Zoe Adjonyoh grew up in London with a Ghanaian father who never really taught her how to cook. As an adult, she decided to connect to that heritage, and taught herself to cook. Now she runs a restaurant based on all she’s learned and recently released her debut cookbook, Zoe's Ghana Kitchen. Host Francis Lam asked her for a primer on Ghanaian cuisine. She left us with recipes for Yam & Plantain Peanut Curry and a separate Peanut Sauce, as well as Chalé Sauce and the magical hot chile paste called Shito.
Francis Lam: I want to talk to you about Ghanaian food. It's sort of a silly thing to ask people to describe a cuisine, but I'm going to give it a try, and let's see what comes to mind first. What would you say are some of the hallmark characteristics of Ghanaian food?
Zoe Adjonyoh: You're right. It is a tricky question because Ghana is such a huge country, and region to region, the ingredients vary quite a lot, but the cornerstones I would suggest: there's lots and lots of unprocessed foods, so lots of pulses, lots of fresh vegetables and spices, and more green in the diet than a lot of people would expect. A lot of people imagine a lot of African food to be very meat-heavy, but lots of aromatic... it's very aromatic and wholesome with these great, different flavor profiles.
FL: What are some of those flavor profiles?
ZA: You have spices like guinea peppers or alligator peppers and these aromatics on the same scale as nutmeg that vibe -- woody, earthy flavors. Whenever I crack open a guinea pepper, it always reminds me of being in a massage parlor, that aromatherapy smell candles, lovely candles happening around you. All of the variety obviously heat is involved, so there's a wide variety of different kinds of hot chili’s as well -- not that all the food is particularly hot, to be honest, another misconception of Ghanaian and West African food. Then there's the subtleties of the different yams between yam and cocoyam and cassava and those kind of carb staples, as well.
FL: Talk to me about some of those carbs because Ghanaian food is newer to me. I haven't had that many experiences with it. I've had a chance to cook it a couple times with some Ghanaian cooks, but I think people are more familiar with -- in West Africa, anyway -- with Senegalese food, which is very rice-heavy.
FL: But in Ghanaian food, you have different starches that are not rice. You have different yams and mashes and fermented mashes and things like that. Tell us about some of those.
ZA: What we're really good at, is getting as much out of one thing as possible. For example, plantain -- everyone, pretty much, knows what a plantain is, but from green to black, over that seven-week cycle, it goes from very, very starchy where you'd use it for something like apem, to super, super sweet where the starch transfers to sucrose, and then you make wonderful things like tatale pancakes. Cassava, yam feature very heavily, and cocoyam, which is like a small version of the larger yam. When I say "yam," as well, I don't mean sweet potato because I know Americans call sweet potatoes yams. We have that controversial issue between us. Cocoyam is small, hairy and quite sweet. All of those vegetables you can use in the same way that one would use a potato. You can chip it, roast it, fry it, and all of those things, but then again, we also pound those things to create, extend its life, and turn it into another dish entirely. You've probably heard of fufu, for example, which is, basically, pounding down yam with water until you get this viscous, sticky, starchy almost like a dough-- somewhere between mashed potato and a dough, and then we use our hands to scoop up soups and stews and fish. It becomes an eating tool as well. We've got a very large variety of different carbs other than the famous jollof rice.
FL: With those different mashes and the yams, it's often stews, right? There are a lot of stews with smoked fish and the peppers. You talked about the nutmeg. Tell us about some of your favorite dishes.
ZA: Well, light soup, groundnut soup is my absolute favorite dish because that's the one I ate most frequently as a child. It's literally, like, that combination -- this is what I mean about those subtle flavor profiles. You have this sweet peanut butter vibe going into stewed lamb with Scotch bonnet and tomatoes and ginger, and you have this sort of sweet/savory combination. It's an amazing smell, and it's just such a great taste all together.
Zoe's Ghana Kitchen
by Zoe Adjonyoh
FL: That sounds awesome.
ZA: You have that with fufu, for example, or yam and plantains, and it's literally when you eat a mouthful, Francis -- I'm not kidding -- it's like someone's just hugged you. The spoon just gave you a massive hug. So delicious! Other things are, famously, okra soup. One that a lot of people don't eat so much would be something like palm nut soup. A lot of those dishes from region to region, they can either be vegetarian -- like, okra soup can be quite a simple vegetarian dish with okra and spinach, or perhaps up in the Volta Region, you might find they've got lot of stockfish in there. In Elmina, on the coast, they'll have stockfish and goat, perhaps, in there. So, that's what I love about the food as well. It's so easy to vary from a light kind of stew to a very dense, heavy meal. So, it can be a snack or a big meal, you know?
FL: Yeah. And stockfish -- is that a salted, dried fish?
ZA: Preserving food is a big aspect of Ghanaian food -- barracuda, catfish, mackerel, just...yeah, there's so much. I remember being at Jamestown watching a haul come in, and I couldn't believe the variety. There was even squid and stuff like that. I was just so surprised at the variety of fresh fish available. They're used as stockfish. That smoked, dried, salted fish flavor -- well, I'm sure you know, yourself, from other cuisines -- it's incredible, and it's one of the key features of a hot pepper sauce I love that is kind of an accompaniment to pretty much every meal. It's called shito. Have you heard of shito?
FL: Uh-huh. I have a jar of it in my fridge, and it is so good, but it's been there for, like, a year.
ZA: Do you? Oh. Did you make it from my book?
FL: A gentleman I met once who taught me how to make a couple of Ghanaian dishes. We had a terrific afternoon together, and as I was leaving, he was like, "Oh, take this. I just made this shito." And I was like [gasps]. The problem is, it's so good that I can't bear to eat it.
ZA: I know!
FL: I keep spooning out two microns at a time. But tell me about how to make it. What is it?
ZA: It's basically a hot pepper sauce. It's a little bit like sambal, I guess, because it has that smoked fish, smoked crayfish, prawn aspect to it, depending on what you've got available to you. I quite often use a combination of those things, but it’s super simple to make. You use quite a lot of oil because oil is going to give it the right consistency, and you just want to sauté lots of onion into that. I add guinea peppers if I have them available. I crack those open, grind them down because they get that nice, aromatic spice. I also add some fresh, sort of hard herbs -- either thyme or rosemary -- just to bring out those aromatic notes, and then the rest is straightforward. You add quite a lot of tomato puree. You add quite a lot of your crayfish, smoked crayfish, smoked fish, or smoked prawns. Most commonly, people use prawns. It depends how fishy you want the flavor to be, because smoked crayfish is going to be a bit stronger than the prawn, and the smoked fish is going to be stronger again. Stir them all in and let them bubble and melt together, and then I add some either little kpakpo shito peppers, which are those green, little cherry peppers that look so sweet and adorable. They're very, very hot. Then about 200 grams of chili -- that's my standard amount of chili to add because I like it hot, but you can go a lot lower than that. You can add 75 grams for a mild version, and you just let it cook out in the pot nice and slowly, nice and easy, bubbling up, and it goes from this deep red color to kind of deep, deep, dark brown. The smell is just incredible, and the taste is obviously wonderful, as well, as you know.
FL: It's a weird kind of hug that kind of hurts at the end.
ZA: It's more of a pinch. "Wake up!"
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.