Fufu is unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. It’s like drinking beer: it’s an acquired taste and the more you have it, the more you want.
Mimicking the way Ghanaians eat this staple part of their diet, I roll the sticky substance between my fingers into a slightly misshapen ball. The gravy drips between my fingers like candle wax as I quickly swallow the thick paste made from ground cassava. This is my introduction to Ghanaian food and I soon discover that there’s a lot more to the local cuisine – but even if there weren’t, I’d be happy with just this.
Two close friends share the role of guides. Edem and Prince are students at the University of Legon and have lived in Accra all their lives. They’re excited to be sharing their favourite culinary experiences with a curious (and hungry) South African.
We visit Chez Clarisse, also known to locals as Mama Afrika. “They serve the best attieke in Accra,” Edem tells me. Before I can ask, he explains: “Attieke is an Ivorian delicacy – it’s grated cassava pulp.”
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: Ghana isn’t for carbophobes. Potatoes, cassava, rice, plantain, jollof rice or yams are included with every meal. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of carbs, so I welcome these accompaniments, along with fresh vegetables and fruit (like juicy pineapple or mangoes).
I’m glad for my guides when we arrive at Chez Clarisse. It’s discreet, hidden in a small enclave in the trendy neighbourhood of Osu that’s sleepy and slow on a Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure that I would have spotted it without them.
There are no menus – only consistent, well-loved dishes that keep people coming back for. Our food arrives: whole tilapia cooked over a fire, big bowls of attieke and fried plantain chips (these are also known as alokkoand are simultaneously sweet and salty). We dig in, hands only, and it seems as if only moments later, we’re licking our fingers clean. Chez Clarisse is a must for any visitor to Accra. It manages to mix various West African tastes in a relaxed, reliable, delicious and affordable way.
Another of Edem’s favourite eateries, Buka restaurant, is also in Osu. With a thatched roof and straw ceiling, it exudes a quintessentially laid-back, Ghanaian feel, albeit slightly more upmarket than Chez Clarisse. “My favourite meal here is boiled ripe plantain with kontomire stew. ‘Kontomire’ is the local name for cocoyam leaves, which are sliced thinly and boiled for this dish. Buka also serves Nigerian, Togolese and Senegalese meals, but I’ve yet to give them a try,” he says.
We saunter through Osu, exploring other restaurants, the street markets, the ice-cream bars and the pizza spots. We return one evening later in the week and find the atmosphere’s transformed: music pulsates through the walls of the buildings and onto the streets. Tipsy crowds saunter between bars and towards street food stands – Osu, it seems, is the place to be.
We dance at Bella Roma, an Italian restaurant-cum-nightclub, before making our way to Shisha Lounge. This is a quieter, more discreet spot. We walk up the quaint staircase hidden in the corner that takes us onto a small, cosy balcony beneath overhanging branches of an old and sturdy tree. We order pizza and shisha (or nargilla) and bite into the crunchy, thin-crusted slices as heady-flavoured smoke whirls around our heads.
Prince and Edem tell me that Ghanaian food is commonly enjoyed on the streets, particularly by students and workers on their lunch breaks.
“One favourite dish is called ‘red red’ in restaurants, but on the streets, we call it yo ke gari,” says Edem. “It’s simply boiled beans served with palm oil, gari and fried plantain. I like mine with lots of pepper.” Prince challenges Edem, positive that the best street food can be found from a hidden gem. “There’s this spot right behind the Madina bus stop in Okponglo. They serve the best yams with palava (stew) sauce and sometimes they also cut up ripe avocado.” When avocado’s in season, it invariably accompanies Ghanaian street food. “When it’s not, most vendors sell scrambled eggs with their dishes instead,” says Prince.
The food of Accra is much like the people: enriching, unique and rewarding. I have a series of continuous encounters that leave me feeling grounded and satisfied. My taste-buds experienced only the tip of Ghana’s spicy, rich, carbo-loading iceberg – but I guess that’s what the next few visits will be for.
by Kim Harrisberg