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Traveler's guide to local and western food in Ghana, Africa
Banku with tilapia
Banku is a thick dough ball made from fermented maize. The thick matter is stirred rigorously in a pot and has a similar, gum-like texture to the other main starch staple in Ghana, Fufu (see below), and is usually served with a stew and/or tilapia. The proper way to eat it is to grab a piece of the dough ball, create an indentation with your finger, and scoop up some palm oil or stew, swallowing it without chewing. The dish is very similar to Kenkey, another Ghanian staple, although the preparation and cooking time vary slightly. Many westerners may be a little hesitant to try the tilapia (I know I was), as it still has the head, tail, and scales in tact. Simply use your hands to peel back the scales and pull out chunks of meat with your fingers, being careful not to grab any bones.
Boiled yams are kind of similar to baked potatoes but a little sweeter, and the palaver sauce is actually a kind of stew with vegetables, meat, and chunks of fish. Often times in Ghana I would feel weak due to lack of protein, and would eat the palaver sauce by itself, which is definitely one of the best options for a meat-filled dish.
Fufu with ground nut soup
Usually served in a spicy peanut-broth base, fufu is cooked using cassava, a starchy root plant that is pounded down with a mortar and pestle to create a gum-textured ball. To eat it like a local, rip off a piece with yours hands, create an indentation with your finger and use it to scoop up some soup, then swallow without chewing. It is often served with pieces of fried chicken or fish.
Rice water and jollof rice
Now these two forms of rice are completely different; while rice water is a staple breakfast meal that is very salty and is basically cooked rice with extra water added, jollof rice is stir-fried in tomato paste, making it more flavorful than usual cooking rice, and is usually served with meat for lunch or dinner.
Red red with plantains
This was hands down my favorite food in Ghana, and is probably the most "Western" of the local dishes. It is a mixture of black eyed peas, bonnet peppers, onions, palm oil, and crushed tomatoes. The reason it's called "red red" is because the palm oil mixed with the tomatoes creates a thick, red base that stains the entire plate. It is usually served with deep fried plantains that are very soft and sweet.
Snacks and street food
Snail in general is a food favorite in Ghana, whether you boil it, fry it, or put it on a kebab. In fact, when I was doing orphanage work there the children loved to go snail hunting at night and would boil them and put them on a toothpick to snack on. When you're in the markets or you see hawkers selling kebabs that look like they have succulent mushrooms on them, be aware that they are actually snails. I tried one, and will say that they are extremely salty and very tough and chewy.
Brown nut paste
Brown nut paste is basically the Ghanian take on peanut butter, however, it is a lot thicker and creamier. It doesn't have any additives so it has a very natural taste to it, basically like eating "creamed" peanuts. If you walk around the outdoor markets, you will often be able to ask for a small sample before purchasing some for yourself. It tastes really good on biscuits or cookies with a bit of Nutella added.
There are many fruits you'll be able to get from the markets in Ghana, depending what city you're in; bananas, grapes, apples, mangoes, avocados, tomatoes. However, the evo was my favorite, and also the most interesting in flavor and appearance. The outside is green and prickly and you break it open with your hands to reveal a cotton-candy like inside (see right). The taste is sweet and fizzy, kind of like a fruit-flavored soda pop.
Almost everywhere you go, you will see locals riding around on bicycles with coolers attached advertising Fan Ice. It's the Ghanaian version of the ice cream truck, and for 40-60 pesewas (about 25-35 cents), you can get a chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry yogurt Fan Ice pop. These are extremely refreshing after a long day in the African sun.
Fried chicken with fried yam
This is probably the closest you'll get to a meal in terms of street food. It's exactly what it sounds like, pieces of fried chicken served with fried yam, basically the Ghanian version of chicken nuggets and fries. There are usually women walking around carrying a small take-out station on their heads, and you can literally just smile and ask "Wa ye sen?" (How much is it?).
Abru ne nkatea
This was one of my favorite snacks to make with the children at the orphanage, and both locals and Westerners love it. It's basically un-popped popcorn kernals with nuts simmered in sugar and is really sweet and crunchy.
These are really easy to find in the markets and just walking down the street in most cities in Ghana. Locals walk around with small display cases on their heads filled with meat pies. It's basically a pie type crust filled with beef and vegetables. Warning: Sometimes the meat pies are severely lacking in meat, although you will not know this until you purchase one. If you're really craving protein, opt for the fried chicken and fried yams.
Roasted maize in Ghana looks similar to roasted corn on the cob, although it tastes a lot sweeter, like kettle corn. It's a really cheap, quick snack if you're hungry.
Again, you'll be able to find Western foods at resorts, hotels, and the Accra Mall, usually for an expensive price. However, it's not uncommon to find yourself in an area that only features small wooden stalls, hawkers, and "restaurants" that are actually the homes of locals. Every once in awhile you'll be able to find a convenience store, and will possibly be able to find some of these comforts from home:
- Cans of beans- This became my favorite food in Ghana as their diet is high in starch, carbs, and fried foods. When you just want wholesome protein, beans are really satisfying.
- Chocolate soy milk- Okay, so it's not real milk; it's still refreshing. And, it has (soy) protein.
- Snickers- They don't taste exactly like a normal snickers but they have the same package and when you're desperate, will taste just like heaven.
- Corn flakes- Cereal is a little expensive in Ghana, but tastes just like the stuff from home.
- Nutella- Brand-name Nutella is extremely expensive in Ghana, but luckily they sell a knock-off brand that is almost as good and half the price.
- Laughing Cow cheese- Little access to refrigeration means you'll be seeing very little cheese. Since Laughing Cow doesn't need to be refrigerated, it's the perfect purchase.
- Cookies/biscuits/bread- Lots of varieties of these carb and snack staples, so you'll be able to find something similar to the kind you enjoy at home.