An ECOWAS menu will no doubt be dominated by Nigerian cuisine, but the choicest meals or delicacies might likely come from unlikely places. Believe you me: there is a wide, wild, world of food on the West Coast. If you think you have eaten it all, wait till you find yourself in some obscure village with a name that sounds like a cross between Greek and Turkic and see for the first time grubs that beat your imagination.
While each country has its distinct cuisine, a handful of dishes and delicacies have become universal and are obtainable in several countries, though some countries try to claim proprietary over them, like Nigeria and Ghana who are eternally locked in a Jollof rice duel, each claiming to be better at preparing the dish that originated from Senegal. The Jollof debate has taken centre stage in the last few years, especially on social media. The last time I checked, Nigeria scored more points.
That is by the way.
To have a successful culinary adventure, the first rule is to keep an open mind as you ‘eat’ your way across the region.
Lagos, I am proud to say, is the de facto bread capital of ECOWAS. Stroll around Cele bus stop to Okota round-about in the evening and behold a spectacular bread panorama. Bread, bread and bread everywhere. That Lagos is saturated with bread is more obvious to an outsider than the regular Lagosian. Long before I became a resident of the city, I used to hear an aunt say: “Even if a visitor knocks on your door in the dead of night when all the food in the house had been polished off the pots, there is always bread to the rescue.”
Most of the loaves on the street come from cottage bakeries. Multinationals like UAC, Leventis and Shoprite have up the ante in recent years, leaving the city swamped by an unwieldy variety. Slice bread. Butter bread. Choco bread. Wheat bread. Fruit bread. Brown bread. White bread. Agege Bread––Lagos is home to a hefty catalogue of over 5000 types of oven-fresh loaves that hit the street daily, ranging from penny loaves to naira-heavy so-called special bakery. Bread is one of the reasons for the saying that “Lagosians can survive on the street.” The city is such a melting pot it is difficult to define it by a single cuisine. The Lagos Pot is a bubbling cauldron of Yoruba, Igbo and other assorted cookeries. Bread is one of the things that define the Lagos victuals.
But man shall not live by bread alone. Aside the thousands of roadside food sellers and the brigade of roving vendors, there are upscale restaurants in Victoria Island and Ikoyi known for haute cuisines, and a legion of eatery chains such as Mr Biggs, Tantalizer and Chicken Republic that offer the standard menu. The best puddings, however, are to be found in ‘hidden kitchens’ across the city and it takes an epicure to find them. I found a few in the last two years, thanks to Mr Mike Awoyinfa. As a team of master-and-apprentice writers working on a book project, we traversed the length and breadth of Lagos for two years looking for good interviews for a bestselling book on boardroom leadership and corporate governance (soon to be published). Sequel to every great interview, we dined out. Mr Awoyinfa is renowned as a first-rate journalist and editor, and bestselling author of business books and biographies. He is also a fantastic gourmet, a man with a discerning palate who knows how to locate the city’s best restaurants. Many of our outings remain unforgettable: a Calabar Kitchen on Airport road for its delicious Okro and crayfish soup; a restaurant chain at Anthony Village where I had eaten pounded yam with vegetable soup and fish and an eatery inside Lawanson, where I was served an unforgettable meal of Semo, Efo riro and orisirisi.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I dare say Nigeria has the most diverse cuisine on the ECOWAS menu. The option outside the country is limited, a cold fact that hit you a few kilometres outside the borders of the country. If you are the kind that craves variety, you would soon run out of options.
In the nearby Benin Republic, the options are limited. I have said it before: if you are a foodie, Benin is no place for a culinary orgasm. I have tried hard a few times but found no real delight in any of its main meals. They have a lot of fries and I found one irresistible. Overripe banana, blended into a puree of thick consistency and fried it into balls of golden buns that are sweet––sugary is the word––and oily.
I also relish the taste of tapioca and Apan, the pap made of white corn or red guinea corn, taken with crushed ice cubes, sucre, lait and cacahuète.
Their bread also ‘makes sense.’ The French stick, common in Francophone countries and officially called baguette, is a long thin loaf that is crusty outside but soft and spongy inside. As you walk through Cotonou, these loaves of bread are at hand to whet your appetite, the long, slim bread, cut open, its inside stuffed with salad, sardine, salami, butter, jams––everything sweet and colourful.
During my first few months in Porto Novo, I used to stroll by a bakery. On my way home in the evening, I’d stop to buy one French stick for CFA200 and had it stuffed with an oily fry of CFA100. I’d sit in the vast, open park by Place Bayol and munched the simple bake, watching the sun sinking into the Porto Novo water, oblivious to the babblings of French and native Egun around me.
Togo’s range of food is a one-page menu. By the time you sieve out the Ghanaian and Beninese cuisines, you are left with just a handful of victuals. In Nigeria, Togolese are renown for Ewa agoyin, cooked beans served with onion and pepper fried in palm oil. Togolese do not import their cuisine; they simply deploy their cookery to varieties of food available anywhere they go. You have to be in their country to discover their indigenous fares. Some 12 years ago, While in Lome, I had my first encounter with potato leaf soup served with starchy dough. Though delicious, it violated my culinary sensitivity, and I had stayed away from it. In the morning, vendors sold a concoction of rice, bean and gari. The first few days, I had stayed away from the impossible mix, preferring to take a trip to the market where I’d sat down to a heavy meal of Amala and other varieties of the Yoruba menu. By the third day, however, curiosity got the better of me. Just a taste and I discovered one of the most amazing foods on the West Coast, but somehow, Togo foods did not jell with me.
In contrast to the ‘food drought’ of Benin and Togo, Ghana is a land of plenty as per variety. But what Ghanaians eat is vastly different from the Nigerian culinary delight.
A shortlist of popular Nigerian staples that Ghanaians do not eat includes pounded yam, semolina, Amala, Eba, Akpu. You have to find yourself in the homes of Nigerians living in Accra to get a taste of these popular staples. Years ago when I lived in Accra, myself and Solomon, our Ghanaian driver, used to make a fortnight journey to East Legon for a Semo treat at Mrs Imam’s and to Otunba Dele Momodu’s House of Ovation at Dzorwulu, Airport Road, for eba and vegetable soup. Rice is available––not the long Indian grains common in Nigeria but Thai Perfumed rice.
Overall, you cannot go hungry in the city. There is at least a chop bar every one kilometre in any direction in major cities such as Accra, Kumasi or Cape Coast. In the evening, the street swarms with food vendors of all kinds, but the Ghanaian menu is not so diverse, compared to Nigeria’s. You can tick the meals off your fingers: Kenkey, Banku, Kokonten, Waakye, Fufu and Omo tuo (rice balls).
The first day I sat in a chop bar my food arrived in a wide, elliptic clay pot, the dumpling immersed in a pond of soup with chunks of meat on it. That is how patrons of chop bars prefer to be served.
Ghanaians are generous with soup. You are meant to lick and sip it after consuming your Fufu or Banku. They are not ‘leaf’ eaters as Nigerians, so do not look forward to cooked bitter leaf, waterleaf or amaranthus in a typical Ghanaian restaurant. Okro is the popular soup, followed by groundnut soup, light soup and palm nut soup. The popular vegetable is cocoyam leaf used to cook Kontomire soup. I have no liking for it. Most of the time, I asked for palm nut soup, and in its absence, groundnut broth.
Ghana’s king of food is Kenkey, the dumpling made out of steamed corn dough, served with raw pepper and tomato, sliced onion, fried fish and Shito––fried fish and shrimp, spiced, sieved in oil. Another popular food worth getting used to is Waakye, rice and black-eyed beans cooked with a local leaf that turn the pudding reddish brown.
“The best way to eat Waakye is with your hand,” Farida Baryeh, our secretary corrected as I attempted to use a spoon the day I sat down to my first meal of the rice and beans concoction. I ate Banku a number of times, but it never won my heart––or stomach.
Generally, the traditional Ghanaian gastronomy is heavy and starchy, but consumed with a lot of fishes from the sea, though the freshwater tilapia is their favourite. On a hot sunny afternoon in Accra, white rice and light soup with tilapia is an agreeable meal. Did I forget to tell you that Ghanaians eat tilapia the way Nigerians consume catfish?
Ghana has no gala and coconut chips, and many of the numerous snacks you can easily snap up in the traffic of Lagos, but they have got other delicacies, such as fried octopus, that is hawked by teenagers bearing glass boxes of white and creamy fillets. I had shed my bias against delicacies since the day I tasted fried woodworms in Ugbo Nla, Ondo State. Unfortunately, my first taste of octopus, while waiting for my bus to fill up at Tantri Park, was unsavoury.
Kokor, roasted plantain and groundnut (called Boli at’epa in Lagos) always come handy each time Nana Acheampong and I went on the beat, especially to the Police Headquarters which we frequented once a week to pick vital news.
Accra is home of grills. Tilapia, chicken, beef or pork grill. They come a dime a dozen.
Farther away from Accra, where it is difficult to get the Ga Kenkey that I love so much––I don’t like the Fante kenkey– –I had to seek other options. It was in Half Assini I discovered a culinary treat called Akyeke. The dish is grated cassava, fermented and flavoured. It is eaten with fried fish, pepper and chopped onion with seasoning and palm oil.
The dish, I learnt, originated from Ivory Coast.
When in Rome, the saying goes, do as the Romans––I guess that includes eating what the Romans eat. Generally, I give preferences for what is not available in my home country. That explains my preference for Kenkey in Ghana. I am particularly biased towards delicacies––though I stick to the agreeable ones (no more octopus or woodworms, no matter how delicious they are).
Recently, I was among a group of friends at a popular spot in Aguda, Surulere. Guess what was the biggest offering on the menu: Grilled catfish. The catfish rage has taken over the city. Even in the office, it has become the unofficial birthday chow. Grilled catfish, with salad and chips, topped with dollops of ketchup and salad cream.
Nonetheless, I remain a Kenkey fan.
A friend told me the sauce was the put-off for him. So I taught him the best way for non-Ghanaians to eat the cornmeal: open a tin of sardine, drain the oil and empty the fish into a plate, add tomato sauce, sliced onion and salt to taste.