I may have mentioned a while back that some of the staple foods here are fufu, banku, and rice ball. Well tonight was my first foray into the world of truly Ghanaian dishes. I have asked the kitchen on campus to suspend meals for a while (how long is anyone's guess) so that I may try my hand in the kitchen. I was going to try something small for my first meal, but I arrived home late yesterday and just ate the lunch that the school was sending me off with (therefore becoming my dinner). That meant I could skip making a meal for one extra day.
I didn't try fufu first though I really do enjoy that meal. Instead my next door neighbor's daughter offered to instruct me on the ways of banku and okro soup. I detect that she figured to go easy on me with the very first meal, don't get him in over his head on the first try out. At least that was what I was assuming to be the case.
From home-stay I had seen banku made practically every day by my mother there. She served it to customers in the stand out in front of their house. She made a ton of it and now in retrospect I can't imagine having the muscles to make this in that quantity every day. It is a different experience.
With no knowledge in my possession, I was at the beck and call of Ann Marie, the neighbor. This is a thirteen year-old who knows what she is doing. She made the entire meal by heart and helped me in assembling all the ingredients and requisite materials. Bless her little heart.
The first thing to get a hold on are the brand new ingredients. You will need some of the familiar items: onions, tomatoes, peppers, and some spices like cumin and salt. After that you are into the new territory. Okro is a green vegetable that is shaped like a jalapeno but doesn't have the spice of one. Almost prickly on the skin, you slice that up good and small. It is slimy (their word for it) and that is a big part of the soup you will be eating. When dipping into it you get long strands of this viscous slime trailing back to the bowl from which it came. It makes for easy chopping though since it sticks to itself quite nicely. Amma is the spelling approximation which I came up with to describe the other plant that we used for the soup. Pluck off the leaves of what looks like a basil plant (without the flavor) and chuck that into a pot to cook with the okro.
The other thing you will be required to bring to the table, the banku, starts off as balls of dough, equal portions of cassava and corn dough. Mix those together, after sieving the cassava for pulp and sticks, in water and get a slurry ready. Put a pot on top of burning hot charcoals and start your stirring. Don't stop stirring for about a half hour. Once the concoction gels you will notice that stirring stops and you switch to more of a man-handling of the gooey substance. The best that I can describe it is extra thick, extra sticky mashed potatoes. My instructor could do it with her eyes closed and not only that, she could also be asleep and she still would have driven the banku perfectly. Me? Nah, not even close. I just made the motions of what I thought she was doing and smiled for the camera.
As that is solidifying, you must also be aware where your meat and spices are, as well as the okro and amma. When they are both good to go, dump one into the other and heat it up to a rolling boil. Taste that pot and see if it needs more salt (which I don't add) and move back to the banku.
I can't rightly say when the banku was done, but Ann Marie proclaimed it ready and dished it out into several plastic bags. They keep well in the refrigerator when you make too much. I had that problem in spades tonight as there were six balls of it, and managed only to eat one. The okro soup was good in all its stringy-ness. I could not convince anyone to join me to eat which was disappointing. I had many visitors stop by, but none would seem to trust me an American's version of banku. Not even Ann Marie.
I thanked her profusely and said “va midu nu” (come, let us eat) but she deferred. She said that banku and okro soup was not her favorite. I think I am set for food for the next four days, provided I don't get sick of the same thing that many nights in a row. The work involved though, everything that people eat here it seems requires phenomenal effort and just a bit more sweat than I am used to when cooking. Albeit I typically made myself spaghetti and sauce from a jar when I was in the states. Here you have to work for it.
It did taste pretty good though after all was said and done. That may have a lot to do with my own hands helping the dish along. More experiments to come.