my kingdom for a baguette

KUMASI, Ghana Walking down to the guesthouse at the end of the day the aroma of roasting meat wafted into my nostrils.


Walking down to the guesthouse at the end of the day the aroma of roasting meat wafted into my nostrils.

At the base of the hill a man on the street corner tended brochettes on a charcoal grill. Appetizer, I thought, and went over to see what was cooking.

“Gizzard,” he said. “And this is brain. And these ones are tripe. You know, intestine.”

Yeah, I know what tripe is. But what, no beef? No pork? Chicken?

Nope. ‘Cuisine’ in Ghana could be considered efficient since often not a single part of the goat is wasted — not even the skin.

But nobody seems familiar with the expression, “variety is the spice of life.”

West Africa’s most traditional food is fufu, a dish of white yam or cassava that has been pounded to a pulp and is served in an oily broth.

I have watched the fufu-making process, which is almost exclusively performed by two women: one to wield the long two-handed pounding stick, the other to toss chunks of plantain into the mortar between blows.

The end result is kneaded into a doughy starch ball, “kind of like mashed potatoes mixed with gelatin and very sticky,” according to the Lonely Planet West Africa guidebook.

“You grab a portion (with your right hand), form a ball, dip it in the sauce and enjoy.”

That last point is debatable.

Essentially flavourless, fufu is a sustaining starch. But it’s hardly a treat for the palate.

Ghanaians disagree. They love their fufu.

“I eat it every day,” a cheerful cab driver told me as he assured that the best fufu in all of Ghana was to be found right here in Kumasi.

Why, I wondered? What makes one starch ball better than the other?

Because the Ga people who inhabit Accra, the Ghanaian capital, make their fufu with yam whereas the Ashantis of Kumasi know it’s better made with cassava, the cabbie explained.

Oookay … But every day? What could be more boring?

We’re not talking about a starvation culture where fufu is all there is to eat. Ghana is incredibly fertile, teeming with mangoes, cucumbers and cocoa beans.

Throw some seeds on the ground and they’ll grow.

When in season, such fruits and legumes do get eaten. But the main daily meal is always fufu, or variations such as kenkey and banku that are pounded from fermented maize.

All are super cheap, costing less than a dollar to fill two people. And all share the same texture and flavour.

The only real variety is the accompanying stew, which could be peanut, palm nut or, most common, okra — all of which taste and smell fishy.

It’s the oil.

A person can survive on such fare. One might even enjoy it. But that doesn’t have to mean that’s all there is to eat, all the time.

Yet that’s dining in Ghana.

Fufu and its derivatives, plus red-red (bean stew), fried rice (a worldwide staple) and the universal kebab (sometimes brain, sometimes beef) are about all there is to classic Ghanaian cuisine, plus the tilapia and grouper, two ubiquitous fishes whose flavourful oils dominate sauces.

They’re all on the menu at typical Ghanaian ‘chop bars,’ the street stalls where locals eat.

Other distinctive foodstuffs, such as smoked grasscutter (a large forest rodent) and the giant snail, can be found at market.

Move upscale to a restaurant, order a club sandwich and a mix of lettuce, cabbage and chicken will arrive smothered in ketchup and mayonnaise and flanked by toast.

The best cuisine in Ghana comes from outside Ghana — Lebanese, Indian, Japanese — and such restaurants are scarce.

Yet cross any of Ghana’s three borders and culinary differences are the second-most obvious, right after language.

Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo are former French colonies; perhaps predictably, the food is a lot better than it is in formerly British Ghana.

French-speaking West Africa experiments more.

Pan-fried fillet of sole with lemon and herbs, brochettes of lamb with mint and oven-roasted vegetables — these are common in Togo and Burkina, while Cote d’Ivoire was, until recent civil unrest, rumoured to have the finest food in the region.

Ghana’s neighbours also offer a simple, blessed variety of groceries.

Cheeses. Milk. Cold cuts of meat.

And bread. It’s almost as though Ghana has an embargo on baguette.

Instead Ghanaians eat ‘tea bread,’ another throwback to the British that is sweetened and unsuitable for anything but toast.

Not that a true sandwich can’t be found, only very rarely and only egg salad.

It seems Ghanaians kept only the worst of what meagre samples British cuisine had to offer … plus chips.

At least I know I’ll never take the deli counter at Safeway for granted, ever again.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.