The oily charms of West African cuisine


Widely used ingredients in West African cooking include, clockwise from top left: dried bitterleaf, palm oil, pepper soup mix, ground egusi, alligator pepper and dried crawfish. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 28, 2012

My egusi entree at Bukom Cafe does not exactly activate the salivary glands. The pieces of stewed, bone-in goat meat are slathered with a thick paste built from West African melon seeds called egusi. The seeds give the dish its name and its slightly nutty flavor, sort of a cross between peanut and sesame seed. Truth be told, though, the dish’s dominant flavor is palm oil, which covers my plate like a petroleum slick on the ocean’s surface, seizing all manner of organic matter in its clutches.

It’s not a pretty picture, at least by Western gastronomic standards, but I find its combination of flavors both exotic (the buttery funk of the palm oil is like nothing else) and familiar (that comforting Southeast Asian pairing of proteins with peanuts). Yes, I feel as though I could regularly feast on West African cuisine if it weren’t for that river of oil ferrying my dinner.

But a few days later, I have a conversation with Fran Osseo-Asare, a Pennsylvania teacher, author and longtime student of African cooking who brings my culinary biases to their knees with one swift, culturally incisive comment:

“A layer of oil on top of the food is a way of honoring you,” says Osseo-Asare, a sociologist who has been studying Ghanaian foods since the early 1970s. “Somebody is trying to show you respect, and Americans are like, ‘Yuck, get that oil out of there!’ ”

Busted!

This is Osseo-Asare’s gift: She knows the soft, sensitive underside of the Western palate and how to attack it when someone dares to pass premature judgment on West African food. But more than that, Osseo-Asare knows the baggage that Americans can bring to the table. We’re not only averse to oily preparations and extreme heat, but we’re also not afforded a full view of the many cuisines that define West African cooking.

It seems West African restaurants in the States — whether specializing in the foods of Ghana or Nigeria or some other country — trot out many of the same dishes, each prepared with regional spins depending on the chef’s origin: peanut stew, jollof rice (a kind of West African paella), red-red (a bean stew commonly served with fried ripe plantains), fufu (a starchy side often made from pounded cassava and plantains or yams, or their flours), pepper soup; grilled tilapia, egusi.

You can find most of these dishes at the West African restaurants that I visited in the area — not just Bukom Cafe in Adams Morgan, but also Ghana Cafe on 14th Street NW near Logan Circle and Wazobia Restaurant and Baron T Street NW near Howard Theatre.

“The problem is that the best Ghanaian and Nigerian food isn’t what you’re going to get in restaurants,” says Osseo-Asare. “They don’t have a tradition of restaurant-going.”

West African food has been shaped by more factors than I can begin to enumerate in this short space. Among them are the European colonists who, centuries ago, exploited the region for gold and slave labor. Even when the colonists began to withdraw in the 20th century, they left behind lasting contributions to the cuisine. The British, in particular, introduced their own watered-down interpretation of Indian curries to the area.

Sub-Saharan West Africa also is considered one of the poorest regions in the world, a fact that influences how people buy, cook and store food. Because many cannot afford refrigeration, people tend to buy fresh ingredients from the market and cook them the same day (or rely on dried and smoked fish and vegetables). Dairy, butter and cheese, naturally, have almost no place at the table.

Nor is meat given the same center-of-the-plate supremacy as it is in Western diets. The disease-bearing tsetse fly has made cattle ranching almost impossible in many regions, while goat and chicken production remains low enough to limit those proteins to special occasions or the more affluent. Small amounts of meats (and fish) are used in stews and soups, mostly as flavoring agents.

This may sound like a cripplingly limited pantry to the average American, so spoiled by the wealth of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and fish behind every glass counter at the supermarket. But, as Osseo-Asare notes, some of West Africa’s best dishes and preparation techniques rarely make an appearance on this side of the Atlantic.

One of her favorite Ghanaian dishes is a snack called kelewele. It involves ripe plantains tossed into a pungent spice mixture that includes ginger, anise seed, cloves, onions, salt and fiery West African peppers. Once coated, the plantains are deep-fried, resulting in a sweet-and-spicy snack that still has a satisfyingly creamy and chewy center, Osseo-Asare says.

As with many cuisines that migrate from one culture to another, much is lost when West African food transitions to a new environment. Osseo-Asare talks longingly of the textures absent from Ghanaian food produced stateside. In Ghana, she notes, most households own an asanka, a shallow, ridged bowl used for mashing vegetables, spices, meat and fish. The instrument, similar to a mortar and pestle, shreds food instead of pureeing it like a blender, which can pulverize an ingredient’s cell structure and destroy its fresh flavors.

Osseo-Asare offers an example: A classic student meal in Ghana might consist of tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, sardines or corned beef, which will be mashed in the asanka and scooped up straight from the bowl with pieces of kenkey, a firm fermented corn dough. Its flavors are fresh, immediate, direct.

The cooking you find around Washington cannot begin to compare with the freshness of traditional West African cooking, in large part because the ingredients themselves are often not fresh. Just walk around the Afrik International Food Market in Hyattsville. Shelves and refrigerator cases are stuffed with all manner of exotic ingredients: uziza leaves, bitterleaf, egusi seed, pepper soup mixes, watche leaves, alligator peppers, cubed goat meat and much more. All of it is either frozen or dried.

But more than the quality of the ingredients, the people who call themselves chefs around here may not have much official training in the kitchen. This month, I sat down with the chef at Wazobia, Edward Edoho, who says he learned Nigerian cooking from his mother, a restaurant owner in their home country. His two daughters now run the Shaw restaurant. Edoho was absolutely engaging on the subjects of the Nigerian civil war and tribal politics; he showed little interest in discussing food.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but West African food needs good ambassadors who can help demystify the subject for Westerners. They can help explain why African meat is so often tough and chewy (short answer: They like their meat well-done). They can explain the excessive use of palm oil (it provides much-needed calories). They can explain how to tone down the heat on dishes (go easy on the shito, a molten condiment). They can even explain the proper technique for eating fufu with those ubiquitous stews.

That latter bit of knowledge can help a hapless novice save face in a West African restaurant. The proper technique is to pinch off a hunk from the sticky fufu ball, press your thumb into the dough to create a spoon, scoop up the stew and swallow the bite whole.

“You almost slurp it up and, theoretically, let it slide right down your throat. I could never make that happen,” says David Kamen, chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Kamen’s wife, Patience, apparently lives up to her name. She’s a West African — half Ghanaian, half Liberian — who has come to accept that her husband will chew his fufu. So, apparently, has her family, though Kamen adds: “I still get teased for it.”

If anyone can help drag West African food into the American mainstream, it’s Osseo-Asare. In 1971, she fell in love with a Ghanaian man while in college and wanted to marry him. But to ease her parents’ concern, she agreed to live in Ghana for a year, alone and without her beau’s influence, to see whether she could accept the cultural differences. Twelve months later, she loved the country almost as much as she loved her man. They’re still married.

These days, Osseo-Asare, 62, writes an informative blog called BETUMIblog (“betumi” is an Akan word meaning, essentially, “can do”), dedicated to African cooking. She has also been working for years on a comprehensive cookbook with Barbara Baeta, a leading authority on West African cooking based in Ghana. The pair has had a hard time finding a publisher.

“They’ve told me they love” the manuscript, Osseo-Asare says, “but they don’t think there’s a market for it.”

She’s not deterred. In fact, Osseo-Asare sees hope for the cuisines of West Africa, as chefs increasingly turn to foreign cultures for inspiration and as immigrants look for ways to make their native cooking more accessible to Western palates. Here’s my own small contribution: a less-oily egusi stew.

“I think African cooking may very well become the next big thing,” she says. “Ghana is where Brazil was 30 years ago.”

Glossary of West African ingredients

RECIPE:

Goat and Beef With Egusi Sauce

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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