Saturday, July 09, 2011

Homage to Oto: Recipe #78

Before presenting Recipe #78, here is some background. Rather than rewrite what I've said elsewhere about the ceremonial dish yam oto (the actual Akan orthography would be ɔtɔ), allow me to quote myself (the references can be found at the linked article above):
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    Oto, a sacred dish made from hard-boiled eggs, mashed yam, and palm oil, is an Akan as well as a Ga tradition. Oto is commonly served at the naming ceremony for a new baby (an "outdooring") or the purification of the mother after birth; at puberty ceremonies for girls; at festivals associated with twins, whom the Akan and Ga people consider sacred; at special occasions after the birth of the third, seventh or tenth child of the same sex (sacred numbers in the Akan and Ga cultures); at harvest celebrations; after the first and third weeks of deaths in a family, when not only family members eat oto, but the house is sprinkled with oto to satisfy the dead; and on special days in the Akan calendar known as "Bad Days" or Dabone. [32] Dabone is based on the belief that on particular days the spirits inhabiting forest or farmland will be offended if anyone invades their territory, so people stay home and away from their farms to avoid meeting or offending the spirits. Thus, oto is served to both the living and the dead. In addition, on other special occasions in normal adult life, e.g., recovery from illness, escape from accidents, birthdays, oto is the customary dish prepared to thank the nsamanfo (spirits) by sharing a meal, oto, with them. The nsamanfo are believed to dislike food which is highly seasoned. Hence oto is given without salt or pepper. [33]

  For ceremonial uses, oto is prepared without onions (or tomatoes) because "these products are foreign and are not in keeping with the fetish rites." [34] 

One cannot speak about oto without talking about eggs and the role of eggs in Ghanaian society:         

Oto  is always accompanied by hard-boiled eggs. Eggs, a key symbol in Ghanaian culture, are often used for sacrifices, at purification rites, as pacification fees, gifts, for thanksgiving after illness, and at numerous other occasions. [35]

The very oval form of the egg is the symbol of female beauty and, at the same time, bears an element of 'cleansing power.' The egg is laid by the hen with what the Ghanaian considers to be amazing ease; it is therefore made to symbolize easy labour and fecundity. [36]
When eggs are carved on the staff of a "linguist" (the king's spokesperson), they proclaim that the king "wants peace with everyone (for there is no bone or any hard substance in an egg) and that he is a careful, patient, and prudent person (for an egg is so fragile that without these qualities it would be broken)." [37] 


During a visit to Ghana once, my son was given a wooden carving of a hand holding an egg; his friend used this proverb to explain the carving: "Power is like an egg: if you hold it too tightly it breaks, and if you hold it too loosely, it drops and breaks." 

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I am especially excited to present this recipe. About 3 decades ago, I was thrilled to discover my first postcard of food in Ghana--a postcard celebrating oto with a photo of this traditional Ghanaian dish (see the top of the blog posting). The back simply said in English (and also in French): "African Gourmet" (Gourmet Africain), and gave very simple directions on preparing it. Many years later I received a card from Barbara Baeta, and the photo was part of her stationery. Here is my tribute to that card by duplicating, as best I can in my own home this afternoon (in a very quick photo shoot), the original photo, and here is Flair Catering's version of yam oto.
When we made it in Ghana, this was said to be enough for 2 people, but it would likely stretch further with American portion sizes.

Assemble ingredients:

1 piece of African yam (about a pound)
1 onion, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/2 cup dzomi oil or palm oil 
2 eggs (or 1 per person to serve)

  1. Hard boil the eggs, peel, and set aside.
  2. Wash, peel and slice the yam, cutting off any bad spots. Cut the yam in half lengthwise, then slice it into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Put the slices in a medium-size pot and cover the yam with water. Add a teaspoon of salt, cover the pot, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and cook for about 15 minutes, depending on how thick the yam slices are.
  3. While the yam is cooking, chop the onion. Heat the palm oil in a pan (add a slice of onion, or ginger or bay leaf first and fry briefly to season the oil, then remove it) and add the chopped onion to the oil and fry it briefly. Use dzomi, or the best quality palm oil you can find. Remove from heat.
  4. Drain the yam and put it into an asanka or other bowl and mash with a wooden masher or potato masher then mix it with a wooden spoon. Do not mash the yam as thoroughly as you would potatoes. One does not want a paste or a smooth "whipped" mass, but a denser, more textured one.
  5. Continue to mash the yam as you add the palm oil and onion mixture into the bowl (switching to a fork may make it easier to blend without smashing it).
  6. Garnish with an egg for each person.
The day we made this, Barbara mentioned she had recently had oto at a celebration in Accra for the 70th birthday of a Fante friend. To thank God they first went to a church service in the morning, then began their breakfast at 8:30 a.m. with oto, topped with a hard boiled egg for each person. The oto was followed by an extensive banquet of Ghanaian and Western dishes, that continued on until lunch.

 P.S. There is a lovely posting about brides and oto at The Skinny Gourmet.
P.P.S. My special thank you to Sam and Ernest Osseo-Asare for traveling to Washington DC to bring me some fresh Ghana yam. I wish you were here today to enjoy the fruits of your labors.




anthia-ofo said...

Growing up in Ghana, on birthdays, the 1st dish we had was oto and egg. I remember as a 3yr old, I fell under a speeding 4x4. I was running after older kids in the road (narrowly missed being crushed). I was taken home and fussed over and -you guessed it! My mum made me oto and egg bc my life was spared.

Fran said...

What a sweet story. Thank you for sharing.

AfricaLiving said...

Yay! This is one of my favorite Ghanaian dishes, but I never knew how to make it. Maybe I can make it for my daughter when she turns 1.

AfricaLiving said...
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