September 30, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson #4: Feeding Oneself

Questions about Ghanaian food have been among the most frequently asked of me, but I’ve been hesitant to write about how I’m meeting this basic human need because I feel like I should know more before I write anything authoritative on the subject. But here I go…

As far as I understand, Ghanaian food is essentially a mushy thing, in a stew, eaten with one hand which you cup together like a spoon. Ghanaians eat meat boiled into a soup, usually chicken or fish, though I’ve also had beef feet and goat. The soup is often red and really spicy, and then a dough ball of either fufu, banku, rice balls, or kinkey is put in the soup. I only recently began to be able to tell the difference between these four – they are made of different combinations of corn, cassava, and rice flour which are pounded together until they look like goo.

I find the portions in Ghana to be massive, and it’s been embarrassing filling the stereotype that skinny people don’t eat enough. I’m finally able to go out with my Ghanaian friends without embarrassing them now, but for my first two weeks, I literally could only finish a third of my plate. When I cooked with my roommate once, she said “That’s too small even for Ghanaian baby”.

Cooking at home, one can really appreciate how Ghanaians manage to consume such large portions – cooking is some serious exercise in this country.

My roommate always starts cooking by pulling a stool into the middle of the kitchen and peeling vegetables onto the concrete floor. The first time I caught her doing this I immediately realised why there is a complete lack of counter space in our kitchen. Also, unlike my love of cutting things into tiny bits with a variety of different knives, my roommate seems to hack away at her food at an appropriate rate considering the size of our only knife.

She periodically stands up, hollers something through the window, sits down, and moments later a child appears in our house with a bag of something for her.

“OH” [strong Ghanaian women seem to belt an impressive “OH” at least every few minutes]
“So…you can just call young children to go fetch you things?”
“Do you…pay them or something?”
“And they’ll just…do that for you?”

She stands up and hollers something else through the window. I hear an “OH” from another woman outside, and three children enter the house with a huge pounding bowl and a 6 ft pounding stick.

I, of course, get no explanation.

Three Ghanaian minutes later our neighbour enters, and the ladies begin pounding mashed yams into goo. I am amazed at how easily these women can work together – one stands and pounds the yams with the heavy pounding stick while the other slips the ball of yams underneath the pounder, ensuring there is always yam under the surface of the stick.

It’s my go – I can barely bring myself to pound at the yams, because all I see are my roommate’s fingers slipping just under the head of the pounder. They let me pose for a picture, and then they resume doing it properly without my interference.

“So…you can just ask your neighbour to come help you prepare your food?”
“Why must you ask so many questions? Wouldn’t you help your neighbour in Canada?”
“But my neighbour would never ask! We must always say yes, and so we have to be careful about asking.”

[I’m always careful to explain myself in an effort to encourage people to explain things to me]

When all is done, my portion is about 1/3 the size of hers, and the nightwatchman’s portion is about twice the size of mine. She’s so embarrassed about offering such a tiny portion to him that I offer to give it to him on her behalf. I figure he’ll assume that I don’t know any better because skinny people don’t eat enough.