Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kontomire leaves and smoked tuna

I've been busy organizing my kitchen in Ghana. It's the harmattan  season now (January), with dry winds blowing from the Sahara, and there's fine red dust everywhere. When the plane landed last week from the air it looked like a bad case of smog.  It's a challenge keeping things clean--particularly because our house in Tema has screens and wooden shutters rather than glass windows in most of the rooms, including the kitchen. . .


The most exciting accomplishment today, however, was getting some fresh kontomire (nkontomire) leaves and some smoked fish (tuna and "safo") from the local market. I deboned the fish and gave the head away since I don't cook with it. 

As I was preparing the leaves I realized that folks outside of Ghana might not know what they are. In the U.S. Ghanaians always say they're making "spinach" stew, the most  easily available substitute being spinach leaves. However, in Ghana they use cocoyam (taro) leaves, called kontomire or nkontomire, that are easily available, either wild or cultivated. I paid about 60 cents for a huge bunch of them and cooked them all to freeze some for another day. Tonight we'll enjoy kontomire stew with smoked fish and leftover ampesi (boiled Ghanaian yam, ripe ["red"] plantain, and white sweet potatoes). Kontomire stew is often eaten with boiled green plantain: another example of good, simple, healthy food!

Kontomire's flavor differs a bit from spinach--the leaves are thicker and hardier, more like kale or collard greens. I wonder if that's one of the reasons slaves from West Africa favored cooking with collard and mustard greens? I remember that people prepared leaves exactly the same way when I was in Belo Horizonte in Brazil in 2007 and we cut up collard greens to accompany feijoada.
After washing the leaves,  remove the tough central stem (holding the top end of the leaf by the stem and pulling downwards to release it (sorry, I didn't think to take a picture of that). Then layer several leaves together and roll them up tightly, and slice thinly. 

I'd better stop writing now and make dinner. This post is making me hungry!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Goodbye snow, hello fruit; plus musings on customer service

This week finds me in Ghana checking up on my son DK as he recovers from typhoid (in Tema) and greeting my niece's newborn son (in the Eastern Region). Already the snow and ice of central Pennsylvania are ebbing from memory like a bad dream.

Coconuts are readily available here, along with pineapples (they call the wonderful sugar loaf pineapple the "Cape Coast" type), sour sops (custard apples), avocados and large mangoes (not the smaller traditional type yet). We've been feasting on them, along with oranges, tangerines, watermelon, and bananas. Yesterday I chopped up some mango and pineapple, threw the pieces into a blender, then strained some of the pulp out to make a nectar. Creamy and refreshing. DK said adding watermelon juice would have thinned it without any need to strain it. Today I mixed in orange juice with some of the nectar for breakfast. Yum.

It's also a treat to have fresh African yams. Speaking of yams: a few nights ago DK and one of his co-TEDFellows (Nina Dudnik of SeedingLabs) plus Sharon B. Stringer, my  friend  from Pennsylvania newly arrived to teach at Legon on a Fulbright, went out to dinner at a lovely seaside restaurant in Jamestown. Nina was leaving for Boston the next day and wanted to try some yam chips and pepper sauce, which she duly requested. She made sure the server understood she didn't want potato chips ("I can get those in the U.S. I want real yam chips and pepper sauce"). I ordered palaver sauce and boiled yam, and DK had banku and tilapia. However, when the food arrived and Nina began eating (it was dark by the time we got there and visibility was very poor), she discovered they'd served her potato "chips" (French fries) and ketchup! And her fried "chips" were obviously imported frozen ones that were tasteless and spongy.

Amazing. It seems obvious that freshly  made yam chips with fresh pepper sauce are far superior to imported "obroni aduane." Nina did not say anything then, but when the server returned to collect the plates, she told her of the problem and the server was apologetic. Meanwhile, from my boiled yam it was clear there was plenty of yam available.

If we file that experience under "customer service," here's another one. In the U.S., the mantra is "the customer is always right." In Ghana, that is reversed to "the management is always right" and "If in doubt, ignore the problem until it goes away." 

Earlier the same day as the potato chip (French fry) fiasco, I  experienced another version of this way of thinking. As many people know, the serving sizes in Ghana tend to be several times the sizes in the U.S. DK and I went to a small restaurant he frequently eats at. He wanted jollof rice with chicken and I wasn't very hungry so we decided to order a takeout version and share it. However, when we asked  to put one order in 2 "take away" boxes, we completely upset the balance of the universe. The server insisted she could not do that, even though we offered to pay for 2 boxes. Here's the math: the jollof rice was 4 cedis, plus 1 cedi for the takeout container, or 5 cedis total. The server went away from our table and never returned. The customers who arrived after us were served and we were still sitting there. When DK finally went to ask the owner what was going on, it appeared they were prepared to just ignore us for the rest of the day. Then they said it would cost 2 cedis for an extra container, and when he objected, they said it would cost 10 cedis for one serving of jollof rice in 2 containers. Ghanaian mathematics! 

At that point we left and bought some roasted plantains and groundnuts (peanuts) at the roadside instead. Apparently the restaurant was short on "take away" boxes and the employes were afraid the owner would give them a hard time if they let us use two for one portion of food. This beautifully illustrates how powerless servers often feel, and their inability to deviate even slightly from a rigid set of rules.

TEDGlobal: I mentioned TEDFellows above. I was a TEDFellow invited toTEDGLOBAL in Tanzania in 2007, and my son DK  to TEDGlobal in Oxford in 2010. If you want to change the world and are already working to do so, check it out. Applications are now being accepted until 11 March 2011. For more information:

Individuals can apply online at (short:
Press release:

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Longevity Project: Diet, Quality of Life, and Health

Why is the life expectancy of Ghanaians less than 57 yearsWhat are the links among African cuisines, diets, health, popular cultures, and quality of life? These are all questions that interest me. As a writer, blogger, and editor, I'm particularly interested in ways folks communicate about these topics--topics I believe are sadly neglected by development experts.

Today I'd like to plug a group that impressed me me when I read an article in 2007 in the premier issue of a magazine called Africa Alive! called "A Tale of 2 Parents" about a Ghanaian family in which one parent chose a single simple lifestyle change that led to health and wellness while the other parent's health sadly deteriorated. I'm not sure there was ever another issue of Africa Alive!, but the group behind it, the Ghana-based Longevity Project continues to be a voice that should be heard.  They also have a blog called Longevity Project Weblog that appears to have only 8 posts, the last one being over a year ago, BUT, the posts that are there can well stand by themselves. For example, one reflecting on the irony that none of the 8 UN Millennium Development Goals directly address the issue of non-communicable diseases (NDCs): hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer--diseases the Longevity Project claims affect 28.7% of the population, more than 1 in 4 people. It has another post on the role of starch in the diet. 
The website and blog are nicely designed, but I'm wondering why the site has had so little activity in the past year or two. Can anyone tell me? It seems like something we should all support. And I'd suggest that if the blog allowed comments, that would make it more user-friendly.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Pineapple flour experiment, continued

As I recently mentioned, in Ghana last summer I was given some flour made from the dried, powdered core of pineapples and asked to try cooking with it.

In the past I've   added things like grated carrot and zucchini and crushed pineapple to cakes, only  to have the whole thing fall apart. Thinking it might have to do with all the juice in the pineapple, I decided to first try making a carrot-pineapple-ginger-lemon quick bread using the pineapple flour instead of fresh pineapple. Also, since pineapple is so sweet (and Ghana's sugar loaf pineapples are especially sweet) I figured I could use less sugar and substitute some of the pineapple flour for some of the wheat flour. 

The jury is still out on the final product: The first evening after I made it, it smelled heavenly and I thought it tasted good, and my husband rated it okay, but a little too sweet and with a slightly bitter aftertaste. The next morning I toasted thin slices and put peanut butter on them, and then I thought there was an aftertaste (maybe it was the peanut butter?). That evening my nephew Sam had some and thought it tasted good. I didn't have a problem with an aftertaste this time.  Sam  carried most of the loaf back with him to his apartment. I'll wait a day or two and give you the final verdict.

Anyhow, here's the recipe I concocted (in U.S. measurements):

Carrot-pineapple loaf

Assemble ingredients:

1/2 cube margarine (50 g)  
1/4 - 1/3 cup sugar (about 60 g)
    1 egg
    1/4 tsp salt 
    1 tsp grated lemon peel
    1 rounded tsp grated lemon peel
    2 medium grated carrots (to get about 1 cup lightly spooned into a U.S. cup)
    1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
    2 tsp baking powder (maybe use less if using white flour)
    3/4 cup wheat flour (75 g) [I used white wholewheat flour, the only thing I had handy]
    a little less than 2/3 cup (50 g) pineapple flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease or oil a small loaf pan.

Grate carrots, lemon peel and ginger and mix together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Sift together the wheat and pineapple flours, the baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, cream the margarine and sugar together until fluffy (I used a wooden spoon).
Add the egg and beat well.
Stir in the dry sifted ingredients.
Stir in the grated ingredients.
At this point I realized the mixture was too dry, so I added first 1/4 cup of orange juice--still too dry so I added 1/4 cup of low-fat milk.
I baked the mixture about 40-45 minutes, then turned it out on a wire rack to cool. Several hours later I sliced a few slices when it was cool, then wrapped the rest until the next day.

Incidentally,  I've had the flour since June, and have no idea how long ago it was made, so am not sure how fresh it is and whether or not that might account for a slight aftertaste. I'll get back to you when the votes are all finally in. Personally, I think it has real possibilities!


Monday, January 03, 2011

Pineapple Flour and AJFAND: African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development

I've been in the kitchen today experimenting with some pineapple flour from the Food Research Institute in Ghana (part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research), a potential culinary innovation being tested. It's made from dried pineapple chaff that would normally be discarded as waste. Katie wrote about it last summer when we had some experimental cake and cookies ("biscuits") at Barbara Baeta's house. I just took out of the oven some citrus-ginger-pineapple-carrot bread I dreamed up. I must say it smells great! We'll taste it tonight and I'll let you know how it turned out, including the recipe if it's a keeper. I also have some more ideas for the flour I'll be sharing in upcoming posts.
However, for some time I've been meaning to plug the multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal  AJFAND: the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development.

The title pretty much describes this wonderful resource.  Since 2001 it has been published in Nairobi, Kenya by the Rural Outreach Program. As long as I have been aware of it, Prof. Ruth Oniang’o has been the editor. I see on the current editorial page that she recently has been elected to succeed the late Dr. Norman Borlag as Chair of Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) and the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education. I wish her well in her new post, and congratulate the journal for its history of excellence.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Challenge to African culinary entrepreneurs: palm leaf plates

While it's trite to talk about "thinking outside the box" or  "coloring outside the lines," one thing I wish for in 2011 is that entrepreneurial Africans continue to discover new ways of seeing possibilities rooted in their indigenous culture and resources.

Drawing unashamedly from my own family, that may mean teaching materials science in Africa using African proverbs and anthills,  critiquing cultural sensitivity in technology,  rewriting African history,  or developing new approaches to architecture. It also means creating new products and services. Emeka Okafor's fabulous blog  Timbuktu Chronicles  is a treasure chest for following the explosion of creativity and entrepreneurship in Africa. The blogroll there links to too many noteworthy sites to list here. Check it out!

Of course I'm especially interested in things connected to the food and hospitality industry. I've noticed a disheartening proliferation of styrofoam (polystyrene) and plastic take-out containers in Ghana. Carrying food home in these from parties, funerals, restaurants, etc., seems to be becoming a mark of prestige. The disposal problem, added to that of plastic water sachets and bags, is horrendous. Of course, some creative folks are working to  recycle some of this waste, in a variety of forms, such as bags and baskets, yarn and beads.

An "outside the box" approach would be that of  finding an African alternative. Years ago African women (and women elsewhere) were urged to use "modern" methods of feeding their children formula in glass or plastic bottles with rubber nipples instead of breastfeeding. Today, of course, folks realize that "mother's milk" is a far superior (cheaper, healthier, and generally simpler) solution.

When I first arrived in Ghana, people often used palm leaves as plates for serving many foods. I remembered that when recently given a lovely set of dinnerware from Verterra, a US company based in New York but using workers from India. The plates are made from palm leaves! As the package enthuses, the plates are "All natural, chemical and bleach free, nontoxic--no plastics or waxes, 100% compostable, naturally biodegrades . . . microwave and refrigerator-safe, no trees cut down, made from fallen leaves. . ." (BTW, the plates are also reusable.) What a lovely idea. Why not bowls? Serving platters?