Friday, June 18, 2010

Culinary Entrepreneurship in Ghana: Food Studies and Ice Kenkey

On Wed., June 16, Katie and I spent the day at the University of Ghana, Legon. We first met with with Rose Omari, a food scientist with the Science & Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of Ghana. Rose is currently in Ghana doing research for her PhD from Wageningen University. Her interests range broadly from food science through policy research, and we only had time to scratch the surface. Her pioneering doctoral research focuses on characteristics of the indigenous fast food industry (within the formal sector, thus excluding street foods) in Accra and I'll be following it with great interest.

From there we stopped in at the Legon campus bookstore, where I was again saddened to see how the many imported food service and hospitality industry texts  are not contextualized for the African situation (foods and recipes, cooking techniques, equipment, technology, etc.). I am hopeful that as the hospitality industry grows in Ghana, there will be those who can make it truly Ghanaian with world class standards. Next week we plan to visit one positive example in the Akuapem Mountains.

We spent a couple of fascinating hours at the Department of Nutrition and Food Science with professors George Amponsah Annor, Kwaku Tano-Debrah, and Esther O. Sakyi-Dawson. The conversations ranged from why cassava flour is not used more to replace imported wheat flour (the answer that made the most sense is the counter-intuitive one that it is cheaper to buy imported wheat flour than locally produced cassava flour) to differences in Nigerian and Ghanaian gari to promotion of healthy indigenous products. Katie had a number of technical questions associated with the challenges of calculating fat adsorption in fried foods and effects of texture, temperature, density, etc. Prof. Annor has promised to provide us with an updated data base of information about West African ingredients and some common foods.

Ice kenkey: Pennsylvania has a large dairy industry and at Penn State University the College of Agriculture and the food science department stocks its own store, the Creamery, and supplies various restaurants and events on campus with PSU dairy products, from its famous ice creams to a variety of PSU cheeses, milk, and yogurt. The Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Legon seems to be embarking down a similar path of producing quality products that can be sold to a wide audience. The initial product now being test marketed is a refreshing traditional sweetened fermented corn and milk drink known as  ice kenkey. Incidentally, I have always called it "iced" kenkey, but that may be similar to the question of whether something is "ice" tea or "iced" tea in the U.S. At any rate, this is definitely a Ghanaian product. It is an acquired taste for Westerners, as you will note from Katie's June 16 blog posting  and also the comments at the Betumiblog posting linked to above). However, it did not surprise me to learn that it is a Japanese partner that is working with Legon on this venture: many Japanese food items are also acquired tastes for Westerners. The department plans to expand to other products and has many great ideas, such as how to ensure quality control. This is another venture to keep one's eyes on. I wish them every success.

After our morning meetings we met up with a number of faculty from the English Department and a history of science colleague of my daughter Abena, Laura  McGough, for lunch at the senior staff club at Commonwealth Hall, where I enjoyed tuo zaafe (tz) made from corn and ayoyo soup with fish.Katie had some omo tuo (rice balls) and groundnut soup with goat meat. I really enjoyed it: I haven't had soup made with the ayoyo leaves since I was in Northern Ghana several years ago. Over lunch I challenged a couple of the English faculty to begin looking at the portrayal and symbolism of food in African literature, a shockingly neglected area, and especially to examine any gender differences between men and women writers. My sense is that women are more intimately connected to food preparation and socializing around the cooking pot and hence their memories (especially when exiled from their homelands) may be different. I'm curious to see if Helen and Kari take up the challenge. I also have the exciting promise of receiving a 17th century translation (from German) of a document describing the preparation of kenkey. I'm still trying to track down dokono's origins and history. Suggestions made at the luncheon were that, unlike "dokono," "kenkey" is a Malay word, that Northerners have always fermented millet, so they just used the same technique on corn when it arrived in Ghana. I welcome anyone's comments on his subject.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Recipe #48: Yam Balls (Yele Kakro)

It's almost time for the new yams to appear on the scene in Ghana, but yesterday I bought 9 old puna yams for 25 cedis ($18, or $2 per yam, each weighing at least 4 pounds) , and they were still fresher than anything I could ever buy in State College, Pennsylvania.

Today we prepared some yam balls (in my notes I have written "yele kakro." I understand that is its name in Ga (see Naa's comment below) but am sure there are other names in other dialects and other West African countries, as well. Let me know that, too, please.

Like many flexible Ghanaian/West African recipes, there is plenty of room for improvisation, especially with seasonings. Also, I imagine that if you don't have African yams (please, not the much softer sweet potatoes, which are also called "yams" in the U.S.), perhaps you could try using potatoes.

Here's a basic recipe:
Yam Balls (Yele Kakro)

Gather the ingredients first. You'll need ~1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 eggs, about 1.5 to 2 pounds of African yam, 3 medium tomatoes, a large onion (or 2 small), a few tablespoons of flour, some oil for deep-frying (peanut is nice, but we used what we had today, which was safflower)--about 3-4 cups, about .5-1 teaspoon dried ground red pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or a similar spice. We didn't use garlic, but a few minced cloves would have blended beautifully, too. Some people add small amounts of cooked meat as well.

Peel and chop the yam into small chunks to get about 4 cups. Rinse and put them into in a large pot and cover with water (and add a little salt, if desired). Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat, and cook until soft (about 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the chunks). While the yam is cooking, scald 3 medium tomatoes in boiling water and then plunge them into cold water to remove their skins. Core, and seed, if desired, then chop them finely. Set aside. Peel and mince a large onion. Set aside.

Heat 1/4 cup of vegetable oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add half of the minced onion and cook it for a couple of minutes, then add half of the finely chopped, peeled tomatoes. Cook for a few more minutes, just until the onion is soft but not browned, stirring occasionally. Stir in the thyme, salt, and red pepper. Set aside. Break the eggs into a small bowl and mix with a fork.

When the yam is cooked, drain off the water and mash (we used a potato masher) it while it is still warm. Stir in the cooked onion-tomato-spice mixture and the uncooked tomato and onion. Next stir in the 2 eggs and mix everything well, making sure the yam is thoroughly mashed and not lumpy.

In a small, deep, heavy saucepan put enough oil to fill the pan halfway and heat the oil to about 375 degrees.

Sprinkle a little flour on a working surface (we used a pastry mat), put a little oil or flour on your hands and shape a spoonful of the mashed yam mixture into a ball. We  made them a little smaller than golf balls and ended up with  over 2 dozen.

When the oil is hot (I sprinkle a drop of water in and see how it sizzles to judge when it's hot enough since I don't have a deep-fryer here in Ghana), put several balls in and cook them several minutes until they are golden brown on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain (if we'd had some cloth or paper we would have drained them on that, but none was available).

We ate ours as a snack while they were still warm, and shared them with some carpenters building me a kitchen table in my new house in Tema. If we'd had some fresh pepper sauce or shito that would have gone well with the yam balls, too. They also make a nice side dish as part of a meal.

For some nice pictures taken today by my undergraduate Penn State student intern/helper/photographer, Katie, who is here in Ghana for 2 weeks with me, check out her creative and lovely blog, Eat My Work. We also made some Tom Brown (ablemamu) for breakfast, and I let her snack on some tigernuts this afternoon. She took pictures of them all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Salutations to the Gut and other Africa Cookbook Additions

An irresistible  gift edition of a 1962 essay by Nobel prize-winning Wole Soyinka, Salutations to the Gut (Bookcraft, Ltd, Nigeria, 2008) is a paean of praise to the Yoruba, a "leading race of lyrical gastronomes." As he says in it "It is sad that daily the business of the world becomes more hurried, and the few who still possess leisure lack true poetry of food." It was kind of pricey for me, so I resisted the book for about a week, but the poetry and illustrations charmed me at last. It is not a cookbook, but a celebration of life and good food as exemplified by the Yoruba, "the true hedonist who has felt in every morsel the soul of the open kitchen."

A second book, Granny's Special Cookery Book--Nigerian and Brazilian Dishes by Virginia Akerele
was also published by the Nigerian publisher Bookcraft in 2008. It immediately caught my attention for several reasons: my love of Brazilian food, my exploration of Afro-Brazilian culinary links, and finally because I'll travel to Nigeria in a few weeks and am eager to learn more about Nigerian cuisine. I didn't realize how much influence freed Brazilian slaves returning to Nigeria and settling around Lagos on the coast in the 19th century had on the cuisine (e.g., the  introduction of several ingredients, such as bell peppers, olive oil, and garlic). Various versions of imoyo is another example. However, the recipe for "tapioca" in Akerele's book is quite different from the one I was taught in Rio.

My third addition is a set of 3 small booklets by Laurene Boateng, a dietitian backed by a group of other healthcare professionals committed to helping Ghanaians address healthy eating and other fitness issues. They also have a useful website called  Ultimate Nutrition Ghana and Ms. Boateng hosts a weekly radio show called "Food in Focus" on an Accra-based radio station. The paperback booklets I bought were all published in 2009: Healthy Eating Made Simple, Basics (87 pages); Eating to Manage Hypertension, Basics (42 pages); Eating to Manage Cholesterol, Basics (45 pages). I am thrilled to see this kind of effort beginning, and wish them well. My only problem was that some of their suggestions seem to be aimed at only a small portion of the population. For example, the books stress eating brown rice and brown bread and whole grains, but even at 2 of the major shops in Accra I could find no brown rice nor whole wheat flour, much less pasta. I know there is a local rice, and it may be available at the outdoor markets, but I wonder how easy it is for ordinary folks to purchase the kinds of ingredients, like imported olive oil, that are being recommended. A number of Ghana's indigenous foods seemed to be missing from the discussions, whereas Western-style ingredients were praised. That made me nervous, as did the stress on eating things like salads. The cover of Healthy Eating Made Simple celebrated eating lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, and, goodness, were those radishes or apples on the cover? However, these comments are not meant to undercut the importance of the booklets: they're definitely making important health information more accessible to Ghanaians.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

More Obama sightings in Ghana, and Ghana's "dessert"

Last week shortly after I arrived I had omo tuo and palmnut/groundnut soup at Agbamami restaurant in Tema (Tema's version of Asanka Local) with Kajsa Adu (an active member of and her family. I admired her Obama bag. Signs of the Obama family's popularity abound: DK served Obama biscuits [cookies] to some students last week, and yesterday I saw some Michelle Obama cloth at a seamstress' shop.

Kajsa remarked at lunch that they refer to the ubiquitous toothpicks on the tables, commonly used at the end of the meal, as "Ghana's dessert." Very apt.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Dinner in Ghana

I arrived in Accra today and managed to get a little food in the house in Tema. I threw together dinner tonight (carpenters are downstairs in the kitchen, so I brought a hot plate and rice cooker upstairs, and balanced everything on a tiny table): just rice, braised cabbage, and a simple stew, with Ghana pineapple for dessert.

This post is also to let folks in Ghana know I'm here. My old SIM  card doesn't work, so tomorrow I'll get a new one and likely a different phone number, too. Husband home in Pennsylvania Skyped me and insisted I take a picture of the first meal I cooked in our house here.

It's fabulous to be home (more on the house that DK built later). I'm pretty tired, though, and managed to slice my finger while I was cutting peppers. Ouch.