, I was excited to see what looked like a long, thin-skinned, gorgeous yam, and immediately snatched some up along with the cocoyams and ginger root (much fresher and cheaper than what I can find in regular grocery stores). At the checkout counter, I was stunned to find that small yam cost about $11! When I asked the clerk what it was, she had to look it up, and told me it's very healthy, Japanese people use it, and the name is nagaimo. I did a little research and discovered that it is from the Dioscorea family (like African yams) and is known as Dioscorea opposita or D. batatas, (or: nagaimo, yamaimo (Japan), Japanese mountain yam, ma (Korea), Korean yam, glutinous yam, cinnamon vine, Chinese yam, shan yao, huai shan, or huai shan yao (China).

It is a type of yam that may be eaten raw, and it has a delicate texture and flavor. It was a treat, though slimier to peel than African yams, and worked when boiled and eaten with a stew. The price makes it a luxury I probably won't use unless absolutely necessary (or when I'm cooking Japanese food, in which case it is often grated and eaten raw and soaked or included in things like pancakes or noodles.)

Okra waiting to take its rightful place

I did not grow up eating okra. It wasn't until I lived in Ghana that I fell in love with it. In the U.S., unlike other parts of the world,  it is considered one of the least favorite vegetables, partly because of its "mucilaginous" properties (i.e., "it's slimy").  Lost Crops of Africa, vol. II on vegetables, declared okra to be a "Cinderella. . . still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn." (p. 287). The book lauds okra for its mind-boggling health benefits and nutrients (e.g., seeds providing excellent vegetable protein and oil with qualities similar to olive oil, rich in tryptophan and sulfer-containing amino acids, okra pods helping to lower serum cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar in diabetics (high soluble fiber), filled with vitamins and minerals. . . It is an important food crop in West Africa. There are different types of okra. In Ghana there is the familiar long slender pod, and a shorteder, fatter pod. In the North of Ghana, the pods are dried for use in soups and stews. I'll soon post a recipe for a soup using dried okra and tomatoes.

When I happened upon some lovely fresh okra in the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, I promptly brought some home, cooked part, and rinsed, then dried the rest on a cookie sheet in a very slow oven (less than 200 degrees, or a little higher than the "warm" setting) for several hours.
BTW, fresh crisp okra are to frozen okra as fresh green beans are to frozen ones.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recipe #37: Mpotompoto: African cocoyam (taro) "goulash"

I started out confident that I could write about both nyoma and  mpotompoto.  Now I realize what I vaguely suspected before: they're the same thing. Several Ghanaians have confirmed this. Barbara Baeta once told me that when it is made with yam, the Ewes call it teba ("yam mud") and that it is also known in Ewe as dablui, which means "cook it and mix it up." Barbara describes it as a kind of Ghanaian goulash.

In Twi, poto means "to mash/grind." I love the reduplication.  However, the root vegetable used is not necessarily mashed, just cooked in broth until the  cocoyam (a kind of taro, aka dasheen, eddo),  or (African) yam or white sweet potato, or even cassava, disintegrates. Mpotompoto or nyoma is also recommended as a weaning food for young children. I find it a light, comforting one-pot meal.

There are, of course, many variations. Here is a simple one using dried ground hot red pepper, cocoyam, palm oil, salt, tomatoes and dried shrimp. Our local chain grocery stores do not carry cocoyams, but I found some beautiful ones at a nearby Asian market.


about 3 cocoyams (to get a pound when peeled) [or use African yam or white sweet potato]
1 medium onion (about 4 oz)
a couple of tomatoes (about 4 oz) [NOTE: I used cherry tomatoes, since that's what I had handy]
1/4 cup dried pounded shrimps or dried herrings [OR, if you must, substitute a shrimp-flavored seasoning cube]
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Pound the shrimp, if whole, in a mortar and pestle (I break off the head and end of the tail first, but that's just me)
Wash and peel the cocoyams (I use a potato peeler) and cut into1/2 inch cubes.
Peel the onion, leaving it whole.
Rinse the tomatoes, leaving them whole.

Put the diced cocoyams, whole onion and tomatoes in a small pot with 5 cups of water. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat  and cook  until the cocoyam is soft (20-30 minutes).

Remove the tomatoes and onions (I use a slotted spoon) and grind them (I use a mini food processor or blender), then return them to the pot.
Add the pounded shrimp, salt, red pepper and about 1/4 red palm oil (or less).
Let the mixture simmer briefly to blend the flavors. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.


Another way to prepare nyoma or mpotompoto is to boil the root vegetable separately, and make a gravy with 1/2 c palm or other vegetable oil, frying the onion a few minutes, then adding sliced tomatoes (and other seasonings as desired, such as ginger, garlic, etc.), then mixing everyting together after the cocoyam, or yam, etc., is tender.

Finally, a third way to do it (and perhaps the most common) is to omit precooking the cocoyam and simply make the gravy, then add additional water and cook the cocoyam in it.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Recipe #36: Nyoma (African yam pottage/soup)

When I lived in Ghana in the 1970s my future sister-in-law Afua made a comforting one-pot dish with (African) yam called nyoma. It is quite similar to the  mpotompoto mentioned in my last posting, but I've decided to feature nyoma first. Sometimes called yam soup, it's actually more of a pottage.

When I asked about nyoma during a luncheon at Flair, a visitor, Mrs. Mabel Aboagye-Darko, told me: first, nyoma is the Akwapim Twi name (my husband from Adukrom in the Eastern Region, and speaks this version of Twi), but that Ashanti Twi speakers call it mpihu; ingredients (for the Ashanti version) include smoked dried fish (cleaned, but with the bones), whole onions, tomatoes, red chili peppers (or green kpakpo shito), salt and bushmeat. She said to peel, wash and chop the yams, and put them on the fire to cook in some water, then add all the other ingredients. When the tomatoes, peppers, and onions are soft, remove and grind them (in an asanka, I imagine) and return to the pot. To serve, remove the yams into the asanka, add a little soup and mash the yams. Finally, heat a little palm oil in a frying pan, add some chopped onions and fry together, then add to the soup and yam.

Nigerians make a similar dish, and as always, ingredients and preparation techniques vary.

Here's the version I made recently--after 4 unsuccessful weekly trips to our local supermarket to find an appropriate yam (imported from Mexico) that wasn't rotten, I finally found a small one that was okay, but not great. How I miss the African market that was here last year--Sore used to travel to New York and New Jersey to bring us fresh yams direct from Ghana!

At any rate, I used what I had on hand to go with the yam: salted herrings, local grass-fed beef, fresh habanero pepper, a yellow onion, some palm oil, and canned plum tomatoes.


~10 oz. stewing beef
~1 pound of yam
2-3 salted herrings (see photo)
1 large onion (~10 ounces)
1 habanero pepper (or to taste)
1 clove of garlic (optional)
1/2 teaspoon of grated ginger (optional)
a few drained peeled, canned plum tomatoes (~4 ounces)
3-4 Tablespoons palm (or other vegetable) oil


Put the salted herrings into a small saucepan, cover them with water, and simmer them for a few minutes to remove excess saltiness.

Peel and slice the onion. Put half of the onion into a soup pot. Peel and rinse the yam, cut it into 1/2 inch cubes, and place it into the pot with about 4 cups of water (enough to cover the yam). Cut the beef into small cubes, and add them to the pot. Remove the salted fish from the saucepan, break it into pieces and add to the pot. Bring the water to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer. I don't like tomato seeds, so I forced the canned tomatoes through a strainer into the broth. (Note: Traditionally, people would just toss the whole pepper and tomato into the soup and grind them when they get soft.) Let the soup simmer until the meat and yam are tender.

While the soup is simmering, if you have a mini-food processor, grind the pepper, garlic and ginger together (or mince and grate them), then heat the palm or other vegetable oil in a small frying pan, add the remaining sliced onion and spices and fry briefly, then add them to the soup pot and let the flavors blend for a few minutes. Adjust salt and (red) pepper to taste.

This fed 3 adults (my hungry college-aged nephew, my husband, and me).
Variations:  mash the yam with a masher or spoon before serving it; add some cooked dried beans; substitute cocoyams (taro) or cassava. Has anyone ever  tried making this using potatoes?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Recipe #35: Ofam (Ripe Plantain Loaf)

With family arriving home over the holidays  I wanted to make ofam, Ghana's challenge to Western holiday fruitcakes: a rich, heavy plantain loaf made from sweet, over-ripe plantains, spices, and red palm (dende) oil. Helplessly, I waited unsuccessfully for my locally purchased plantains to turn black. Then, on  December 22nd, my daughter Abena arrived from California carrying 2 plantains perfect for the recipe, which I added to my 2 semi-ripe ones, and was able to serve this special occasion dish in time for Christmas and the New Decade!

It is not difficult to make, but does require some special items, such as the over-ripe plantains and palm oil.


about 2 pounds of over-ripe (black) plantains, about 3 or 4 good sized ones
3 fresh chili peppers or to taste (I used a combination of part of each of the 3 types in the photo, seeded)
1 onion (enough to get about 1 cup of onion grated; use more or less to your taste)
fresh ginger (enought to get about 3 Tablespoons after peeling and grating it (again, adjust to taste)
up to 1 cup good-quality red palm oil (preferably zomi)
about 3/4 cup of flour (rice or wheat, or use Ghanaian corn dough)
1-2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

Peel the plantains and mash them. If they are very ripe a fork will do fine, otherwise use a potato masher or ricer or a glass, or whatever you have handy. Traditionally they would be pounded in a wooden mortar with a wooden pestle. Remember, thought, exture is important in Ghanaian dishes, so don't do this in a blender. You want about 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups of well-mashed plantain.
Put the mashed plantain in a large mixing bowl and add a cup of medium to finely grated onion.
Add the ground chili peppers (I seeded the peppers and added a couple of tablespoons of water to my mini processor attachment to grind them before adding them to the bowl).
Stir the dough gently, also adding a little salt. In Ghana we used 2 teaspoons, but I used a little less because we're on low-salt diets here. It is not meant to be very salty.
Stir in 1/2 cup of the flour (if you do not have rice flour, you can always grind some rice in a blender to add it, or use wheat flour, or, if you have Ghanaian corn dough, which is much more finely ground than cornmeal, use that).
If the dough seems thin, add up to another 1/4 cup flour to make it thicker, then stir in the palm oil. I balk at using a full cup of palm oil, but used part of it with a pastry brush to grease my pan well on the bottom and sides. Let the batter rest for about 15 minutes, then scrape it into a pan and bake it about half an hour in a medium oven (350 degrees). Let it cool on a rack long enough before removing it from the pan, maybe 20 minutes or so (a little of mine stuck to the pan).

In Ghana we made our ofam in loaf pans (traditionally it used to be wrapped in leaves first). I baked mine in a nonstick bundt pan. Serve warm or cool, in small slices by itself or accompanied by dry roasted peanuts. We ate it as both a dessert and a snack, and it is now long gone until the next holiday. If you have leftover, though, it freezes nicely and is quickly defrosted and warmed in a microwave. When serving, I  blot excess palm oil off with paper towels, but that is just me--others might find that akin to scraping whipped cream or frosting off a cake.

Hope you all had a wonderful holiday and are ready for a fantastic new year. This is the year of the book! I plan to have the Ghanaian cookbook drafted by the spring. There are many recipes I've not yet had time to post, but will be diligent in the coming weeks. Next up will be another classic Ghanaian dish I love (both the food and its wonderful name: "mpotompoto," or yam soup).