Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lunch of Champions

I have already told you about my typical Ghanaian breakfast (Hausa Cocoa and Kose). Since then, I have also established my lunch option of choice: grilled plantain and fried yam. There are two women who set up shop next to each other on the roadside about ½ a mile from our office and cook them both for the lunch rush: one specializes in grilling the plantain over a charcoal grill and sells it with little bags of peanuts (called groundnuts here), while the other fries the yams in a big vat of vegetable oil and sells it with red or black pepper sauce for dipping. The latter also fries whole tilapia, but I stick with the yams. As I am a very good repeat customer, coming back anywhere from 2-4 times a week, and surely the only white person who tries to greet them in their native tongue, they always have big smiles and waves for me when they see me coming up the road on my midday stroll.

There isn’t really a standard time when the food is ready, so sometimes I get there and they are just getting going. The grilled plantain is pretty standard. Very similar to banana, she simply peels the fruit and then just throws it on the open-face grill. I watch eagerly, her hands jetting in and out of the heat as she turns the plantain with nimble fingers. When they are good and done (brown and crispy on the outside, hot and soft on the inside), she stacks them in a pile on a corner of the grill away from the most intense heat but still staying warm. I select two good ones just in time to hear the sizzle as the first of the yams are thrust into a large vat of oil on the ground about 10 yards away. As the yam slices settle at the bottom of the basin, I watch the translucent surface bubbling over with intense escaping heat and can’t help but think of Harry Potter (never far from my thoughts). It reminds me of a cauldron in Snape’s dungeon during Potions lessons. It’s not long before the yams are being fished out of the oil with a long black spatula, ready to take their place next to the tilapia in a glass display case on top of the wooden table that faces the road and the customers.

my two lunch-time buddies, grilling plantains at front

yams frying in the vat of oil

I should say that yams in Africa are quite different than what we know as yams – the orange-fleshed sweet potato – in the U.S. The best way that I can describe African yam is to say that it is almost identical to yuca, a dish native to Latin America, which you may have encountered at Caribbean or South American restaurants in the U.S. (There is a Cuban restaurant in Arlington, VA I used to frequent that serves yuca with a terrifically spicy green sauce.) Like yuca, the fleshy, edible part of an African yam is much denser and starchier than potatoes. A full yam is large and tubular, usually over two feet in length and weighing about 10 pounds. Its skin is much rougher than a potato, almost more like tree bark. African yam is almost always prepared by peeling off the skin and cutting it into smaller pieces to be boiled or fried. The end result of the fried yams is that they resemble very large steak fries. Dip them in spicy black pepper sauce and pair them with plantain hot off the grill and you’ve got a nice little lunch. Not only are the yams and plantain delicious, but they are really cheap, too. I can get more than I can (or should) eat for the equivalent of about $1.

table-top glass case with fried yams top left and fried tilapia top right

a typical road-side produce stand: unripe plantains front left, ripe plantains right, yams center left and bananas far left

I have discovered that if I want to eat and live like a Ghanaian, then it is generally very affordable to do so. On the other hand, the second that I have “Western” cravings that require addressing, I better be ready to pay for it, because everything is imported. American/European food is usually at least twice as expensive as it should be, while toiletries can simply be laughably expensive. Last week, I went into a western shop to see how much my shampoo (Head and Shoulders) costs in Ghana. I walked back to the hair care section and found my shampoo in the middle of the shelf next to other standard fare. If you just took a snapshot of the products on the shelf, you could have been anywhere in America, but as soon as you look under those products to see the price labels, you realize that you are definitely not. For a standard bottle (not like a huge Costco bulk size), it was about $15. I just laughed audibly, thought about asking one of the workers if anyone actually buys this stuff for this price, thought better of it, and walked out the door. Luckily I have some people visiting me in the coming weeks who will be kind enough to indulge me a shopping list!

PS: If anyone was wondering, Everton just got through beating Chelsea and Manchester United (the two top teams in the league) in back-to-back matches. It's more of less the equivalent of sweeping the Yankees and Red Sox in back to back series. On top of that, Landon Donovan is tearing it up, especially considering that many of the defenders he's played against in recent weeks are first stringers for the English national team that he and Team USA will face in the first game of the World Cup. Everton have not lost a league match in months, as they continue their climb up the ranks of the Premier league. Since I declared my fandom, the have gone from 11th place to 8th. And the fans love Donovan; unfortunately, it seems like he will be headed back to the LA Galaxy when his loan is over, but many are saying that he will be signed permanently next year.


  1. He always finds a way to disappoint in big games. I still expect him to disappear in the WC.

  2. I don't really agree, Dave. He's led the LA Galaxy to win the championship in MLS, and in Everton's two biggest matches (Chelsea and Man. U) he was awesome. He was even awarded "man of the match" in the former, despite one of his teammates scoring two goals. As far as with the national team, yes, the entire team sucked in Germany in 2006. That being said, they were good in the WC before that one (2002, in Korea and Japan) and outside of the WC, the biggest international match he's ever played in - the championship game of the Confederations Cup vs. Brazil last year (in South Africa, by the way), he scored one of the most skillful goals I'
    ve ever seen him score. USA went on to lose 3-2, but it was still an awesome showing by both Donovan and the team.

  3. http://soccernet.espn.go.com/players/stats?id=19107&cc=5901

    Sorry, but doing it in the MLS doesn't really count when we're talking about the level of play in the WC. I hope you're right, though.

  4. I don't know about Everton, but I do like Kose for breakfast too. Grilled plantains are also filling, delicious and fantastically affordable. Great post on food!