Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some ingredients: millet stalks, fonio, hwentia (udah-urhirhe), akpe, etc.

While I was in California, my daughter and son-in-law took me to their favorite African food store, Specialty Foods, Inc. at 535 8th St., Oakland. I took the opportunity to stock up on some items unavailable locally in central Pennsylvania. Some of them had Nigerian? or slightly differently spelled names: millet stalks (labeled watche leaves), or hwentia (labeled udah-urhirhe), and bambara beans (called bambala beans, African yellow soy beans), along with some smoked herring powder (I'm thinking of making some shito before Thanksgiving), some Ethiopian berbere, and some fonio (aka acha), a tiny, grain, one of those "lost crops of Africa" that is one of the oldest grains of Africa. I haven't had that since I was at the Tamale Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies (TICCS) several years ago. It makes a tasty, very nutritious porridge.

The millet stalks are what traditionally give waakye (rice and beans) its characteristic color. In the U.S. we generally substitute baking soda, as in the recipes linked to above.

By the way, can anyone tell me another name for the Ivorian? spice "akpe"? And information on its use? Thank you.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Recipe #52: Rice balls (omo tuo), white and brown, large and small

Here's the recipe I promised for the oh-so-easy-to-make rice balls, just like those Katie captured at Commonwealth Hall at the University of Ghana campus in June. Rice balls go well with almost any West African soup.

Rice Balls (Omo Tuo)

1 cup white rice (I use long-grain, but not precooked)
~4 c water
½ teaspoon salt (optional, I usually omit this)

·      Bring the rice, water and salt (if using) to a boil in a large heavy pot (or a rice cooker)
·      Turn down the heat to low, cover, and allow the rice to cook for about 20 minutes.You may have to take off the lid and let it cook down another 5-10 minutes.
·      When the rice is cooked (but not too dry), turn off the heat and let it sit until it is cool enough to handle.
·      Using a potato masher, a strong wooden spoon, a heavy glass, or something similar, mash the rice until it is fairly smooth. (If you have a wonderful wooden masher from Ghana like the one here, lucky you! It's easy to hold and use.)
·      Fill a cup with cold water and put it next to the pan.
·      Wet hands or dip an ice cream scoop or spoon into the water, then scoop up enough of the rice to shape into a ball, like a snowball. If the balls will not stick together, put the rice back on the stove to dry it out slightly.

     To accompany a main dish soup, a cup of rice makes about 6-8 rice balls, depending on the size.

To serve in place of rolls as a first course, say, with groundnut or light soup, I use a small spoon or melon baller (dipped in water first) to scoop out the rice and then shape tiny balls. I serve 2 or 3 in each bowl of soup. Rice balls can be made ahead of time and warmed in the oven or microwave just before serving.

NOTE: It's also possible to make this using a rice cooker: just add everything, but use at least a cup less water, and turn off the cooker when the rice is cooked and most of the water is gone. Also, it is possible to make these using brown rice, though I've never had them that way in Ghana (remember my theory that white is somehow always perceived as somehow better or purer). Brown rice balls are somewhat heavier. Just use less water, and allow more cooking time.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Recipe #51: Chicken Groundnut Soup (nkate nkwan) pureed peanuts (groundnuts) are frequently used to thicken soups or stews in Sub-Saharan African cooking, and are particularly famous in West African cuisine. For those of you who have asked me to post a recipe for this perennial favorite, I direct you to an article I wrote for Africa Diasporan Tourism.

Tomorrow I'll post a recipe for omo tuo (rice balls) a wonderful starch to accompany this dish, though it also goes well with a simple slice of boiled African yam or bread.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

African food bloggers on trends and restaurants

The November 2010 issue of Brussels Airlines' inflight magazine bspirit! features a touristy article "African Cuisine 2.0" by African food bloggers (your truly included) writing about current trends and restaurants in Kigali, Monrovia, Dakar, Luanda, and Accra. I see they edited out some of my information and photos for their online version (e.g., Buka). Still, you might check it out.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Recipe #50: Ghana-inspired Hot Chocolate

For the record, I'm a confirmed chocoholic. In October I had some fabulous creamy hot chocolate at a little shop in Santa Cruz, California. It made me start thinking about 2 ingredients found in Ghana: chocolate and cassava. This morning I quickly experimented in the microwave with wonderful initial results of what I think of as a rich holiday Ghana-style hot chocolate: thick enough to eat with a spoon, but thin enough to drink. 

Please understand that this is not a traditional beverage in Ghana. Ghana's world-class cocoa, and its cassava consumption, inspired me. I'm not sure how it will work with powdered or evaporated milk but I'll continue experimenting, including a stove-top version, different kinds of milk, using coconut milk/water, different types of chocolate, flavorings like vanilla, mint, etc. Also, I wonder about how to extract the cassava (tapioca) starch directly from fresh cassava. . .

I took a mug of milk (probably 12-14 oz, half whole milk and half organic 1%) and whisked in 2 teaspoons of tapioca starch (aka tapioca flour). I heated it for a few minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so (not sure if this is necessary, but I didn't want it to thicken unevenly). After a couple of minutes, I added some squares of chocolate I had handy (Lindt's 85% extra dark cocoa, probably 3/4 - 1 oz; the Lotte "Ghana" chocolate  my Berkeley daughter gave me from her trip to Japan was too precious to experiment with), whisked it with a tiny whisk as it melted, and put it back in the microwave for about 30 seconds, then whisked it again. It needed a little sugar . For garnish I used grated chocolate and a little whipped cream.

It was luxuriously rich, smooth, creamy, and very satisfying. I invite you to try it and let me know what you think (and also how to improve it).

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Ghanaian Gourmet--Recipe #49, continued: Palmnut Soup

Yesterday I introduced palmnut soup and today I continue to celebrate the much-maligned palm fruit, basic to this most wonderful of soups, abe nkwan.  Incidentally, nkwan means "soup" in the Twi language, and abe is the Twi name of the red fruits of the palm tree (shown below). I was able to  find a couple of photos from last New Year's Day to share with the recipe, along with a Tema market photo Katie took in June.

In an article in Gastronomica several years ago, I wrote: "it is as hard to capture the essence of the palm fruit . . .  as it is to describe the hues of sunset to a blind person. The fruit has a color like paprika or glowing coals, with the softness of red velvet, the silkiness of a fine sari, and the richness of fresh cream."

As is true of many soups, abe nkwan allows the creator some freedom and creativity. Here's my holiday version. Trust me, it's well worth the work.

Assemble all ingredients:

2 large onions, any type (enough to get about 3 cups, chopped)
2 pounds meat (beef, lamb, or goat, or a combination--I use lamb and beef)
1-2 pounds of soup bones
1 medium eggplant (to get about 3 cups chopped)
1 28 oz can plum tomatoes (I'm such a purist I usually remove and strain out the seeds first)
1 29 oz/800 g can cream of palmnuts (NOTE: to locate an African market near you, check African Chop )
1 pound assorted fresh mushrooms (I like crimini and portabella)
6 oz smoked fish (I like Duck Pond's smoked mackerel, but also white fish, whiting or salmon. I don't recommend smoked herring, however. Even desalted, it has a strong flavor.)
3 crabs (or I generally use a combination of crab and King crab legs)
1 pound fresh shrimp with shells (the larger, the better)
1 10 oz package frozen chopped okra (or fresh if you can get it)
seasonings, to taste:
salt (~ 2 teaspoons)
fresh peeled, grated ginger (~4 teaspoons)
hot pepper, to taste [NOTE: if you are not used to handling habanero peppers, which must be done very carefully,  you might want to skip the fresh peppers, and stick with dried ground red pepper ] How much pepper varies greatly: if you like HOT, throw in one or two habanero peppers whole, but with the stem removed and let them steam with the meat and then cook in the broth. After they're soft you can squeeze them to increase the heat in the soup, or remove them and serve them on the side for people to add heat individually.  OR you can remove them and blend one or two of them with the eggplant or tomatoes. OR you can remove the seeds and membranes before cooking them. OR you can substitute milder peppers like jalapenos. OR to start with you can simply add dried ground red pepper to taste (for a mild soup, about 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon). I always serve extra dried pepper flakes with the soup for the men in my family, who like their soup very spicy.
2-4  cloves garlic
[if you like, add a tablespoon or 2 of powdered dried shrimp or prawns]

Assemble equipment:

I use a can opener, pot holders, paper towels (to wipe the mushrooms), cutting board, ginger grater,  garlic press,  blender or food processor, strainer, knives, large 8-qt soup pot, wooden spoon,  slotted spoon, soup ladle, and 2-qt  sauce pan. Unlike most Africans, I also use measuring spoons and cups.


1. Peel and chop the onions (I prefer them medium-to-fine) and put them into a large, heavy soup pot.
2. Remove and discard fat and gristle on the meat, then cut it into chunks (I usually make them about 1/2 inch cubes), and add to the soup pot, along with 1/2 cup water. 
3. Peel and crush the garlic cloves and sprinkle over the meat. Peel and grate the fresh ginger and add to the pot. Rinse and remove the stem end of the hot peppers (de-seed and remove membranes if desired), or sprinkle dried red pepper over the meat, along with about 2 teaspoons salt (NOTE: at this point many West Africans would crumble a few Maggi or Royco cubes over the meat, too, but it's unnecessary.). Stir meat and seasonings with the wooden spoon and place the pot over a medium-high heat to steam, covered, for about 15 minutes.
4. While the meat is steaming, rinse, peel, and cube the eggplant and put it in a saucepan with a few cups of water. Cover the pan and bring to a boil over high heat, then simmer for about 10 minutes. 
5. While the eggplant is simmering, blend the  tomatoes in the blender or food processor and add to the soup pot.
6. Open the canned cream of palm fruits and add to the pot. Use a little water, or a spatula or spoon, to get all of the palm cream out of the can. 
7. When the eggplant is soft, remove the pan from the heat and use a slotted spoon to transfer the eggplant to the blender or food processor in two batches. Add a little of the cooking water to the blender (maybe 1/2 cup). No need to rinse out the dregs from the tomatoes. If you wish, transfer one or more of the chili peppers into the blender container and grind with the eggplant. After grinding, add to the soup pot.
8. Also add 4 to 6 cups of water (or, simply add 1 1/2 to 2 cans of water using the tomato or palm fruit cans), depending on how thick you desire the soup to be. I often use part of the water to rinse out the blender or food processor container.
8. Stir well and allow the soup to simmer for 30 minutes while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
9. Quickly rinse the mushrooms and wipe them dry with paper towels, trimming (but not removing) the stem ends. Leave the mushrooms whole or halved (for small mushrooms), or thickly sliced for larger mushrooms, and add them to the pot.
10. Remove and discard the skin and bones from the smoked fish, then add the fish to the pot.
11. Rinse and devein the shrimp, but do not remove their shells. Add them to the pot.
12. Clean and rinse the crabs/crab legs and add to the pot.
13. Add the frozen okra (and powdered dried shrimp, if using) and stir.
14. Cover the soup pot and allow the soup to simmer on low for about 20 minutes, until the meat and vegetables are soft and flavors have blended together.
15. As the soup cooks, use a spoon to skim off the red palm oil that rises to the surface. This may be set aside and saved to be used for other cooking. Add more salt or red pepper if needed.

Serve this lovely, filling soup with fufu, rice,  or  omo tuo (rice balls) (or, if you prefer, thick slices of French or a hearty bread). Oh my goodness, I don't think I've never posted a recipe for omo tuo, either. Look for that soon.


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Recipe #49: Abe Nwkan (Palmnut Soup), Part I

Palmnut soup has many names. For example, it is commonly known as abe nkwan in Ghana,  mbanga soup in Cameroon, and banga in Nigeria.

We celebrated my nephew's 23rd birthday in October. When I asked this Americanized young Ghanaian what he wanted me to cook for his special dinner (Mexican, Italian, Asian, Ghanaian, "American," etc.),  for the second year in a row he answered "palmnut soup and cocoyam (taro) fufu." I scouted around State College, PA rounding up

canned cream of palm fruits, cocoyam fufu flour, smoked mackerel (Duckpond), fresh crabs (and king crab legs) and shrimp, habanero peppers, lamb and beef and soup bones, fresh ginger, mushrooms, eggplant, (frozen) okra, etc. While I was preparing his special meal the thought flitted through my head that I ought to take some photos for my blog, but things were too hectic and I forgot about it.

But, while trying to remember if I'd ever posted a recipe for palmnut soup (no) I was poking around on the Internet and was dismayed to see several recipes that described using palm oil ("no substitutes") to make it. As one (obviously Ghanaian) person pointed out on one of the sites "You are so wrong. Ghanaian palm nut (soup) is very different from what you described." Perhaps in some countries they use the oil, but in Ghana, the oil is strictly for stews or frying, and using the pulp or "cream" of the fruit is imperative.

Since I hadn't taken any photos while preparing Sam's soup I scanned one above from my cookbook A Good Soup Attracts Chairs. I also went to the grocery store and photographed the ingredients I used (except our local store was out of the Duckpond Smoked Mackerel, the type I prefer). There are several authentic Ghanaian recipes for palmnut soup available on the internet and if you try one, just be sure it calls for using canned cream of palm fruit (or, if you're lucky enough to be in a place where you can buy fresh palm nuts, and have a mortar and pestle for pounding and straining them, that's even better, but a lot more work).

Palm nut soup is also a family favorite at my house for ringing in the New Year. Here is the extra special rich birthday version I prepared for Sam who came home from college and his brother Ernest, who came up from Philadelphia for the event. It's loaded with seafood, meat, and vegetables, and adapted to our Pennsylvania environment. It's also not cheap to make but you can simplify it if you're making an "every day" version. Just remember to use the freshest ingredients available.

Other Ingredients (besides the canned cream of palm fruit, aka. sauce graine) and the fufu flour:


I hope your appetite is whetted, or your curiosity aroused. I'll post my actual recipe tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

African Cookbook Project

I recently returned from a trip to the West Coast of the U.S. While there I took the opportunity to stop by one of my favorite bookstores, Powell's in Portland, Oregon, where I picked up a 1971 book published by Dell and called The Art of African Cooking--The Original "Soul Food": 307 recipes from the new African nations. Or, as the cover promises "307 exotic recipes from the first ladies of the new African nations." I've been unable to trace compiler  Sandy Lesberg, except to see that she (he?) was fairly prolific in the 1960s and 1970s, and continued to produce in the 1980s, mostly compilations like this one, often about food, restaurants, or places, or retelling other's stories. At any rate, this unpretentious little book (214 pages, paperback) is interesting historically. It seems Lesberg faithfully included the recipes she was given by various dignitaries, and often did not try to interpret them (e.g., a recipe for Ghanaian  akple calls for 2 cups soured corn dough, fermented [seems redundant, doesn't it] and 1/2 lb. cassava dough, without explaining how one is to obtain such items). While it's not directly written by Africans, I'm still including it on my shelf.

I've also added another reference book. I was delighted when Boston historian James Mcann's book on the history of maize in Africa came out in 2005. He now has another addition to African culinary history, called Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, part of Ohio University Press' Africa in World History Series. Check out my review in an upcoming issue of Gastronomica (hint: I recommend the book).