Friday, December 21, 2018

Banku and Waakye and Palava Sauce: The Glory of Ghanaian Food

Despite the stereotypes, African food is as varied and amazing as the continent itself. I'm lucky that I live in a city that offers an array of West, East and North African cuisine so I arrived in Ghana expecting to enjoy classic dishes like waakye (black eyed peas with rice), banku (fermented corn and cassava dough formed into balls to accompany fish or meat) and heaps of fresh fish. What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer variety and complexity of Ghanaian cuisine. Yes, there were the classics that I was familiar with but there were also variations according to region and city as well as modern interpretations and fusion meals. I was overwhelmed with the culture and history that I experienced in Ghana and I was also overstuffed with food every single day of my travels. I ate a lot. I discovered that my favorite was palava sauce, a  savory sauce made with kontomire greens that are little like mustard greens and bitter melon seeds, served with fish. Here's a small list of what else I ate in Ghana:

The capital of Accra sits on the Gulf of Guinea so fish is a mainstay but in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, we visited Ike's Cafe and Grill, which boasts fish tanks for selecting your personal meal. On my first night, we dined at Ike's and you can see the before and after pic for the catfish above and below.  The setting at Ike's is lovely, with tables under thatched umbrellas lining a lagoon.

Another traditional dish is jollof rice with chicken, pictured below.  Jollof rice, which is rice cooked with tomato paste and various spices, is a staple all over West Africa with each country claiming to make the best.  Jollof rice wars throughout West Africa are very much a thing and I got into trouble for voicing my very informed opinion about what country prepares the best so I'll just leave it at I tasted Ghanaian jollof.

Groundnut soup below, is another classic dish that's made with peanuts, tomatoes and spices. 

It wasn't just about traditional dining in Ghana. We visited restaurants that served international cuisine and  menus with a surprising combination of influences.

Toro Tapas Bar is a chic restaurant in Accra owned by a Spaniard who serves up authentic Spanish small plates like patatas bravas, croquetas, octopus salad and even paella. I loved the aubergine chips with feta cheese and honey shown below. Toro is located in an open air courtyard that features live music and salsa dancing, the high energy was palpable.

The Coco Lounge was another trendy restaurant we tried. The menu featured a crazy mix of dishes including Accra style pizza with gravy style sauce typically used for jollof instead of Italian pizza sauce, lamb burgers, black bean fried rice and waakye with spaghetti and chicken sausage. I sampled arancini balls with jollof rice, chicken and cheese, pictured below.  Coco Lounge is a glamorous spot that doubles as a lounge and nightclub. So I felt compelled to try a cocktail; the Coco Colada in the large painted glass below.

You can also find straightforward comfort food if you want that. On our last night we visited The Gold Coast Restaurant, a lively, sprawling place with an eclectic menu so big it was literally a book. The seafood platter pictured at the top of the post is from Gold Coast but they also offer wood-fired pizza. I'm from Chicago, which makes me a bit of a pizza snob. Ok, a big pizza snob, I don't generally order pizza outside of Chicago but I wanted to try Ghanaian pizza. As you can see below, they supplied a beautiful,golden crusted pizza. And it tasted as good as it looked.

And if you want to go ultra traditional, you can take off for a  traditional village, like I did. Just outside Koforidua, located in the Eastern region of Ghana, I enjoyed fish stew cooked over an open fire. Like everything else I ate in Ghana, the stew was tasty and filling. Exploring Ghana's cuisine is as important as learning about its history and culture. You can taste so much about the country in every bite.