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This chale is a spiced tomato sauce to enhance just about any protein

(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post/Food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)
Chale Sauce With Sardines
Active time:15 mins
Total time:45 mins
Active time:15 mins
Total time:45 mins

West African cuisine has been pinging on my healthy-food radar a lot lately. Several months ago, I spontaneously picked up a package of fonio — a gluten-free West African grain that has recently become more widely available. I was delighted by this tiny millet, which cooks in just five minutes, coming out light and fluffy, with a gentle nutty flavor.

Shortly after that, a friend introduced me to Ginjan Café, in New York, which features healthful, African-inspired dishes and a lively, not-too-sweet signature drink of ginger, pineapple and lemon, which the owners developed to satisfy their longing for a taste of their hometown in Guinea. (That drink, and others, are now available on their website.)

Then I met Zoe Adjonyoh and discovered her cookbook, “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen,” which opened my eyes further to the wealth of healthful ingredients and dishes from that region. In an email exchange with me, she wrote, “I think American audiences are only at the beginning of their journey when it comes to foods from across Africa and there is so much to learn and explore which makes the gap exciting, and there are now plenty of cooks, chefs, dietitians and nutritionists from the continent starting to get the word out.”

This recipe, a chale sauce, is inspired by a meal her dad would regularly make for her. Adjonyoh writes in her book that he would whip this sauce up “and then literally throw in any type of meat, fish or protein, but it was always tasty.” Its base is a version of a Ghanaian passata, a tomato sauce that is also used as a seasoning element in recipes throughout her book.

When I first made the sauce, as I was adding the spices I felt certain it was going to be way too fiery for me, even with my high heat tolerance, but I was surprised at how the flavors mellowed in the cooked tomato base. Prepared as written, the heat level is a solid medium, which you can certainly adjust to taste.

The sauce’s intense flavor makes it an ideal foil for the richness of fatty fish, such as sardines or mackerel, with all their omega-3 goodness. Using canned or jarred sardines, as in this recipe, also makes it a convenient weeknight meal. Adjonyoh suggests serving the fish and sauce with a squeeze of lemon and a ball of banku or kenkey, a big dumpling made with fermented cornmeal (and/or cassava) which can be purchased premade at most African grocers or online.

I enjoyed mine spooned over a bed of the fonio I had just bought, which, along with rice as an alternative, Adjonyoh also recommends.

Chale Sauce With Sardines

Make Ahead: The sauce can be made before adding the fish and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 6 months.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.

Where to Buy: Fonio can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, West African markets or online.

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  • 3/4 cup canned diced or crushed tomatoes, with their juices, or 10 ounces fresh tomatoes, seeded and chopped
  • 1 jarred roasted red pepper
  • 1 small white onion (5 ounces), roughly chopped
  • One (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 small red Scotch bonnet or habanero chile, seeded, or 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne for a milder heat
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon extra-hot Madras curry powder (may substitute regular Madras curry powder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon extra-hot chili powder (may substitute regular chili powder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
  • 12 ounces canned sardines, in oil, drained
  • Lemon wedges, for serving
  • Cooked rice, fonio, kenkey or banku, for serving (see headnote)

Step 1

In a blender, combine the tomatoes, roasted pepper, onion, ginger, chile, tomato paste, crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, curry and chili powders, and salt and blend on high speed until you have a smooth paste.

Step 2

Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan, set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the sauce is at a simmer and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the ingredients have melded, about 30 minutes.

Step 3

Gently add the sardines to the sauce and cook until warmed through, 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully, so as not to break the sardines, transfer to a platter and serve with lemon wedges as well as rice, fonio, or kenkey or banku (see headnote).

Nutrition Information

Per serving (2 to 3 sardines and 1/3 cup sauce)

Calories: 221; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 121 mg; Sodium: 629 mg; Carbohydrates: 10 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 23 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Adapted by cookbook author and registered dietitian nutritionist Ellie Krieger from “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen” by Zoe Adjonyoh (Voracious, 2021).

Tested by Alexis Sargent; email questions to

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In the previous version, this dish was referred to as Nigerian. This version has been corrected.