MOTHER AFRICA: A celebratory meal for Black History Month

We caught up with Victoria chef Castro Boateng (and his mom) to create a Ghanaian feast and even if you missed it, their authentic recipes are here to try.




By CINDA CHAVICH


“Akwaaba — Welcome to our Home.”

warm welcome is palpable.

When Boateng was a kid, growing up in Toronto, he was surrounded by a big Ghanaian community. He could walk down Jane Street or Wilson Avenue and duck into local African food shops, filled with the aromas of spicy kebabs, okra and eggplant stew, or jollof rice, the kind of hearty dishes his mother and aunts cooked for their big family dinners. Tonight he is channeling that memory, his long table draped in colourful kente cloth and laden with traditional foods.


Though Victoria’s African community is definitely smaller than Toronto’s, it is mighty. Beyond Boateng himself — the chef behind the award-winning House of Boateng — tonight’s guests include acclaimed Victoria writer Esi Edugyan, author of two Giller prize-winning novels; Troy Wilson, owner of Status Barber Shop; and Mary Scheer, proprietor of Victoria’s Island Afrikan Supermarket, the source of many of tonight’s authentic ingredients.

“This is a celebration of our black history and there are many successful people here,” said Boateng, welcoming his guests with his wife Charlotte, mother Felicia Amponsem and brother Isaac at his side.

“I am very proud to call you my family and friends — you all encourage me to be better every day.”

African food is all about communal dining, cooking and eating with a large, extended family, Boateng explains.

“African food is always built on family, and getting together,” he says. “It’s always about the meal. We can turn anything into a party.”

And this is a party. What began as an idea to share a family-style dinner with a few friends has grown, in typical Boateng style, into an extravaganza of colour and flavour, with more than a dozen dishes, both strictly traditional recipes and some with his own Afro-Canadian spin.


Chef Castro Boateng cooks with his mother Felicia Amponsem in the House of Boateng kitchen.

Tonight Boateng has invited his mother Felicia to share in the cooking, and the aromas emanating from his catering kitchen a few hours before guests arrive is intoxicating. While she peels big cocoyams, and grinds tomatoes, habanero and onions into a spicy relish by hand in a traditional askana, Boateng readies starchy plantains for the fryer.

“I didn’t cook when I was a kid at all,” admits the chef, conversing with his mother in their Ghanaian Twi dialect, and tending to pots of her savoury soups and stews simmering on the stove.

The spread is impressive — the Ghanaian red rice and beans dish known as Waakya (waa-chay), creamy chicken and peanut soup, okra stew, ruddy palm and goat soup, spinach stew with foraged island mushrooms, and Red Red (bean stew), all alongside the requisite African starchy staples, boiled and fried yams, fried plantain, omo tuo (rice balls) and banku, lightly fermented corn and cassava dumplings.


Fried whole tilapia served with Felicia Amponsem’s colourful, hot pepper relish.

Edugyan recalls her mother making the red beans and crispy plantains when she was growing up in Calgary, flavours that are both memorable and addictive. I am particularly taken with the banku, served with a rustic okra stew. And Wilson, recalling his blended Caribbean and Nigerian family in Nova Scotia, admits the spicy Jollof Rice is a personal favourite.

These are all accessible and comforting dishes, part of the African tradition of sharing time around the table.

Though Boateng doesn’t serve many traditional Ghanian dishes like this on his regular HOB menu, he’s developed a unique style that combines his classical chef’s training with the culinary muscle memory that comes from childhood experiences. For Boateng, that means an African melting pot of ingredients and inspirations — a love of Jamaican jerk and crispy little bonfrot donuts, the subtle sweetness of young coconut and the fiery kick of scotch bonnet peppers.

Whether it’s the Taste of Africa food station at his catered events (think spiced and battered African fish with cassava chips and preserved lemon, Ghanaian-style arancini, and sweet roasted plantains with roasted pork belly and smoked shrimp aioli), the casual HOB café menu with his African Bowl of Jollof Rice and Scrambled eggs, or his famous mango and habanero salsa, there’s a little exotic African flavour on every plate.

But tonight it’s all about tradition – a taste of black history and heritage, to share with his new extended family, right here on Vancouver Island.




THE AFRICAN PANTRY

At Island Afrikan Supermarket on Quadra Street, proprietor Mary Scheer offers a wide variety of African groceries, beauty products and artwork from her native Ghana and other countries across the continent. You’ll find palm products, cassava and semolina flour from west and east Africa, stewing chicken and goat meat in the freezer, South African Boerwors sausage and rooibos tea, Jamaican ackees and jerk seasoning, and much more.


Chef Boateng shops for tropical ingredients like young coconuts and plantains at local grocery stores including Fairway Markets, Superstore and Thrifty Foods. But for authentic African foods, Island Afrikan Supermarket is his go-to destination.

We walked through the tidy, well-stocked store together while he explained some of the unusual offerings:


EDIBLE PALM

The pulpy red fruit and oil from the African oil palm adds colour and rich flavour to many traditional African dishes. You’ll find bottles of palm oil and cans of palm fruit to add to soups and stews. Its highly saturated and rich in carotenes and Vitamin E.


YAMS

African yams (a.k.a. cocoyams) are not like the usual orange and while sweet potatoes and yams we find at the supermarket. They’re large and long roots, with a dark brown, craggy skin, white on the inside and very starchy. Peel, cut and soak in cold water to remove excess starch before boiling or frying.


EGUSHI

Egushi is a melon seed that’s ground into a powder and used to thicken soups and stews.


PLANTAIN

This starchy relative of the banana is eaten when it’s unripe, ripe and even overly ripe in different African dishes, and can be fried, roasted or boiled and mashed. Unripe plantain is delicious when deep fried, and makes a popular side dish to many African meals.


CASSAVA

Cassava, manioc or yucca is a starchy root and the source of tapioca starch. In African cooking, the long, brown root is peeled and boiled like a potato, or grated and cooked in palm oil.


FUFU (FOU FLOU) MIX – Fufu is a starchy staple served alongside soups and stews in West Africa. The large, soft ball is traditionally made with a sticky dough of boiled cocoyam, plantain and/or cassava, that’s mashed and kneaded together, and used to scoop up the saucy bits on your plate. The fufu mix combines cassava flour and plantain flour to speed up the process. Or look for premade, frozen fufu products.


BANKU FLOUR MIX

Banku is a kind of lightly fermented dumpling, traditionally made with ground maize and grated cassava root. The mix of cornmeal and cassava flour makes it faster and easier to make this Ghanaian staple which can be boiled or wrapped in leaves and steamed like tamales.


RECIPES:


The feast Chef Castro Boateng created for his family and friends includes a wide range of traditional African dishes, from creamy red beans and okra, to spaghetti topped with a beef and tomato stew, and fried whole tilapia served with his mother’s colourful, hot pepper relish. The comforting soups and stews are topped with boiled eggs and avocado, and sopped up with boiled and fried plantain, cocoyam and fermented banku dumplings.

Try some of Chef Boateng’s home-style recipes, to celebrate Black History Month with your family, too.



RECIPES:

Chef Castro Boateng shares his recipes for some of his favourite Ghanaian dishes.


Chicken & Peanut Soup (Nkatie Kwan) with Omo Tuo



Serve this rich and savoury chicken soup with Omo Tuo (steamed rice balls), boiled yam, plantain or fufu. This is a family favourite for kids and adults alike. You can find a mix for the rice balls at Island Afrikan Supermarket.

2 kg chicken pieces, legs & thighs salt and pepper 1/2 Tbsp cayenne pepper

4 Tbsp (25 g) sliced fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves (sliced) 1 habanero 796 ml (28 oz) can diced plum tomatoes 2 medium onions, chopped 1 cup (250 ml) ground nut (natural peanut butter) 8 ½ cups (2 liter) chicken stock or water 8 okra, chopped (optional)


Season chicken pieces with s/p, cayenne, half of the ginger, half of the garlic, and set aside in the refrigerator for 4 hours or over night.

Heat a large pot over medium heat, then add chicken.

Add half of the onions and ¼ of the tomatoes, cover the pot and steam for 20 minutes.

In a blender or food processor, combine the remaining onions, tomatoes, ginger, habanero, ground nut and 2 cups of the stock or water and blend until smooth. Pour the mixture into a separate pot and simmer for 30 minutes or until the mixture thickens.

Add the groundnut mixture to the chicken. Add the remaining stock or water, and bring to boil. Season the soup and simmer on low heat for another 45 minutes or until the meat falls off the bone and the soup has thickened.

Meanwhile, dice the okra, cover with water, season with salt. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve the okra with the soup.

Serves 8-10.


Boiled Yam with Spinach Stew & Foraged Mushrooms

(Ghanaian Style Spinach Stew)

Castro says his mother always made this classic Ghanaian stew with a pound of smoked mackerel, shredded into the mixture. But he’s upgraded to modern tastes with mushrooms – chopped fresh chanterelles for this fall feast that have been sautéed until tender and browned in butter. Egusi seeds are a kind of melon seed used in West African cuisine. They add a nut-like flavour and help to thicken the stew. Top the stew with boiled cocoyam, hard-boiled eggs and sliced avocado.




2 red onions, peeled and sliced 1 cup of vegetable oil or Palm oil 1 tsp of cayenne 1 Tbsp ginger, chopped

4 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped salt & pepper to taste

1 pound fresh wild or cultivated mushrooms (chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, brown mushrooms, etc.)

1½ cups (200g) egusi seeds (if you can't find egusi seeds, you can substitute pumpkin seeds) 3 lbs fresh spinach leaves or frozen spinach, chopped




Accompaniments:

5 avocado, peeled and sliced

5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

boiled cocoyam (see following recipe)


Clean the mushrooms. Chop half of them and slice half of them.

In a saucepan, sauté sliced onion in oil until softened. Add chopped mushrooms, cayenne, ginger, tomatoes, season with salt & pepper, and simmer for 10 minutes.

In a separate bowl, add enough water to cover the egusi then place in a blender, and blend until pureed to the consistency of whipping cream. Add the egusi mix to the sauce then simmer for 5 minutes.

Blanch the spinach in salted boiling water for 2 minutes, then chill in ice water, and squeeze to remove excess water.

Roughly chop the blanched spinach then add to the sauce.

Simmer for 10 minutes for all the flavours to combine.

Meanwhile, sautee the remaining sliced mushrooms in a little oil until browned (to garnish the stew).

Serve the spinach stew in a wide serving bowl, garnished with sautéed mushrooms, avocado, hard-boiled eggs and yams.

Serves 10.


African Yam (Cocoyam) This is a large, long white yam with a dark, rough skin. It can be boiled, to serve like boiled potatoes, or deep-fried like French fries.


1 kg cocoyam salt to taste

Peel yam and cut into medium size pieces.

Place yam in salted water to cover.

Bring to boil, then simmer for 30-40 minutes or until fork tender. Drain well.



Jollof Rice with Shrimp & Chicken Sausage This spicy dish is the African equivalent of jambalaya — with the addition of curry spices and ginger — makes a delicious one-dish dinner. At House of Boateng, it’s served with the spicy sauce over golden rice.


1/4 cup vegetable oil or palm oil 1 large onion, peeled & diced 1/4 cup (20 g) chopped fresh ginger 2 tsp ground coriander 1 Tbsp curry powder 1 tsp chili flakes 2 Tbsp paprika salt & pepper to taste 2 cups chopped whole tomatoes, canned or fresh 1 habanero pepper, finely chopped

¼ cup tomato paste 4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock 2 cups long grain rice 3 fresh chicken sausages, sliced 1 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined 1 cup fresh peas 3 scallions


Using a medium saucepan, sauté onions in vegetable oil over medium heat. Lower the heat then add the ginger, coriander, curry powder, chili flakes & paprika. Keep stirring to prevent the spices from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the chopped tomatoes, chopped habanero pepper and tomato paste and simmer for 10 minutes, then add the stock. Season with salt & pepper. Simmer the spiced sauce for 40 minutes or until the sauce is reduced to about 4 cups.

Meanwhile rinse the rice in cold water few times to remove some of the starch. Stir the rice into the sauce, add the sausage. Bring the pot back to boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender.

Use a fork to fluff the rice. Season shrimp with salt & pepper, then add the shrimp and peas to the rice, place the lid back on the pot for 5 minutes to allow the shrimps & peas to cook. Serve the rice, garnish with scallions.

Serves 8.


Bofrot “African Donut” Bofrot are always on the menu at House of Boateng.

These little round donuts are delicious rolled in sugar and cinnamon or drizzled with melted milk chocolate (as they were for the party).

2 ¾ cups (350 gm) all-purpose flour ¾ cup (150 gm) sugar 1 tsp (5 g) baking powder 1 Tbsp (6 gm) ground nutmeg ½ orange (juice plus zest) 3 whole eggs 7 oz (187 ml) milk 1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract 1 cup (250 gm) sugar, for dusting 3 Tbsp cinnamon, for dusting

Whisk together dry ingredients.

Add orange juice and zest.

Whisk together the eggs, milk and vanilla Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients, mixing with a wooden spoon until combined.

Batter should be thick but spoonable.

Heat fryer to 350˚F, drop batter into the hot oil, one tablespoon at a time, forming small balls that puff up as they fry. Fry for 2 minutes, gently turn each ball over with slotted spoon, and fry until golden brown on both sides about 3-4 minutes.

Combine sugar and cinnamon in a bowl.

Remove the donuts from the oil and toss into the sugar mixture to coat.

Serve room temperature or warm in the oven before serving.

Makes 15-2 donuts.



This feature story originally appeared in YAM Magazine