I’m not a tomato fan. Although this may suggest that I’m a picky eater, this is not the case. I will eat everything. Tomatoes however? Something about them makes me want to be sick and run in the opposite direction, to the extent that I don’t even eat pizza or ketchup.
And yet my favourite foods are jollof rice and light soup. I don’t know how that works. Both of these are tomato based Ghanaian dishes, and are well known outside the community. Every time I mention I hate tomato, someone asks “how do you love jollof so much then?” and it’s a valid question.
Today, I’m going to go into these dishes, and figure out what it is about Ghanaian cooking that makes tomatoes so delicious. (Spoiler alert, I think it’s the pepper and extremely long cooking time!)
A bit about Tomatoes
Tomatoes are produced in over half of the regions in Ghana, including the Greater Accra region, the Volta region and the Ashanti region. Approximately 440k tons of tomatoes are eaten every year, making up 40% of household vegetable spending. Due to rainfall and weather changes, production rates are seasonal, so Ghana also imports tomatoes from the UK and the neighbouring Burkina Faso.
Raw tomatoes contain an antioxidant called lycopene. A 2007 study showed that the form of lycopene found in the human body is a bent version, while the form in raw tomatoes are linear. The study showed that cooking the tomatoes at a high heat and adding fat (eg oil) changes the form to bent and allows to be more easily absorbed into the body.
There are also different factors that can influence the flavour of a tomato. The flavours are defined by the varying ratios of acid to sugar, and growing conditions and type of tomato will have an affect on the taste. Small varieties (eg cherry) have a high concentration of sugar, and are therefore sweeter. Some varieties of tomato have high sugar and acidity content, and some varieties have a low sugar and acidity content. Soil, temperature and sunlight can also affect the flavour and the texture of tomatoes.
Popular varieties grown in Ghana include Roma VF, a hybrid tomato bred to resist disease. It’s a red meaty tomato that is good for sauces and canned products. Petomech is another hybrid seed, with thin skin but very firm fruit.
A lot of recipes in Ghanaian cuisine involve stewing down the tomato into a sauce or paste, and adding oil or spices. Therefore, it’s important to to breed tomatoes best suited for the job.
If you’re West African, this topic might be sensitive. Proceed with caution.
I’m going to talk about how I make jollof rice, and why I choose to do it. I’m not going to give exact measurements of recipes but a good rice to tinned tomato ratio I use is 1 cup of rice per one tin.
First of all, I blend a tin of chopped tomatoes with scotch bonnet, onion, garlic and bell pepper until smooth. Then, I cook off finely chopped onions with oil, tomato puree and some salt. I add the blended tomato to the pot and cook it off for a while. During this point, I add maggi cubes and hot curry powder. I don’t use ginger because I’m allergic. I like to cook this down for a long time, and I mean about half an hour, until this mixture goes dark. Once it’s dark and no longer tastes of tomato, I’ll add the rice.
I don’t wash the rice, or cook it before I add it to the sauce. I should also mention at this point I use basmati rice. Say what you want, but basmati rice is an incredible vessel and carries flavours well.
Once I add the rice to the oily sauce, I keep stirring, and leave to cook until it’s done! This makes a delicious rice, ready to be eaten with stew!
I don’t put vegetables in the rice by the way. This isn’t a primary school clean eating scheme; I don’t see the point of hidden peas.
If you know me, you know I’m obsessed with light soup. The peppery, soupy goodness is something that’s always on my mind. Always. I love light soup. I eat it with goat or chicken usually. What’s odd about this is that it’s a tomato based soup. Tomato makes up the main flavour base, and it’s enhanced by the flavours of pepper, maggi cubes (similar to that of jollof).
It’s a thinner soup, unlike a traditional tomato soup you’d get from Heinz or similar. Instead of thickening up the blended tomatoes and spices by reduction, it’s strained, leaving a thin but incredibly punchy soup base.
Sorry. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
An interesting thing is that Ghanaian food seems to use tomato as a vessel to highlight other foods. Even red sauce, which is a tomato sauce, doesn’t taste that much of tomato.
While dishes from other countries seek to use ingredients that highlight the tomato flavour, a lot of Ghanaian dishes use this as just a base, and build on it.
Thank you for reading, and have a lovely day.