Food has the capacity to create or deepen a sense of place. It can help paint a picture of or even transport us to a particular moment in space and time. I was fondly reminded of this aspect of food when I recently prepared a West African dinner for the family of one of my former students. The meal itself was Ghanaian and featured a menu of spicy Ghanaian peanut stew over couscous, fried plantain, a salad of mixed spring greens, red onion, grated carrots, and pineapple chunks with a pineapple vinaigrette, vegan brandy buns for dessert and hibiscus tea made with fresh ginger root and fresh lemons as the featured beverage.
As I prepared the stew in particular, I consciously thought about when, where, and from whom I had learned to make it. The recollection took me back to the summer of 1994. August 7th to be exact. A late, partly cloudy, Sunday morning when I was picked up from the University of Ghana and taken to the home of
Nii Boi, Ami, and Kofi. Nii Boi was a student at the University of Ghana where I had been studying for the past six weeks. After many a long, philosophical conversation about the history, independence, culture
and food of his country, he invited me to spend the day with his wife Ami, who was to teach me how to prepare some traditional Ghanaian dishes, one of which was a groundnut stew. The base of the stew was fresh tomatoes, fresh garlic, fresh ginger root, fresh habanera pepper, palm oil, and groundnuts, aka peanuts. I remember that many of the ingredients were fresh because of my interaction with the food. At the time, electricity rotated in Legon-Accra from one part of town to the other so that at least once a week a household was likely to be without power. On that particular Sunday, Nii Boi and Ami did not have power, which meant none of the small appliances on the counter were used in the preparation of our meal. Instead we used a huge pestle and mortar, the kind that sits on the floor, to pound the plantain. We also used a wooden bowl with ridges along with a hand held wooden instrument to press and grind the fresh ginger, garlic and habanera pepper. I explicitly remember not feeling inconvenienced but actually enjoying the sensations of feeling, smelling, and seeing up close ingredients and instruments that were somewhat foreign to me. And even though I have since acquired many small appliances and cooking gadgets, I oftentimes choose not to use them in favor of chopping, mincing, pounding, and rolling out the foods with my very hands. I imagine that whatever energy, mood, emotion or vibration I feel will not only transmit but be intensified by my having handled the food with my own hands.
I was not vegetarian or vegan when I visited Ghana, and the peanut stew that Ami taught me to make on that day had a little bit of chicken, fish and beef in it. With gathered grains of cooked rice, we formed balls and placed these balls in the bowls of stew. Sitting facing each other over a modest living room table, we fellowshipped over the food with baby Kofi in his walker close by. We enjoyed the meal, hugged, and I left with more for later and notes on what we had done, notes that, by the way, did not contain a single, exact measurement. As I I began to increase my repertoire of vegetarian and vegan dishes, I improvised on the dishes that Ami taught me to make. The version of the peanut stew that I prepare now is a vegan one that features chunks of bright orange, sweet potato, fresh, tender okra, and sweet corn in the same creamy, peanutty base that she showed me. All a testament to how culture, memory and the oral tradition are kept alive via food.
When I entered the family’s home to deliver the West African Meal for Eight, something delicious was already percolating. The woman of the house explained it was just some onions, garlic, herbs, and beans that she was about to puree into a dip of some kind. It smelled like much more than garlic and onions. A brief exchange about the dish she was preparing led to revelations about her family’s names and ethnic background. I learned that she, her husband and her children were full-blooded Italian. For a brief moment, I was reminded of food’s capacity to bring together people of various cultures and backgrounds. Here I was a southern African American woman from Tennessee, delivering food that tasted of Ghana, West Africa to a family with roots in Italy.
I left her with a framed menu card and a framed Ghanaian proverb, “Only when you have crossed the river, can you say the crocodile has a lump on his snout.” I think this proverb has something to do with walking a mile in someone else’s shoes before assessing and judging them or maybe it’s like the African American saying, “you’ve got to go there to know there.” I thought it would be fun for her guests to ponder and come up with interpretations of their own, and I only hoped that they’d enjoy their journey to Ghana, West Africa by way of the dishes I had made especially for them.
Vita’s Vegan Ghanaian Peanut Stew
4 large sweet potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)
3 handfuls of fresh okra, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (choose firm, small to medium okra)
1 ½ cups corn (frozen or scrapped off the cob)
1 medium red onion (coarsely chopped)
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
3/4 inch piece of ginger root, peeled
1 habanera pepper (to decrease the hotness, cut out and set aside the veins and seeds; once the dish is done, add the seeds to the dish to increase the hotness)
4 large tomatoes
1 Tablespoon of agave nectar or raw sugar
3 Tablespoons Bragg Liquid Aminos (or 1 ½ teaspoons of sea salt plus more to taste)
3 Tablespoons Palm Oil
3/4-1 cup of smooth, organic peanut butter (unsweetened, unsalted)
1/2-1 cup of water (depending on the desired consistency of the sauce)
In a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes, ginger root, garlic cloves, habanera pepper, sweetener, and liquid aminos. Set this mixture aside. (If you do not have a blender or food processor, dice the tomatoes, peel and grate the ginger root, peel and finely chop the garlic, slit and add the whole pepper minus the seeds and veins if you are not a fan of spicy.) In a large pot, heat the palm oil, and soften the onion. Add the tomato mixture to the pot. Let this mixture simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the peanut butter. Stir until the peanut butter is blended. Add the water a little at a time until the sauce is the consistency that you would like. Add the sweet potato. Put a tightly fitting lid on the pot and let the sweet potato cook for about 20 minutes or until it is just about tender. When the sweet potato is almost tender, add the corn. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes longer. Be sure to stir occasionally during the entire cooking process to prevent the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pot. When the sweet potato is tender, stir in the fresh okra and turn off the heat. This will better ensure that the okra remains whole and tender, instead of slimy.
Serving Suggestions: Serve this stew over couscous or brown rice. Cook couscous or rice according to instructions on the packet. Fried plantain makes a great side dish.