Traveler’s guide to local and western food in Ghana, Africa

ghana food When visiting Ghana, Africa, unless you are at the mall in the capital city of Accra or staying at a resort or hotel, you will most likely find yourself eating food that is far from Western comfort cuisine. Here is a guide to some of the typical foods you will find in Ghana, as well as some surprising favorites from home you’ll be able to find in the small shops.

Local meals

Banku with tilapia

Banku is a thick dough ball made from fermented maize. The thick matter is stirred rigorously in a pot and has a similar, gum-like texture to the other main starch staple in Ghana, Fufu (see below), and is usually served with a stew and/or tilapia. The proper way to eat it is to grab a piece of the dough ball, create an indentation with your finger, and scoop up some palm oil or stew, swallowing it without chewing. The dish is very similar to Kenkey, another Ghanian staple, although the preparation and cooking time vary slightly. Many westerners may be a little hesitant to try the tilapia (I know I was), as it still has the head, tail, and scales in tact. Simply use your hands to peel back the scales and pull out chunks of meat with your fingers, being careful not to grab any bones.Boiled yams with palaver sauce

Boiled yams are kind of similar to baked potatoes but a little sweeter, and the palaver sauce is actually a kind of stew with vegetables, meat, and chunks of fish. Often times in Ghana I would feel weak due to lack of protein, and would eat the palaver sauce by itself, which is definitely one of the best options for a meat-filled dish.

Fufu with ground nut soup

Usually served in a spicy peanut-broth base, fufu is cooked using cassava, a starchy root plant that is pounded down with a mortar and pestle to create a gum-textured ball. To eat it like a local, rip off a piece with yours hands, create an indentation with your finger and use it to scoop up some soup, then swallow without chewing. It is often served with pieces of fried chicken or fish.

Rice water and jollof rice

Now these two forms of rice are completely different; while rice water is a staple breakfast meal that is very salty and is basically cooked rice with extra water added, jollof rice is stir-fried in tomato paste, making it more flavorful than usual cooking rice, and is usually served with meat for lunch or dinner.

ghana Red red with plantains

This was hands down my favorite food in Ghana, and is probably the most “Western” of the local dishes. It is a mixture of black eyed peas, bonnet peppers, onions, palm oil, and crushed tomatoes. The reason it’s called “red red” is because the palm oil mixed with the tomatoes creates a thick, red base that stains the entire plate. It is usually served with deep fried plantains that are very soft and sweet.

Snacks and street food

snail Snail kebabs

Snail in general is a food favorite in Ghana, whether you boil it, fry it, or put it on a kebab. In fact, when I was doing orphanage work there the children loved to go snail hunting at night and would boil them and put them on a toothpick to snack on. When you’re in the markets or you see hawkers selling kebabs that look like they have succulent mushrooms on them, be aware that they are actually snails. I tried one, and will say that they are extremely salty and very tough and chewy.

Brown nut paste

Brown nut paste is basically the Ghanian take on peanut butter, however, it is a lot thicker and creamier. It doesn’t have any additives so it has a very natural taste to it, basically like eating “creamed” peanuts. If you walk around the outdoor markets, you will often be able to ask for a small sample before purchasing some for yourself. It tastes really good on biscuits or cookies with a bit of Nutella added.

Evo Evo

There are many fruits you’ll be able to get from the markets in Ghana, depending what city you’re in; bananas, grapes, apples, mangoes, avocados, tomatoes. However, the evo was my favorite, and also the most interesting in flavor and appearance. The outside is green and prickly and you break it open with your hands to reveal a cotton-candy like inside (see right). The taste is sweet and fizzy, kind of like a fruit-flavored soda pop.

Fan Ice

Almost everywhere you go, you will see locals riding around on bicycles with coolers attached advertising Fan Ice. It’s the Ghanaian version of the ice cream truck, and for 40-60 pesewas (about 25-35 cents), you can get a chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry yogurt Fan Ice pop. These are extremely refreshing after a long day in the African sun.

Fried chicken with fried yam

This is probably the closest you’ll get to a meal in terms of street food. It’s exactly what it sounds like, pieces of fried chicken served with fried yam, basically the Ghanian version of chicken nuggets and fries. There are usually women walking around carrying a small take-out station on their heads, and you can literally just smile and ask “Wa ye sen?” (How much is it?).

popcornAbru ne nkatea

This was one of my favorite snacks to make with the children at the orphanage, and both locals and Westerners love it. It’s basically un-popped popcorn kernals with nuts simmered in sugar and is really sweet and crunchy.

Meat pies

These are really easy to find in the markets and just walking down the street in most cities in Ghana. Locals walk around with small display cases on their heads filled with meat pies. It’s basically a pie type crust filled with beef and vegetables. Warning: Sometimes the meat pies are severely lacking in meat, although you will not know this until you purchase one. If you’re really craving protein, opt for the fried chicken and fried yams.

Roasted maize

Roasted maize in Ghana looks similar to roasted corn on the cob, although it tastes a lot sweeter, like kettle corn. It’s a really cheap, quick snack if you’re hungry.

chocolate Western finds

Again, you’ll be able to find Western foods at resorts, hotels, and the Accra Mall, usually for an expensive price. However, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in an area that only features small wooden stalls, hawkers, and “restaurants” that are actually the homes of locals. Every once in awhile you’ll be able to find a convenience store, and will possibly be able to find some of these comforts from home:

  • Cans of beans- This became my favorite food in Ghana as their diet is high in starch, carbs, and fried foods. When you just want wholesome protein, beans are really satisfying.
  • Chocolate soy milk- Okay, so it’s not real milk; it’s still refreshing. And, it has (soy) protein.
  • Snickers- They don’t taste exactly like a normal snickers but they have the same package and when you’re desperate, will taste just like heaven.
  • Corn flakes- Cereal is a little expensive in Ghana, but tastes just like the stuff from home.
  • Nutella- Brand-name Nutella is extremely expensive in Ghana, but luckily they sell a knock-off brand that is almost as good and half the price.
  • Laughing Cow cheese- Little access to refrigeration means you’ll be seeing very little cheese. Since Laughing Cow doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it’s the perfect purchase.
  • Cookies/biscuits/bread- Lots of varieties of these carb and snack staples, so you’ll be able to find something similar to the kind you enjoy at home.

[all photos via jessieonajourney aside for the Nutella photo, which is from Like_the_Grand_Canyon on flickr]

10 tips for doing a homestay

soupDoing a homestay in another country is a great way to get to know the culture from a first-hand perspective. By living with a family, you get to see how a local’s daily life is, from what they eat, to how to they dress, to what their before-bed ritual is. With such a unique opportunity being given to you, it’s important to get the most out of the experience while also being respectful. To help, here are some tips on how to enjoy a successful homestay.

Try new foods

When I did a homestay in Ghana, Africa, there were many meals that I was less than thrilled about. As a health-nut, I never would have made fried chicken a normal part of my diet, and eating (or drinking) rice water for breakfast left me less than satisfied. However, instead of getting upset about the food situation think about how much effort your host is putting into making your stay with them pleasant by spending time cooking for you and letting you stay in their home. Thank your host for every meal, even if you don’t like it. And if there’s something you really can’t stomach, find a way to make it edible. With rice water, I learned to add chocolate powder and stir it into the mix. Moreover, to help myself feel better about eating fried foods I began going for morning runs, which also gave me the opportunity to see the village market stalls being set up in the morning, something I usually would have slept through.Dress appropriately

While it may be okay to walk around your own home in your underwear or short shorts, think about how it might make others feel. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and even if they don’t say it makes them uncomfortable, it probably does, so just make sure to cover up. Also, in certain cultures showing your shoulders and knees is inappropriate, so just be aware of a culture’s etiquette.

thailand Help out

Because this person/family is allowing you to live in their house, it is respectful to help out. That doesn’t just mean doing your dishes and making your bed; offer to do everyone’s dishes, help cook a meal, sweep the floor, or go to town and get groceries. It’s a nice gesture to the host as well as a unique way to learn about the culture and what it’s like to perform an everyday task.

Keep an open mind

While you probably realize the culture is different in terms of what you will be eating, bathroom habits, and house design, there are sometimes more drastic contrasts that you should be prepared for. When I did a homestay in Thailand, I remember at first having a little bit of a hard time getting used to the squat toilets, bucket showers, and always having frogs and lizards in the bathroom with me as I changed my clothes. What really took me off guard was one night when we were having chicken for dinner seeing my host mother literally chop a live chicken’s head off. Of course, you know it happens, but it’s definitely a little off-putting to see it first hand. There were a lot of adjustments for me in Ghana, as well. Once or twice a week, my host would have a prayer group over at 3AM to sing hymns until 6AM, which meant once or twice a week I didn’t get to sleep. While it bothered me at first I began to go watch the group sing and tried to make it into a learning experience. Remember, you won’t be here forever, so try to open yourself up to as many unique learning opportunities as possible.

thailand Be conservative

While this could mean how you dress, it also means in general. While you may be used to taking hour-long hot showers while leaving all of the lights on and scarfing a bag of Doritos at home, you’ve got to remember you’re now living on someone else’s dime. Moreover, it is also possible that the area your homestay is in doesn’t have the natural resources that your home town does, so try to conserve as best as you can. In Achiase, Ghana, the town would turn on the taps for about 3 hours per week, and everyone would rush to fill up as many buckets with water as possible so that we could wash dishes, do laundry, and take bucket showers during the week. While it may not be the easiest thing to get used to, you’ll come to learn that showering and doing laundry every single day isn’t a necessity.

Spend time with the host

Don’t think of your homestay as a budget-friendly alternative to a hotel. Instead, get to know your host and form a relationship. Not only is it more respectful, it’s also very rewarding. It’ll give you the chance to gain a better understanding of life in the city as well as the opportunity to do activities that you may not have otherwise gotten the chance to do. In Ghana, I got the opportunity to attend church with my host mom. While I could have done this on my own, it was a whole different experience going with a local congregation member, and the pastor even had an interpreter sit next to me. I also got the chance to play soccer with the local team in Achiase because I would go running with my host brother in the morning. This was something I never would have been able to do if I had kept to myself, and it gave me a first-hand account of team interactions and sports in the country.

ghana Learn something

The best part about traveling to another country is immersing yourself in the culture and learning everything you can. Partaking in a homestay is a great first step to doing this and the perfect opportunity to learn something. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact. If you see your host cooking, ask them what they are making and if you can have the recipe. If you like your host sibling’s clothing, ask them what it’s made of and what the local fashion is like. Help them with their school work and see what they are being taught. Depending on how close you get with the host and what the cultural norms are, you can even learn about more personal topics like community issues, relationships, and gender roles, which leads me to my next point.

Learn cultural norms before you go

If you know that talking about religion or the government is taboo in a culture, don’t ask about it. That being said, I’ve done homestays in places where I was told a topic was off-limits yet became close with a family member and was able to have these touchy conversations; however, I allowed them to bring up the issue. In Ghana, the locals were very open to talking about everything, and would actually take me off guard with the questions they would ask. That being said, I got to learn a lot about dating norms, marriage proposals, government corruption, religious beliefs, diet regimes, and the religious structuring in the schools.

Learning the cultural norms goes farther than what you say; it also includes gestures, clothing styles, and rituals. For example, I researched Thailand before doing my homestay there and learned that it is rude to sit with your feet sticking straight out. This is something I do all of the time at home, especially if I’m eating while sitting on the floor, and was so grateful to have been given this information beforehand as all of our meals were taken on the living room carpet.

thailand Teach something

While you want to learn about the culture from your host family, they are most likely excited to learn more about your culture, as well. Bring photos from home of your friends, family, places you go, foods you like, your neighborhood; anything that you think someone who has never been to your city might want to know about. You can also teach them recipes, games, songs, dances, art skills, and other fun activities that you think might be interesting.

Exchange contact information

After your homestay is complete, you shouldn’t just leave and drop off the face of the Earth. Most likely, you’ve established some kind of connection with these people, and even if you haven’t, they were still nice enough to host you. Once you return home, a follow-up thanking them for their kindness is appropriate. Moreover, if you took photos your host family will probably be interested in seeing them. During both my Thailand and Ghana homestays I was living with families who didn’t own cameras. I took photos of them and their families and the community and mailed them over for them to have for themselves. For both families, it was the first photos they’d ever owned, and both told me that the gift meant a lot.

[flickr photos via jasonlam, jessieonajourney, Wm Jas, jessieonajourney, jessieonajourney]

Budget Vacations 2012: Ghana


For those looking to travel on a budget, Ghana, Africa, is a prime destination. According to exchange-rates.com, as of December, 2011, $1 was equivalent to about 1.63-1.65 Ghanaian Cedis.

It is not hard to travel around Ghana and spend very little money. While taxis are considered the “expensive” form of transportation, you can still get pretty far for $5 or less. The more economical form of transport is the tro-tro, which will allow you to ride locally for $0.10-$0.40. If you’re riding to another city, it is still budget-friendly. A 2 hour tro-tro ride from Swedru to Cape Coast took about 2 hours and cost a little less than $5. A longer ride from Accra to the Volta Region, which took about 5 hours, cost me about $9.

In terms of food and drink, it’s usually locally produced and always affordable. You can get a full meal at a local restaurant for less than $1. Moreover, there are tons of open-air markets and hawkers on the side of the street selling fresh food for a small price. And no need to worry about drinking water, as a 16 ounce bag of water costs less than $0.05.

Budget accommodation abounds in Ghana, and not just for backpackers. While a bed in a hostel will usually cost around $6 a night, like Big Milly’s Backyard in Kokrobite and the Oasis Beach Resort in Cape Coast, there are plenty of hotels that offer budget-friendly rooms, like Hansonic Hotel in Accra for $10 a night and the nature-surrounded Wli Water Heights Lodge in the Volta Region for $16 a night.

[flickr image via Stig Nygaard]

Video of the day: bike stunts in Accra, Ghana

Bikelordz : Stunts and Styles from Accra, Ghana from Bikelordz on Vimeo.

The culture of a place is precisely what helps us get to know that place–even if the culture involves bike stunts and the place is Accra, Ghana. There’s a biking culture in Accra that I wasn’t aware of before watching this video. The video is just a sneak-peek, a trailer for a documentary that is currently being showed in festivals across the world. The documentary’s name? Bikelordz. But this little snippet is worth watching, too. In less than 2 minutes, you’ll see jaw-dropping bike stunts and styles. You’ll watch as members of this biking culture explain their passion for what they do and answer questions of day job employment with retorts about their practice, their talent. Not only does this video provide cultural insight, but there are some great shots of Accra and the people in and around this community, as well. Enjoy.

Safety of Street Food in Ghana

Destination spotlight: Kokrobite, Ghana, Africa

kokrobite ghana africaFor those traveling in Ghana who want to get out of the big, noisy capital city of Accra, Kokrobite is a beach paradise located less than an hour away. The village is easily accessible by tro-tro from Tema Station, Kaneshie Market, or anywhere else you see people hailing a car. Kokrobite can provide both a perfect day trip or an enjoyable weekend stay.

Where to Stay

Whether you plan on actually spending the night or just the day, Big Milly’s Backyard is the ultimate backpackers haven on the beach. While that might sound like a marketing ploy, I mean it to the fullest extent. Big Milly’s is just as well known as the village of Kokrobite itself and is the place where backpackers and locals both come to hangout, party, eat, and relax. Room styles range from single rooms to suites to dorm-style huts to outdoor tents. The property of the accommodation fills with marketers during the day selling clothing, paintings, toys, accessories, and more. A bar, multiple outdoor restaurants, hammocks, picnic tables, and an ocean breeze add to the relaxing and idyllic atmosphere of Big Milly’s.Where to Eat

While Big Milly’s is a bit pricier than the other restaurants and road-side stalls in town, you will still most likely pay less than you normally would at home. For example, a spinach tagliatelle made with vegetables, cheese, and white wine sauce costs 12 cedis (about $7), mixed roast vegetables with couscous will cost 11 cedis (about $7), and huge plate of vegetable fried rice will cost you 8 cedis (about $5). They also have a snack stand that sells biscuits, crackers and toffee (candy).

If you would like to try something traditional, in town there is a small structure called the Broken Chair Bar. If you go inside, it appears to be the home of the woman who runs it. You can have an authentic Ghanian meal here for extremely cheap. Try the fufu in ground nut soup (a cassava-based dough ball in a peanut based soup) with fried chicken or the jollof rice (rice that is cooked in red, spicy sauce), both about 3 cedis (less than $2).

Culture

Many of the people, though not everyone, who inhabit Kokrobite follow a Rastafarian lifestyle. Walking around the village, there are many small shops and bars that cater to this lifestyle. One fun and unique place to try is Cafe des Artes, an outdoor venue that plays Bob Marley-type music all day long, is decorated with funky beads, and serves fresh palm wine (you can purchase a whole soda bottle full for about 6 cedis, which is about $5). Don’t be alarmed that the wine doesn’t come in a wine bottle, it usually comes in a soda bottle or plastic gas-tank style containers no matter where you buy it.

Drumming is a large part of Ghanian culture, and is something enjoyable to experience for yourself, especially on the beach in Kokrobite. Visit Berlin Drum School and ask them for a lesson on the beach. The cost is supposed to be about 25 cedis (about $15), although with the help of a local friend I was able to get the lesson for 5 cedis (about $3). The boys will create beats for you to mimic, teach you how to properly hold and hit the drum, and will even dance for you.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Big Milly’s hosts cultural shows that bring the laid-back atmosphere of the village to life. Friday nights feature BBQ and bonfires while live cultural acts, such as drummers and dancers, perform live. On Saturday nights, reggae shows and highlife bands take the stage as the dance floor (beach) becomes packed. Beers cost about 2 cedis (about $3), while cocktails are about 4 cedis (about $2.50).

For a video tour of Big Milly’s Backyard, check out this video: