Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Ireland to India by way of West Africa

For the last six weeks I have been teaching nutrition and biology at a rural school in Ghana. During those six weeks, the people I met taught me to appreciate the fantastic fermented foods of this area of the world, including Kenkey (maize dumpling), Banku (maize and cassava dumpling), Gari (cassava paste) and distilled Palm wine. My experience with each is elaborated below. But first, some context…

I flew from Ireland to Ghana with a stop in Egypt (luckily a month before the protests began). We took off from Egypt, headed for Accra, and I settled in for some pre-arrival study…“Kenkey is an indigenous fermented product commonly produced in Ghana…” I got about halfway through the chapter on maize fermentation when we reached cruising altitude, and I promptly threw up. A disappointed gentleman sitting next to me offered a consoling napkin and switched seats. By the time I got past customs I was shaking and shivering. I had arranged for someone to pick me up at the airport, but they had found something better to do, so I assessed my situation and took decisive action (just like they tell you to do in every survival handbook). However, I did exactly what they tell you not to do, I got into the first taxi I could find and told them to head to the only other hotel I could think of (I was invited to go drinking at the bar by some nice Canadians on the plane). Short story, I got better, I got on a bus (eventually), and after a few days of tro-tros and a long walk on a back road... I was at the gates to Trinity Yard.

Road from Akwidaa to TYS

The Trinity Yard School clings to a forested hillside a mile and a half from the village of Cape Three Points. In a single room schoolhouse, a thatched hut on the beach, or a covered patio overlooking the ocean, students learn English, social studies, and the craft of Kente weaving. For five weeks I taught classes in math, biology and nutrition.

the classroom on the beach

The Beach

Math class

Rory Jackson, the founder of TYS, his extended family, and all of the people who support Trinity Yard have created a positive learning environment for a group of young Ghanaians. The students were awesome. Through them I was able to learn the ins and outs of Ghanaian food and I loved being a part of the school. I learned to surf(ish), I learned to make red red (beans and plantain), I found out that weaving Kente cloth is hard work, and that mixing Banku is even harder. I am grateful to all of the people who made my stay in Ghana a memorable experience, I hope to be back some day.

Here are a few short descriptions of my experience with the fermented foods of Ghana.


I’ll start with my favorite. Banku is a dumpling made of fermented maize dough and usually cassava as well. The corn is soaked for 24 hrs, then wet milled and left to ferment for 3-4 days. After that, it is packed into mounds and then sold to consumers as in bricks of clay-like flour (see pic below). The cook at TYS, would take a handful or two of this, along with some cassava flour and enough water to dissolve the mix, and heat all of the ingredients in a big pot on the charcoal stove. Using the special Banku stick, Monty, Dorothy, and whoever else that needed a workout would stir the Banku as it got more and more viscous. When finally the dough resembled a gelatinous version of mashed potatoes, sometimes half an hour later, the Banku was scooped and molded into fist sized dumplings and eaten with salsa, fish, or stew. The predominant cultures isolated from Banku include molds and Lactic Acid producing bacteria, which give it the slightly sour tang (Beuchat, 1983). You eat Banku like fufu, snipping off bite sized pieces between your middle and index fingers, and then using this little dough ball to scoop up some sauce or stew.

Its late, so more later (Kenkey, Cacao, Palm Wine)...s