Last year we ventured through Little Ethiopia, a small neighborhood in the center of Los Angeles filled with Ethiopian markets and restaurants. That Ethnic Exploration introduced us to the wonders and fun of cooking authentic East African cuisine. Ever since then, we’ve been craving more and more of it! It always proves useful to put a call out on Twitter for ideas, and many great suggestions were offered, but when our friend Esi said Ghanaian, she hit it right on the head for us. We would explore West African cuisine this time, and all of the delicious food that came with it.
At first, we didn’t quite know exactly what to make. Occasionally, you will find many similar foods across regions of a country or continent, but you will also find glaring differences that will ring the bell of authenticity for some, or the lack thereof for others. As with everything, we decided to play around with the dish, while attempting to remain true to its roots. That is, once we had actually chosen a dish. Being the largest continent in the world, you can imagine the meals and cultural traditions be as varied as the foods available in a full-fledged grocery store. Both of us are pretty unfamiliar with the wide range of African foods; it’s just a few of the staples that come to mind. Chrystal dined at a West and East African restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard several years ago, so memories of that meal seemed like a good place to start. Even better, we have friends with direct roots to Ghana, and a few from Nigeria, who were there to help show us the way.
Los Angeles has some promising African markets, and a great list of those spots were offered to us by our friend Michael. Two were in Long Beach, so this time, we would have to head down to my neck of the woods and play. I bought the necessary ingredients, and the next day, we would cook it all. As you may or may not know, Chrystal is just about to wrap up her vegan eating challenge, so she wanted to make something vegan-adaptable if possible. We thought a stew of some kind could work. After consulting some friends familiar with the cuisine, it appeared that completely meatless and authentic stews are hard finds, so we would have to improvise.
We settled on a peanut and chicken stew. Peanuts are used in a lot of Ghanaian dishes, and we could easily make a separate version sans chicken for Chrystal. We were also told we needed to make kelewele. You take very ripe plantains marinated in spices and then fry them to a crispy finish. Being a popular snack in Ghana, and because of its emphatic recommendation, we were happy to make it. Additionally, most West and Central African meals are eaten with fufu, so we of course need to include that on our menu. Fufu looks similar to mashed potatoes, but it is very bland, so you typically eat it with spicy foods. Made from pounded (powdered) or cooked yam, it feels like a dough with a thick consistency. Generally, you scoop a helping of fufu into your hands, and dip that into whatever stew is in front of you. Put your fork or spoon down as its the fufu that will bring each bite to your mouth.
I went to A-Plus Market because it had a small selection of fresh produce, whereas the second option in Long Beach only supplied dry goods. A-Plus is quaint, resembling the size of a convenient store. The arrangement is sparse with half-stocked shelves and only a few aisles. Even so, they had the basics and everything on my list.
The first aisle in sight was stacked with various powdered blends and spices sealed in plastic bags. On the top shelf of this aisle were several different sizes of palm oil, a bright-red colored liquid with large seed-like items piled at the bottom of some of the bottles. Palm oil is derived from the pulp of the fruit in an oil palm tree. The red color comes from all the beta-carotene and other goodness that give veggies like tomatoes and carrots their vibrant hues.
When I asked the woman working there about palm oil, she said it was a must-have for any African cooking. She stated they use it for everything, and we would not get any authentic flavors without it. I asked her if it was good for frying, and she gave an confident yes. “It’s good for frying fish, or chicken, or whatever you like,” she stated. She did say it has a lower smoking point, though, so it may not be the best for deep frying. The market had ripened, yellow plantains and yams from Ghana. Just what we needed! African yams are not the same as the yams we’re used to on this side of the Atlantic. You know, the orange ones that accompany most Thanksgiving meals, which we actually call sweet potatoes. African yams are humongous–ranging from 9 to 15 inches in length–and the inner flesh is creamy white. They are high in starch, so when the flesh is cooked, it has a completely different consistency than American yams. She showed me that you can peel them with your fingernail, or slice them into smaller chunks and use a knife to cut away the thick, dry skin.
I excitedly told the woman at the market the foods we were making. When I mentioned kelewele, she looked at me blankly. She then let me know very plainly that there are different tribes in Africa, and each one eats different foods. She was from Nigeria, and never heard of fried plantains. When I mentioned fufu, she was noticeably more animated. She showed me large bags of pounded yam, and pointed to the directions on the back of the package on how to probably prepare the dish. I also bought a huge, fresh yam, so we could decide which one to use for the fufu. With items in hand, a full endorsement and advice from friends (and the woman at the market), and a building appetite, it was time to meet up with Chrystal and begin the best part of the exploration–cooking!
A Plus African Market
3253 E South St # J103
Long Beach, CA 90805-4568
We used the fresh yam to make the fufu because it was the first time experimenting with it. We had also Youtubed several videos to watch how people make it–from scratch and from the powdered yam–and the hand-made version seemed much more fun. Well, it’s fun if you’re strong as it takes a lot of energy to break down the thick, sticky yam to a creamy paste. It takes a little time, so you’ll work up an appetite before the meal. The peanut and chicken stew was very simple to put together. A friend suggested mixing the peanut butter with a bit of hot water, vegetable or chicken stock, to easily incorporate it into the stew. Use a bone-in cut of dark meat chicken, whether that be thigh, leg or wing. You’ll get better flavor from the meat. We made a smaller version for Chrystal without the chicken. If you try this without meat, try stirring in fresh kale, spinach or collard greens to add even more body to the rich blend. As for the kelewele, we took a few fun liberties with this one to make a spicy paste that we rub all over the plantains. They were sweet, savory and perfect to end the meal.
Fufu -Serves 6-8 (adapted from Congo Cookbook)
3 pounds Ghanaian yam, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 1/3 tablespoons butter, melted, or canola oil
Salt, to taste
1. Place yam chunks in a large pot and cover with water. Cook until yams become soft, about 25-30 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water, then return the yams back to the pot or put them into a large, sturdy bowl.
2. Mash the yams with a potato masher until broken up and flattened. Then, using the largest wooden spoon you have, stir into a thick dough resembling mashed potatoes, adding up to 1/4 cup of warm water 1 tablespoon at a time if necessary to reach a smooth consistency. This will take a few minutes. Towards the end, mix in butter, or oil, and salt to taste. Tear off pieces with your hands to serve with each dish.
Peanut and Chicken Stew – Serves 6-8 (Inspired by New York Times)
3 pounds chicken wings, skin-on
2 tablespoons palm oil
1 medium red onion, sliced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 jalapenos, deseeded and minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4″ slices
4 large tomatoes, chopped
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, warm
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 – 1 1/2 cups natural creamy peanut butter
1/2 pound kale, washed and cut into ribbons (optional)*
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
1. Heat oil in a large, flat pan on medium high heat. Season the chicken with salt and pepper as desired, then brown the meat on both sides for approximately 2 minutes or until golden. Remove from pan set aside.
2. Lower heat slightly and sauté onion for several minutes until it becomes lightly translucent. Stir in ginger, garlic, jalapeno and salt and both peppers. Cook for an additional 2 minutes or until fragrant.
3. Add the sliced sweet potatoes, tomatoes and about 5 1/2 cups of the stock. Follow this by placing the chicken back into the pan. Reduce to reduce heat to medium low. Cover and let cook for another 10-12 minutes.
4. Carefully mix the first cup of peanut butter with about 1/4 cup of the leftover stock. Scrape the mixture into the pan with the chicken and the vegetables, stirring to incorporate. Cook another 8-10 minutes or until the chicken is done. Taste and add the remaining 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/4 cup stock if desired. Season again with salt and pepper, then serve with the fufu.
*For a completely vegan version, use vegetable stock and omit the chicken of course. Increase the amount kale to about 1 1/2 pounds (or use a mix of your favorite dark greens) and add to the mix during the last few minutes of cooking, so that the leaves wilt and soften. Another option is browning pieces of tofu or your favorite meat replacement to serve as the protein in the recipe. Serve with the fufu.
Kelewele – Serves 4-6 (adapted from Cumin and Cardamon)
4 very ripe plantains, peeled and sliced into large chunks
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, chopped
5-6 dried, whole red chilies
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Sugar, for dusting
Oil, for frying (we used half palm and half canola)
1. In a food processor, grind the onion, ginger, chilies, garlic and cloves into a paste. Season with salt and pepper as desired. Scrape the mixture into a separate bowl and add the plantains. Use your hands to coat the plantains with the spice blend. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour.
2. When ready, heat oil to medium high in a frying pan. Drop marinated pieces of plantain in the oil and cook until they have a deep brown color on both sides, approximately 2-3 minutes. Place on a paper towel-lined plate, then immediately sprinkle with sugar and more salt as desired. Serve warm.
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