Widely used ingredients in West African cooking include, clockwise from… (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
My egusi entree at Bukom Cafe does not exactly activate the salivary glands. The pieces of stewed, bone-in goat meat are slathered with a thick paste built from West African melon seeds called egusi. The seeds give the dish its name and its slightly nutty flavor, sort of a cross between peanut and sesame seed. Truth be told, though, the dish’s dominant flavor is palm oil, which covers my plate like a petroleum slick on the ocean’s surface, seizing all manner of organic matter in its clutches.
It’s not a pretty picture, at least by Western gastronomic standards, but I find its combination of flavors both exotic (the buttery funk of the palm oil is like nothing else) and familiar (that comforting Southeast Asian pairing of proteins with peanuts). Yes, I feel as though I could regularly feast on West African cuisine if it weren’t for that river of oil ferrying my dinner.
But a few days later, I have a conversation with Fran Osseo-Asare, a Pennsylvania teacher, author and longtime student of African cooking who brings my culinary biases to their knees with one swift, culturally incisive comment:
“A layer of oil on top of the food is a way of honoring you,” says Osseo-Asare, a sociologist who has been studying Ghanaian foods since the early 1970s. “Somebody is trying to show you respect, and Americans are like, ‘Yuck, get that oil out of there!’ ”
This is Osseo-Asare’s gift: She knows the soft, sensitive underside of the Western palate and how to attack it when someone dares to pass premature judgment on West African food. But more than that, Osseo-Asare knows the baggage that Americans can bring to the table. We’re not only averse to oily preparations and extreme heat, but we’re also not afforded a full view of the many cuisines that define West African cooking.
It seems West African restaurants in the States — whether specializing in the foods of Ghana or Nigeria or some other country — trot out many of the same dishes, each prepared with regional spins depending on the chef’s origin: peanut stew, jollof rice (a kind of West African paella), red-red (a bean stew commonly served with fried ripe plantains), fufu (a starchy side often made from pounded cassava and plantains or yams, or their flours), pepper soup; grilled tilapia, egusi.
You can find most of these dishes at the West African restaurants that I visited in the area — not just Bukom Cafe in Adams Morgan, but also Ghana Cafe on 14th Street NW near Logan Circle and Wazobia Restaurant and Baron T Street NW near Howard Theatre.
“The problem is that the best Ghanaian and Nigerian food isn’t what you’re going to get in restaurants,” says Osseo-Asare. “They don’t have a tradition of restaurant-going.”
West African food has been shaped by more factors than I can begin to enumerate in this short space. Among them are the European colonists who, centuries ago, exploited the region for gold and slave labor. Even when the colonists began to withdraw in the 20th century, they left behind lasting contributions to the cuisine. The British, in particular, introduced their own watered-down interpretation of Indian curries to the area.
Sub-Saharan West Africa also is considered one of the poorest regions in the world, a fact that influences how people buy, cook and store food. Because many cannot afford refrigeration, people tend to buy fresh ingredients from the market and cook them the same day (or rely on dried and smoked fish and vegetables). Dairy, butter and cheese, naturally, have almost no place at the table.
Nor is meat given the same center-of-the-plate supremacy as it is in Western diets. The disease-bearing tsetse fly has made cattle ranching almost impossible in many regions, while goat and chicken production remains low enough to limit those proteins to special occasions or the more affluent. Small amounts of meats (and fish) are used in stews and soups, mostly as flavoring agents.
This may sound like a cripplingly limited pantry to the average American, so spoiled by the wealth of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and fish behind every glass counter at the supermarket. But, as Osseo-Asare notes, some of West Africa’s best dishes and preparation techniques rarely make an appearance on this side of the Atlantic.
One of her favorite Ghanaian dishes is a snack called kelewele. It involves ripe plantains tossed into a pungent spice mixture that includes ginger, anise seed, cloves, onions, salt and fiery West African peppers. Once coated, the plantains are deep-fried, resulting in a sweet-and-spicy snack that still has a satisfyingly creamy and chewy center, Osseo-Asare says.