This post is exclusively about food. Often when I Skype with friends and family back home, they ask me, “So what do you eat in Ghana?” Here’s my answer for all the world to see.
Three main traditional dishes are widely available at chop bars for the low price of about fifty cents: fufu, banku, and my favorite, red red. Have I piqued your taste? Read on!
Fufu is formed by pounding yam and cassava until it forms a dough-like substance. It is served in a soup, either light soup (basically spicy tomato soup) or groundnut soup (imagine soup made with peanut butter), and some type of meat (usually goat).
When eating fufu, one pinches off a piece of the dough with the right hand, douses it in soup, and deposits it in the stomach without chewing. On Sundays, the town fills with the sound of women pounding fufu for post church supper. It is said that if you eat fufu on Sunday, you’ve eaten well that week.
Banku is also a dough like substance, but unlike fufu, it is formed from fermented corn and cassava, giving it a sour flavor unlike anything found back home. It is served as a steaming hot log of dough, usually accompanied by an entire tilapia staring at you with a beady dead eye and some spicy sauce on the side. Again, it is eaten with the right hand and gets very messy, very fast. (If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating a whole fish with your bare hands, I highly recommend the experience. It’s an intimate way to know a fish, right down to the scales and the bones.)
Red red is by far my favorite Ghanaian dish. As one shopkeeper said, “Of course you like red red. All Westerners do.” Perhaps that’s because unlike fufu and banku, red red is not made of mysterious dough. It is a stew made of black eyed peas and spicy tomato sauce with fried plantains on the side. A small canteen near the university called “Peace and Love” only serves red red, and the place is always packed with hungry university students – including me. Peace and love in my belly indeed.
Of course there are more than three dishes in Ghana, from the spicy goat kebabs found on the street to the sweet fried dough balls trotted about town atop ladies’ heads, to the rice dishes and pizza available in just about every nice restaurant. (A typical vegetable pizza will be covered with corn, carrots, cabbage and green bell pepper, and a typical pepperoni pizza is actually just smothered with spicy peppers – not quite the same as back home, but still pretty darn good.)
For the most part, though, I cook for myself, making stir fries and stews from the cabbage, garden eggs, tomatoes, onions and peppers that are reliably available. It’s not so different from what I eat back in Charleston, except for the gaping vacuum of baked goods that usually supplement my diet and do not exist here. The common person can’t afford flour, let alone an oven.
Food is a great way to get to know a culture, and through eating the food here, I have enlightened my taste buds and come to enjoy all kinds of things that I would have never tried at home. From the traditional dishes to the spicy and often ambiguous street food, I’m trying to sop up all the flavors of my new home before I go back to the familiar realm of fish fillets, cookies and meaty pepperoni pizza.