When I talk to people from home, the first thing they ask me is, “How’s the food?” This is probably because everyone knows that I love food and am addicted to watching cooking shows. I always joke that I’m the best fed college student as I often cook elaborate meals for myself. Born and raised in the Midwest, my usually diet tends to be meat and potatoes with a hefty side of cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I love fruits and veggies, but as a child I always said my favorite food was steak.
Before coming here, I was entirely naïve about Ghanaian cuisine. I thought I would be eating tiny portions of rice and fruit right off the tree. I figured I would come back ten pounds lighter. Well, I’ve been here almost three months and have already gained weight. I don’t have access to a scale, but I would estimate that I’ve gained about seven to ten pounds. I even contemplated naming this post, “Gaining Weight in Ghana.” After talking to other participants and the ProWorld coordinators, I learned that just about everyone gains a few pounds here. What am I eating that’s causing this weight gain? Carbs and oil.
Ghanaian’s diet is very heavy in carbohydrate and fats. If you think about it, this is entirely logical. Traditionally many Ghanaians have very physical jobs and combined with the extreme heat, they need large amounts of calories. Not to mention, you need to replace the salts from all that sweating. If you don’t have a lot of money, what is the cheapest way to get these calories? Certainly not from eating salad. Thus Ghanaians eat a lot of fried foods and dishes with a lot of carbohydrates in them.
Unlike the U.S. where a piece of meat may be the center of a meal, meat is used almost as a seasoning. As I’m located on the coast, people eat a lot of fish here, usually smoked or salted. As for meat, people mostly eat goat and chicken, though you can find beef in some places. Pork seems to be pretty rare. Ghanaians also eat random “bush meat” like rats. Eggs are used as a cheap source of protein, and local fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and oranges are eaten as snacks. Veggies are often eaten in stews and sauces rather than in salads. Despite the abundance of goats wandering around, there is absolutely no dairy here. People drink evaporated or condensed milk, use margarine, and never eat cheese. This has been really hard for a cheesehead like me! I’ve splurged to buy some imported cheese at the obruni shops because I was craving some desperately.
Since my homestay mother prepares all of my meals, I don’t have much say in what I’m eating. However, Auntie Alice is very much aware that Americans struggle with traditional meals and takes it pretty easy on me. She’s known to be one of the best cooks out of the homestay families and often gets participants who have special dietary needs such as vegetarians. That being said, I struggled with the food when I got here. Like I said in an earlier post, I have IBS and my intestines were not happy with my change in diet. Now I’m pretty adjusted and only have minor stomach issues. Without further ado, here’s a bit of what I’ve been eating:
My breakfasts are pretty predictable. I get toasted white bread with margarine. The bread is slightly sweet and Auntie Alice toasts it using a panini press. Occasionally, she adds raw onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes to make little sandwiches, and on extra special days, an egg. I’ve gotten pancakes maybe four times and I usually get fresh squeezed orange juice a few times a week. I’ve recently started getting oatmeal, which I’m super excited about. It is thinner than I’m used to, and served with sugar and evaporated milk. For a carb overload, I get some more bread on the side.
Auntie Alice packs me a lunch to take to work every day. I get a traditional dish called red red about twice a week. It is plantains fried in red palm oil with a red sauce that contains beans. Red red isn’t my favorite as by the time I eat it, it’s no longer hot and a bit soggy. Sometimes I get my red red with fish, but you can get it elsewhere with chicken or goat. I also always get white rice with stew. I really like my auntie’s stew as she packs a lot of veggies in it and sometimes adds chicken. I sometimes get jollof rice with chicken, which is rice that was cooked in oil, tomatoes, and spices. I also really enjoy that. Lastly, I get sometimes get french fries with chicken.
Auntie Alice’s cooking skills really shine at dinnertime. I get a lot of variety for dinner. At first I used to get a lot of fish, which I didn’t like. I would get smoked or dried fish that has a very strong flavor. Finally, I got the courage to tell her that I’m not a fan of fish and now rarely get it! Fish here seems to be a hit or a miss for me. Depending on how it’s prepared, it can be amazing or not so good. Here’s a list of thing’s I’ve eaten for dinner:
- Indomie: this is a Nigerian brand ramen. I get it on nights when Auntie Alice gets home late from work. I really like the spicy kind.
- Boiled potatoes and stew: usually the same stew that I get for lunch. Tasty!
- Spaghetti with veggie sauce: This is probably my favorite dinner as Auntie Alice makes a delicious tomato-veggie sauce.
- Chicken and Potato stew: I guess the best way to describe this is similar to the filling of a chicken pot pie. It has chicken potatoes, and various veggies. It’s comfort food at its finest. Sometimes she mixes it up and uses sweet potatoes, or makes it spicy.
- Curry Rice with chicken: This is one of Papa Kofi and my favorites.
- Palm nut soup with rice balls: Palm nut soup is probably the one food that Westerners really struggle with. I’ve yet to meet one that likes it. It’s oily, slightly spicy, and often has a lot of dried fish in it. This was the dish that prompted the fish conversation. I really hope I don’t get it again.
- Banku with okra stew: So I really enjoyed the okra stew. It was packed with veggies and was slightly spicy. The banku, was just ok. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again, but it wasn’t awful. Banku falls into the “starchy dough” category of traditional meals. It is made from ferment maize that has pounded into a cookie dough-like consistency. It tastes like unbaked sourdough bread. The texture is very strange to me, and I’m not sure if you are supposed to chew it.
My meals tend to be less traditional than many other participants. Poor Max had to eat banku every evening.. Since she has a full-time job and is raising Papa Kofi alone, she doesn’t have a lot of spare time. Traditional meals seem to take longer to cook, which is why I usually only get them on weekends. Here are some other traditional dishes:
- Fufu: Fufu is pounded yam/cassava dough that is a bit softer than banku. You aren’t supposed to chew it andit’s pretty flavorless. Instead it takes on the flavor of whatever soup you serve it with.
- Light soup: It is basically tomato soup and often served with fufu and fish.
- Kenkey: Kenkey is similar to banku and is wrapped in banana leaves. I tried kenkey at work and did not like it as it has a very strong fermented flavor. It is almost always served with fish.
- Groundnut Soup: Groundnuts are pretty much the same thing as peanuts. Thus, groundnut soup is peanuty and slight spicy. Most participants love it. It is often served with rice balls and occasionally chicken.
- Waakye: it is a mix of white rice and beans that turns purple when served in a purple leaf. It usually comes with sauce and sometime gari, ground cassava. You can get it with meat, eggs, or salad. This dish is easily found on the side of the road.
Overall, Ghanaian food is spicy, flavorful, and often tomato-based. Despite the abundance of cookies found in shops, Ghanaians don’t seem to eat a lot sugar and their food is much less processed that I would get home. Despite their availability, vegetables aren’t frequently eaten, unless fried or in a stew. I frequently buy oranges or other fruits to jokingly ward off scurvy. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the more traditional dishes like palm nut soup or banku, and prefer the rice dishes. I look forward to continuing trying new foods here and need to ask Auntie Alice for her jollof recipe.