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When I joined Soho Press and wrote my first draft for MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, whenever I mentioned a particular meal indigenous to Ghana, my super editor Juliet Grames asked for more details. "What's in it? What does it look like?" She said she wanted more "food porn," which I'm not sure is PC nowadays, but anyway that's what she said.

Now, bear in mind I am not a chef or food expert, so if I make any errors describing the dishes, I'm happy to be corrected.

The first component of a Ghanaian meal is a starchy food in one form or the other: rice, plantain, cassava, yam (not what we call yam in the US), cocoyam (it has a chocolatey color), and corn. Cassava (which is used to make tapioca), yam, and cocoyam are all starchy tubers like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas.

Stack of yams (Image James Dalrymple/Shutterstock)
Stack of yams at a yam festival in Ghana (Image James Dalrymple/Shutterstock)

Incidentally, yam is both the singular and collective form in Ghana. You say you're going to the market to buy "yam," no matter how many you're getting.

These staples can be fried, boiled, or baked. (Fried yam, like french fries, are crisp and delicious, but the inner texture seems more starchy.) They can also be made into a secondary form. Yam, plantain, cassava, and cocoyam can be boiled and then pounded to create a soft, pillowy, glutinous mass called fufu. (There's a lot of that in my novels.) Plantain-and-cassava fufu is more popular in southern Ghana, but yam fufu is preferred in the northern regions. I prefer yam fufu, so I'm in a minority in the south.

Traditionally, fufu is pounded in a large wooden mortar with a giant pestle, although nowadays you can make "instant" fufu by adding water to the flour of the corresponding starch while slowly cooking. That's the only practical way to prepare fufu in Europe or the USA.

Pestle pounding fufu in a mortar (Image Shutterstock/Nejah)
"Pounding fufu" with mortar and pestle (Image Shutterstock/Nejah)

Plantain-cassava fufu bathed in pepper soup (Shutterstock/Linda Hughes Photography)
Plantain-cassava fufu bathed in pepper soup (Shutterstock/Linda Hughes Photography)

The milled form of these staples can also be fermented: steamed fermented cornmeal yields kenkey, which is most famous with the Ga people, and cooked fermented corn and cassava yields banku.

Ghanaians often refer to their meals by the starch. In the US, if someone asks you what you had for lunch/dinner, you might respond, "grilled fish," or "baked chicken," but in Ghana your answer might be, "rice," "fufu," "banku." This isn't because they are eaten by themselves; it's because the protein of the meal, which is the most expensive ingredient, isn't considered the central focus of the dish. It's the starch, around which revolve an accompanying stew/soup with fish, chicken, or goat/beef/pork, with or without vegetables.

The most stews are popular are: groundnut (peanut) soup, palm nut soup, light soup, and okro/okra stew (rather like gumbo).

Groundnut stew/soup, enhanced with various spices, has an exquisite and rich taste. It can be eaten with rice balls (sticky rice)or fufu. My mother made an amazing groundnut stew/soup, by the way.

Rich groundnut soup with chicken (Shutterstock/Fanfo)
Rich groundnut soup with chicken (Shutterstock/Fanfo)

But nothing beats the utter lusciousness of palm nut soup, which is a rich red-brown. It traditionally goes with fufu, but does well with rice balls too.

Luscious palm nut soup with rice balls, meat and beans (Shutterstock/Yaw Niel)
Luscious palm nut soup with rice balls, meat and beans (Shutterstock/Yaw Niel)

Light soup is prepared by steaming fish or meat with seasonings, onion, garlic and ginger in a saucepan. Tomato paste is then added. Chili peppers, garden eggs and tomatoes are boiled, blended and added to the saucepan. Water is added to bring the soup to its desired thickness.

The most popular pairing with okro/okra stew is banku by far.

Banku with delicious okro/okra soup (Pinterest/Ama Serwah)
Banku with delicious okro/okra soup (Pinterest/Ama Serwah)

The informal survey I conducted in Ghana revealed that the two kinds of people: those who like fufu, and those who like banku. You can be one or the other, but not both. I am a fufu man. Banku gets on my nerves.

There's also pepper soup, which is like it sounds. People make pepper soup in multiple ways, but the common ingredient is, well, hot pepper. It's a redundant name, I think, because very few people in Ghana cook without red hot peppers like Scotch bonnet.

Next blog: more goodies, including Ghanaian donuts.

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