Everything you heard about Ghanaian food is wrong (well, almost)
Safe, stable and English-speaking, Ghana has long enjoyed a reputation as the ‘gateway to West Africa’ for first-timers. And it quickly gets under the skin. The people are quick to smile, the music – from classic highlife to newer sounds such as azonto and hiplife – is phenomenal, the west coast beaches are paradise and there’s wonderful (if sweaty) hiking in the low mountains and transitional rainforest of the Volta region. What’s more, you can find some amazingly cheap hostels in great locations, particularly on the western beaches.
But while that’s all in the bag, conventional wisdom says that there’s one major drawback: the food. Ghanaian grub, and West African fare in general, has a reputation for being stodgy and uninspiring. Old hands and expats shudder at the mention of fufu and okro soup – but how much of that is fair, and how much is exaggeration? Actually Ghana has more than a few aces up its sleeve; none of them are haute cuisine, but if you like your meals hearty, spicy and filling, you’ll quickly come to love certain Ghanian dishes, and miss them when your backpacking trip comes to an end. Here are a few things to look out for:
1. Guinea fowl
Native to West Africa but a popular feature on posh European dinner tables, this bird is Ghana’s secret weapon. Eat it smeared in spices and barbecued, or dunked in a bowl of light soup, a spicy tomato broth that can come up VERY hot. They’re plump, meaty birds with loads of flavour – think of them as the missing link between chicken and game birds.
2. Omo tuo and groundnut soup
© Copyrights: PapJeff
Real comfort food. In many chop houses this dish of huge rice balls and rich, nutty stew is a Sunday special. They might look a bit like fufu – big, blobby white things in soup – but omo tuo have a coarser texture and a flavour of, well, rice. As for groundnut soup, if you like peanut butter or satay sauce, you’ll be in heaven.
3. Red red
© Copyrights: benketaro
This classic dish has two components: a rich stew of black-eyed peas, and a serving of spicy fried plantain. One’s crisp, one’s smooth; one’s savoury, one has a hint of sweetness; one’s creamy, one has a bit of heat. You can usually add a piece of guinea fowl or chicken, but the basics are more than enough for a full meal.
Look out too for aborboi (Bambara bean) stew, typically eaten with a sprinkling of sugar. It’s delicious, but less common than red red.
4. Jollof rice
© Copyrights: Charles Haynes
Jollof merits inclusion not because Ghana invented it – several West African countries claim to have, none of them very conclusively – but because you’ll see it everywhere, and it’s good. A mix of rice, onions and veg, fried and reddened with ubiquitous palm oil. It’s a classic accompaniment to grilled meat, moistened with shito, a hot black pepper sauce flavoured with ginger and dried fish.
© Copyrights: Mac-Jordan Degadjor
Pronounced waa-chay, this mix of rice and beans is typically eaten at roadside stands and can be eaten at any time of day (though breakfast and lunch are the most common). With waa-chay, it’s all about the accompaniments – you cover the rice-and-bean base in pepper sauce, egg, salad, meat, noodles or anything else that’s on offer and dig in.
Even if you can’t find a cooked dish you like, in Ghana you’re surrounded by fabulous mangoes, papayas and pineapples, and by tiny, unbelievably sweet bananas. Add to that fresh coconut for sale absolutely everywhere and life starts to seem pretty good to the fruit fan. If your hostel offers a choice of fresh fruit or a cooked breakfast – which in Ghana tends to consist of a cheap frankfurter, spongy white bread, an omelette and a meagre serving of baked beans – choose the fruit every time.