Cooking in a foreign country

The nearly three months we’ve been here have passed quickly, and I now realize that I am about a third of the way through my Fulbright experience. We just returned from a trip to Accra where we got to meet the other Fulbrighters and fly (!) to Accra. (We normally take the 12-14 hour bus ride, and while seeing some of the Ghanaian and Nigerian movies can be fascinating, by the seventh film –filled with loads of drama and screaming–I am really itching to get off the bus). Here is a photo I took of some villages outside of Tamale from the plane. You can see how village compounds are designed to create an intimate space in the center that the individual rooms open up into. Also notice the mix of earthen architecture with the shiny (almost white in the image) zinc roofs.

It was a real pleasure meeting all the other Fulbrighters—a lovely group of friendly people with an obvious enthusiasm for learning about other cultures. While I didn’t get to meet all of the student grantees (two had not yet arrived in country), the two I did meet were doing interesting research. Anna is based in Kumasi doing research on innovation and stagnation among what she terms “technical artisans”—the network of auto-mechanics that are able to put together tro-tros piecemeal, fit engines inside of cars they weren’t designed to fit, and generally working with whatever resources they have. Monica is also based in Kumasi doing research on mother’s perceptions on malaria prevention. After our orientation, we were brought to the residence of the Deputy Chief of Mission, Pat Alsup, where I got to meet Ghanaian Fulbrighters and made some excellent research contacts at USAID while drinking wine and eating KFC chicken wraps (wrapped very tightly in patriotic colors) and samosas.

It has been wonderful to be settled into our new place. We live in the extension of Mary and Dr. Salifu Mahama’s residence that has its own kitchen, living room, master bedroom, bathroom and spare bedroom. The compound has beautiful trees and a palaver hut and though there are walls the place is still very much a part of the neighborhood. Mperba (the word for “Auntie” in Dagbani) is one of the reasons for this; she helps the Mahama family with cooking and cleaning and lives with her family a short distance away. When we first moved in I offered Mperba some pasta we had prepared. She smiled and said in her broken English “you are my friend.” It was awesome.

My new friend Mperba

Our street is an unmarked dirt road, like many others in Tamale. Getting around by car is normally by way of mentioning shared taxi routes (like “we live past the Tipoli last stop”) and by landmarks (“by Flemish spot”). The few streets that are marked are the major roads leading in and out of town. The neighborhood is fairly quite during the day, the relative silence interspersed with cries from baby goats and sheep, or the cattle that sometimes roam in large numbers down these streets. Along the dirt road are several small shops that sells things like eggs, seasoning packets, laundry detergent, rice, biscuits, minerals, and groundnut paste.

Our street

Some of the neighborhood kids


Martha and her shop, “Big Dreams”, where we buy our eggs

At around 6pm you begin to hear the call to prayer echoing from many places around Tamale. Our local singer sings with heart… This is normally my call to begin making dinner. Then at around 7:30pm every evening, when I’m normally washing the last dishes, we hear this adorable chorus of children singing. We haven’t yet figured out the why or where but can certainly attest that it is a regular occurrence.

Cooking in a foreign country is a fun challenge—trying to figure out what kinds of comfort foods you can make (and with what modifications), what local dishes you’d like to learn (I really want to learn to roast a guinea fowl and be able to make jollof rice and palaver sauce), and what you’ll just have to do without until you get back. Since we’ve been living in Tamale, I have been observing what foods you can find in the supermarkets and local markets in town. We then strategically used our last two trips to Accra to pick up those items you can’t get in Tamale—stocking up on Indian and Italian spices, pasta, lentils, dal and couscous. So far we’ve made Anatoli’s Spanish Tortilla (a great success!), pasta with garlicky tomato sauce (one of the best and most doable options as tomatoes and garlic are easily accessible all over), breakfast burritos with homemade salsa (sadly our Accra tortilla hook-up, Koala supermarket, failed to deliver on this last trip), lentil soup with carrots, “Salmon” in tomato sauce Bulgarian style (“Salmon” in Ghana is actually mackerel. I thought it odd when we went to a cold store to be offered tilapia and salmon as I associate salmon with cold water and the Pacific. It was also rather small for salmon and smelly. I then looked up “Ghana Salmon” and aha! realized that it is indeed mackerel, which I don’t totally love but worked really hard to make delicious. The Bulgarian recipe, however, was a success!), pasta puttanesca (minus the olives), rosemary potatoes with fried egg (an old college stand-by), fried zucchini (local corn flour worked really well), labne with tomato and cucumber salad (we brought back some labne—delicious—and other cheeses on this last trip since we flew), french toast, and a tomato and onion omelet that we eat every morning. So you see we eat a TON of eggs, tomatoes and onions. And lots of potatoes, they are my favorite “fancy food” as they come with quite a price tag.


While Anatoli traveled to Bolgatonga a few weeks ago to do research on tendaanas, “earth priests”, I stayed in Tamale and joined the women I live with in making shito, a spicy condiment sometimes referred to as “black stew.” Mary’s eldest daughter, Evelyn, was headed to back to her boarding school in Sunyani and Mary was preparing her “school supplies.”  When Mary invited me to come with them to town to go shopping for school supplies I envisioned picking up notebooks and clothing. Nope. School supplies, in a country where people love good, spicy food, is shito, a not-very perishable (shito lasts three months with no refrigeration and just the  occasional re-heat if prepared properly) condiment that can make even the most bland cafeteria food tasty. I was told that “all mothers send their kids to school with shito” and those working mothers that don’t have the two days to prepare it buy it at the market. But homemade shito is the way to go. Preparing shito is probably the most labor-intensive cooking I’ve ever been a part of. Even with the work of Mary and Mperba (who labored the entire time), Evelyn (who helped at least half the time), and myself (who put in at least a couple hours), the process took seven hours. Talk about mother’s love!

The cooking began at about 10:30 in the morning. The first steps are to peel and cut the onion and garlic, peel and cut the soaked ginger, and pound the smaller dried fish. The small fish that are found all over Ghanaian markets are “fried dry” so they are able to keep without refrigeration and are frequently used to flavor stews. Mary pounded the small dried fish in a large wooden mortar and pestle until it was a powder. Evelyn prepared the onions and garlic. Mperba and I rubbed the ginger peel off with a dull knife for over an hour, leaving my hand with a burning sensation. The garlic, onion and ginger were then put in the blender separately and spices—including rosemary, allspice and Italian seasoning that were added to the pureed garlic.

Ingredients for making shito

Then the fire was prepared. Because it was raining we had brought the stove inside. Although Mary has a gas stove in a modern kitchen set-up, she uses this stove because the other is “not big enough” for the cauldron she will use to cook the shito “dry.” I also suspect, after watching how long you have to stir the stew, that the traditional stove is more comfortable because you can sit as you stir for the requisite hours of preparation. Mary poured about 5 liters of Gino vegetable oil in the metal cauldron and waited for it to boil before adding the onions first.

Mary stirring shito

Meanwhile, Mperba began the lengthy and difficult job of pounding dried chilis into a fine powder using a wooden mortar and pestle. She added a little bit of oil before beginning to prevent the chili powder from flying and covering her with a spicy residue. I asked to help and pounded the chili for maybe ten minutes. Mperba pounded the chili for two hours! Serious work.

The onion, garlic, ginger, are added and then cooked until “dry.” Mary then adds some concentrated tomato paste. The ingredients are continuously stirred and cooked until all of the moisture is released. She adds the dried fish, additional seasonings including the ubiquitous Maggi crevettes, and chili later. Larger chunks of dried “Salmon” are then added once the stew has a thick consistency and dark brown color. Mary probably was stirring this mixture for a steady four hours to make the shito dry and be able to keep unrefrigerated.  The result is a fabulous spicy, salty, fishy, flavorful stew that is a flavor “pick-me-up” for even the most uninspired cafeteria cooking.

It is now nearing the end of harvest time in Tamale. The groundnuts (what we know as peanuts) and many yams and pepe have been harvested. The maize is just now being plucked and threshed. Green beans, Bambara beans, onions, and tomatoes are looking good, as the surplus leaves the village plots and heads to the Tamale central marketplace. In my next post I will share more photos and findings from village visits during harvest time. Until next time!


Anatoli the pirate farmer

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