Ghana, and the Exciting World of Tomatoes

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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.

Jollof Rice

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.

Light Soup

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.

Grandmothers, Guyana and Green Banana

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I’m kicking off my black history month work with an interview with my mum and her twin sister, who talk about growing up with their grandmother, the smells of their childhood and their their interpretation of Guyanese culture.

Mum recalls her early childhood to be lively, playing outside with her cousins, the smell of freshly cooked rice putting a smile on everyone’s faces. Family members were constantly in and out during the day, and it would end with everyone sharing a meal at her grandmother’s house where she lived with her sister. Family parties were just as lively, soca and reggae music would be playing, and she would be greeted by a variety of “aunties” who may or may not be related to her. She recalls eating pepperpot at Christmas, and loving chow mein. Her sister remembered a lot more food, barley soup, souse (but only when it was hot!) and egg custard.

Growing up

Traditionally, you’d pass on the family recipes to your children, but as their gran was ill and the family didn’t have much money, actively passing culture down wasn’t as important as day to day living was. Thanks to a strong family support and trial and error however, they was able to remember the food and comforts of their childhood. Mum reckons she’s been semi successful in passing down Guyanese culture to us (her four amazing children, that is). Though she wonders looking back if she could have done any more. For both sisters, it’s less about culture and traditions and more about family. They take pride in the music they listen to (soca and calypso and others), and the food that they eat. They love talking about growing up, and the memories with their cousins and aunties.

Their gran was a lovely person. I had the pleasure of knowing her for the first 6 years of my life, and while she wasn’t as lively as she was when my mum was my age, she was incredibly caring and looked after me a lot. Mum and auntie both agreed she had an infectious laugh, steely determination and infinite wisdom. (As expected of a Guyanese matriarch, I think.) They lived with her growing up, and she was a central pillar in their lives.

And finally, the money question. I looked at her deep in the eyes, and said, “Mum, how do you pronounce this food?”

She replied quickly, no hesitation.

“Plan-TIN, obviously.”

I didn’t have to ask auntie over the phone, she just blurted it out unprovoked, “By the way, it’s pronounced plan-tin, not the other way, Zak.”

Let’s Cook!

We’re going to cook mum’s favourite food. Spinach and prawns with dhal, coley and rice. It’s a great dish, full of flavour and colour. Secretly I’m glad she didn’t pick something “modern” with lots of elements and techniques. Sometimes the best food is traditional, and this dish shows it. From my experience, the best food is comfort food, and Guyanese cuisine proves it. Metemgee and cook up rice are great examples of this, but me and mum and auntie share the same disdain for coconut. We eat hard food a lot at home though, so not all is lost.

Thanks for reading! Have a lovely day.

Cookies and a Lesson

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Happy July everyone! I hope this month brings you blessings, prosperity and happiness.

A few days ago, I enlisted the help of my little sister to make chocolate chip cookies. She’s been using this quarantine to brush up on her roblox skills and I reckoned she should do some activities that didn’t involve being chased by a spider or an old woman with a hammer. I know she’d been struggling with her maths homework so my solution to that was making her measure out all the ingredients.

She wanted to do the fun stuff like mixing, and taste testing and pouring the chocolate chips but I told her that she had to build up to it and work her way up to anything interested. (Obviously, I relented, but that’s a different story.)

She did a good job working out the different measures, and she even cracked an egg, but there was no way I was about to take my camera out and document that just in case everything went south and the kitchen became an eggy mess.

She asked me lots of intelligent questions such as “what is the difference between baking powder and baking soda?” and “why do you have to preheat an oven?” I enjoyed feeling like a genius as I answered the questions and she lapped up the knowledge like an eager student. I even gave her the baking soda and vinegar demonstration and I explained a little about acids and alkalis. I’m not sure if she fully grasped the concept but she did like watching it fizz.

Thanks to her diligent measuring and and counting skills, the cookies were a success, and we both enjoyed eating them. I’d like to bake more with my sister but as you’ll come to learn, nothing quite captures her attention like the computer.

How to Make the Perfect Recipe (Kinda)

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Today, I’ll be discussing how to make a recipe. You might think it’s really easy, just write some steps down and give them to people but in reality there is so much more work that goes into the process before you even write down the list of ingredients.

You have to factor in certain things. You need to think about the colour, the flavour, the texture, the smell. You want to create a dish that’s pleasing to all the senses and is unique, otherwise who is going to to try your recipe? I’ll structure this post in true food blogger format, with a whole load of exposition before I get to the important content. Why? Because it’s 9pm and I think it’s a good idea.

It was a cold, winter’s day in London, and I sat by the window staring pensively outside, a mug of hot chocolate in my hand. Looking down at sweet drink, I thought that it would be well complimented with a chocolate fondant, complete with fruits and a caramel sauce. The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocoatl, which refers to a bitter drink made from cacao beans. Cacao is pronounced, ca COW. Ow, I say to myself because I’ve accidentally spilt my hot chocolate on my leg because I was too busy thinking pensively. As the snow falls, I notice how it contrasts with my leg, which is painfully hot. But the pain is not as much as the mental pain I’m going through of really wanting a chocolate fondant. The recipe I have attached is coincidentally not for a chocolate fondant, or for hot chocolate, but for making a recipe, because what are we, if not recipes for living?

Ingredients

  • Time
  • Patience
  • More food ingredients than you think you’ll need
  • A device with internet connection
  • Paper and pen
  • People willing to eat your various drafts

Methodology

  1. Think about the dish you want to start developing and make the most basic version of it. If you want chocolate chip cookies, find the most generic chocolate chip cookie recipe you can and make it.
  2. Write a review of what you’ve just made on the paper, with everything good on one side, and the content that needs improvement on the other.
  3. Make a note of what you want to change to make the recipe suit your tastes more. If you want the cookie to be softer, make a note of that, and write it on the paper.
  4. Figure out what in the recipe you need to adjust to make the recipe suit your tastes. This is when you experiment and add different ingredients. You’ll have to research what ingredient does what, which is where the internet connection comes in.
  5. After each completed dish, make a note of what went right and what went wrong and keep adjusting until you’re satisfied. This is where the patience comes in. If you’re like me, you’ll measure everything down to the teaspoon until the recipe is perfect and your mum hates you for wasting ingredients.
  6. You’ll probably have a lot of wasted products so be sure to give it away or eat it if you have the appetite for that.

If you follow these steps properly, you’ll be well on your way to developing and cultivating your own recipes. Seriously though, recipe development is fun and the process can be more fun than the eating. (At least for me.) I think spending ages obsessing over minute details is what will give your dishes and meals the refinement and the edge over people. Just ask my family. It took a year (between being busy with work, uni and sleep) to perfect the jerk spiced lamb dish, and I went through maybe 5 different versions of it until I found a combination that I loved.

Thanks for reading, have a lovely day 🙂

The Victoria Sponge Saga: 1

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You’d think Victoria sponge cakes are really easy. Vanilla sponge, some jam, some cream and done? Actually, no.

For a cake so simple, you need to perfect everything. The sponge has to be light, fluffy, bouncy and perfectly sweet. This then has to balance out the more tart sweetness of the jam and finally the fresh sweetness of the cream. Mad stuff, I think.

Anyways, me and my mum decided to embark on the journey to make something that showcased all of these things, while still being pretty. She isn’t one to experiment with recipes and flavours, so I really had to beg her. It took two weeks by the way. I wonder how long it’ll take to do more complex things…?

We started with a basic pound cake recipe, but I knew from experience that if you follow the 1 egg for 50g method, the cake won’t be light and will be too eggy. So I decided to sneakily remove an egg and then reveal my secret once we were pouring the batter in. Judging by her reaction, I could tell she thought the cake wouldn’t turn out right, but I had the last laugh.

Not really, actually because the oven was turned on too high and the cakes browned a little faster than usual. It turned out good though, the texture was great and it was melt in the mouth. I don’t want to say it was perfect because of the browning issue, but I believe we were close to it.

Here’s how it turned out.

Lemon curd, cream and blueberries

Also, I just want to mention that living on a windy hill is very hard. The weather is ten times more dramatic for no reason, and meant that I had a very awkward photography session.

Jam, cream and strawberries

This was only the first attempt though, and I’m looking forward to making small changed with the decoration, other factors to make the cake taste and look perfect. Don’t worry, I’ll share the recipe when I’m done!

Thanks for reading, have a lovely day.

Fine Dining in the Future

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No, this isn’t another one of those posts about how the future of the industry will change because of the pandemic and social distancing. I’m about to talk about something a lot more important in my opinion.

That’s about black girls in fine dining, and the culinary industry. Because that’s an industry that really needs to change. Within minutes of me posting “A Story on Colour” onto twitter, I was scrolling through my feed and noticed that a few chefs I had followed liking a racist tweet about the Black Lives Matter protests. I’m not sure if I was surprised, I was definitely let down though. To see an exact example of what I was talking about be played out in front of me by one of the few people I follow on twitter was a bitterly ironic moment.

Maybe that was a good thing though, because that was what made me decide what I want to do next, and how I intend to move on. I want to see black girls in the industry feel safe, respected and valued. I want to see black girls decide to cook because they love it and want people to be happy, not because it’s expected of them or because they have something to prove.

While you could argue the Michelin star is obsolete, it’s still one of the most prestigious culinary rankings and it holds a lot of weight in the industry. And guess what? There’s only one black female chef with a star, and she got it in 2019. There’s so much work to be done. If you honestly believe that she is the only black woman deserving of a star, then you need to rethink your belief because it’s not true.

In the future, I see fine dining as a more open welcoming place. No more of the super elite, forced jacket wearing and front of house staff looking at you weirdly because you’re a person of colour and clearly don’t deserve to be in such an institution. I see fine dining as exactly what the phrase is. Good, well prepared food.

I see a whole new generation of black girls who are going to shake up the entire industry and show everyone what it means to be a chef. I see a current generation of black women already in the industry making big waves and showing everyone what it means to be a chef. I reckon I fit into the second category because I’ve been in the industry two years but at the same time, I just turned 20 and don’t feel that “grown” yet. I’m sure reality will hit once I finish uni.

To the black girls reading this, keep cooking. It’s your time and we’re so excited to see what you can do.