Monday, November 14, 2011

Eating in Accra

Recently I went to Accra, the capital of the West African nation of Ghana. Ghana is noted for being the first black African country to achieve political independence, which it did from Great Britain in 1956. It is a point of pride for the nation, and understandably so.

Although I was there to attend a conference on natural resources, I knew that I had to make exploring the local food culture a priority. Before leaving for Ghana, I did a bit of research on the national cuisine. There is, however, no substitute for local knowledge -- talking to locals and eating!

Groundnut stews are popular throughout West Africa and they feature in Ghana's cuisine as well. I had had exposure to groundnut stew on a trip to Sierra Leone, so I was more interested in other dishes that were more distinctly Ghanaian. While national in scope, some foods have regional origins. For example, in the north you're likely to find lots of yams and corn, while in the south plantains and cassava feature prominently in various dishes.

Given Ghana's location on the coast, seafood is common. Large, sweet prawns and a variety of fish can be found from local street carts to posh hotel restaurants. Ghanaians take particular pride in their grilled tilapia and banku, the latter a corn-based mush. The tilapia is seasoned well and served with red bell peppers, green peppers and onion. Another starch eaten throughout Ghana is fufu, which is pounded yam or pounded cassava mixed with plantain and commonly served with soups and stews.

As I learned more about Ghanaians' eating habits I was reminded of Jamaican cuisine. That makes sense, given the fact that many Ghanaians ended up in Jamaica as slaves. Boiled yam, cassava, green and ripe plantain all figure prominently as staples in both the Ghanaian and Jamaican diets.

I was expecting to find lots of rice on restaurant menus. Fortunately for me, a self-professed carbs gal, it went beyond plain, boiled white rice. Instead, Ghanaians make a rich, flavorful rice cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce. Jollof rice was delicious and I could have eaten it at every meal. It reminded me of of jambalaya rice that is a mainstay of New Orleans cuisine. I wouldn't be surprised if slaves from the Gold Coast ended up in New Orleans and contributed jollof rice to the local diet.

All meals are served with the ubiquitous pepper sauces that add a welcome dose to heat to Ghanaian food. Two are most commonly served. One features chilies and tomatoes. The other, which is very dark, reminded me of pepper sauces and sambals that I eat when I go to Southeast Asia. Shito is made from garlic, tomatoes, spices, either fish or vegetable oil, and either dried fish or dried shellfish. It's pungent. And a little goes a long way. Novices should go easy on these fiery sauces, though.

Unfortunately, my time in Accra was quite short and I had to be focused and efficient in my pursuit of local cuisine. I wasted no time. After arriving at the beachfront hotel, I found out that there was one more day left of Ghana's International Trade Promotion Fair, which featured a food and music festival!

The woman who helped to organize the conference that I was there to attend told me about it. Josephine was kind enough to walk me from the hotel to the Fair. On the way, I had a chance to learn about Ghana's cuisine.

My objective in going to the fair was to sample typical street food. My work takes me all over the world and it's my firm belief that you absolutely must sample street food to get a true gauge on the country's cuisine.

I arrived to the pulsing rhythms of Ghanaian music, played by a live band on stage. The music was blasting, but I didn't mind.

There were two rows of carts selling various snacks. I saw sausages, some of which looked like bratwurst. Lamb and beef kebabs were also common.

The snacks that really caught my attention were the pieces of fried fish and the jumbo shrimp, fried in their shells in coconut oil!

I bought three jumbo shrimp, which set me back all of US $2.00. The shrimp are eaten with the shell, which becomes like a potato chip as a result of the deep fat frying. I detected a slight smokiness to the shrimp and was quite pleased.

Continuing with the seafood theme, I found a street cart that was selling fried fish with the bone in. The fish were jammed tightly into the case.

You tell the seller how many pieces you want and she takes them out of the case and puts them in a plastic bag.

The sellers were not particularly keen on a lot of conversation, so I was not able to find out the type of fish I was eating. Experience, texture, oiliness and the look told me that it was very likely a mackerel. The fish was crispy on the outside yet moist on the inside, definitely the right balance. Again, I picked up a smoky flavor, which I loved. Eating around the bones was a bit of a challenge, but one well worth the effort. The fish was priced like the shrimp. My belly was happily full for about US $5.00.

Having experienced a taste of the street food scene, I decided that I would visit the famous Makola Market. When I told my Ghanaian friend, Kwesi, that I had gone there he said that I was crazy. "We never go there." Oh. Too late. Makola was a heart-pounding, over-stimulating, wild experience. My foot was nearly run over twice by trucks and I was followed by a young teenager who found me fascinating, for some unknown reason.

After weaving my way through rows of toothpaste, textiles, pots and pans, I found the food market. All I had to do was follow my nose, which filled with the scents of pungent spices and sun-heated meats.

I was immediately struck by the huge snails that moved slowly in burlap-lined containers.

Colorful spices caught my eye.I saw pepper, nutmeg, bay leaf, cumin and other spices.

The Makola Market also featured lots of fresh produce. Tomatoes are a mainstay of Ghanaian cuisine, as commonly used as onions and garlic.

And of course, various kinds of smoked fish were everywhere.

Grouper, tilapia and red snapper seemed to be the most common.

I obviously couldn't buy any fresh produce, but I was quite tempted to buy spices. But I also was not keen on the possibility of being heavily fined upon arrival in the US for bringing in agricultural products. Sadly, I left Makola without buying any food-related items.

I was curious what restaurant food would be like. Unfortunately, my time was so limited that I did not have a chance to venture out and really absorb the local restaurant scene.

Kwesi's uncle kindly took me to dinner at a "local joint." The problem? No night lights. We ate in darkness. Literally. I could barely see my hand before my face. So taking pictures was just not possible. But the experience was memorable. I ate a large, grilled tilapia with banku. Two pepper sauces accompanied the entree. Determined to do things the Ghanaian way, I washed my hands with soap in a bowl of water that the waitress brought to the table. I ate with my hands, which somehow made the meal more satisfying.

I did have other worthwhile experiences with local food. The Ghanaian Village Restaurant, located at the LaPalm Royal Resort, became my go-to spot for lunch because of the lack of time to venture away from the conference. I enjoyed sitting at a table overlooking the beach.

The sounds of the waves crashing against the shore made for soothing meals. The only minor annoyance was a beach seller who was determined to chat with me once he found out that I was from the United States. The topic of discussion? Barack Obama. I gave polite, but short answers that satisfied his desire to talk, yet gave me the space to eat in peace.

The menu was filled with local specialties, some of which I didn't quite have the courage to try. For example, grasscutter soup is made from a rat-like animal. Where's Andrew Zimmern when you need him?

I found enough options to satisfy my desire to experience Ghanaian food. One particular dish that I really enjoyed was a grilled, sliced fish (grouper) served with onions and peppers, with fufu as the starch. Of course, I couldn't get enough of the pepper sauces.

I thoroughly enjoyed the food scene in Accra and only regret that I didn't have more time to explore. The upside is that I have a reason to return.


  1. I'm glad you survived makola market unescorted.
    we all agree you are intrepid and adventurous but never knew you be to insane-until now-

  2. Great trip! Thanks for opening my eyes to new cuisine.

  3. There is a place for insanity, isn't there? I do agree that one must be slightly off to venture into Makola as a foreigner, unescorted. I'd probably do it again, though.

  4. I went to Accra in 2002 and your post brought back fond memories! The market scene reminded of Jamaica -- though bigger and more vibrant.