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Following the death of her Ghanaian grandfather, writer Ruby Tandoh started exploring her West African heritage through food. This article appears in SUITCASE Vol. 18: The Rhythm Issue
smooth peanut butter (e.g. Sun-Pat)
fresh tomatoes, four or any amount
fresh pepper or chilli powder
fish or chicken or meat
This is the ingredients list for my great aunt Esther’s groundnut soup. I say great aunt, but she might be a cousin or something twice removed. Along the sprawling branches of the Ghanaian side of my family tree, these things aren’t always easy to see. Either way, we’re related, and she sent me her prized recipe – carefully typed, printed and folded into a small envelope. She forwarded it – in a move that sums up the anxious pride of Ghanaians better than my words ever could – via special delivery, which I had to sign for at the door.
I tried following the recipe. I used “four or any amount” of tomatoes, an unspecified quantity of peanut butter and added a few glugs of boiling water in hopeful splashes, but the soup wasn’t as it should have been. It was too thick and cloying, not quite spicy enough, lacking the tang of tomato to cut through the velvet richness of the peanut broth.
It wasn’t Esther’s fault, of course. When I wrote to her asking for Ghanaian cooking tips, I should have known that something special would be lost as she cast the old family recipe in tiny letters in line with the rigid grids of the page. When it comes to finding your roots, your cultural heritage, you have to meet with the gatekeepers of that knowledge first hand. Esther must have known this, because she wrote, in shaky cursive in a postscript, that I’d learn much better if I came down to London from my home in Sheffield to visit her and watch her cook in person.
I haven’t always been this invested in learning about my Ghanaian heritage. When I was younger, my family visited my now late Ghanaian grandad and his English wife once a year at most. He was a tiny man, although I can’t be sure whether that was the shrinking effect of old age or a slightness that existed in his very bones. His name was Ransford, and as he talked the pitch of his words rose and fell with a deliberate, melodious lilt. This diminutive man, with a little round head and a sternness that showed through even the softest of gestures, was all I knew of Ghana.
My dad’s middle name, Kwame, is something that we were all but forbidden to mention as children. There was obviously something about the unusual sounds and syllables of this Ghanaian name – from the Ashanti tradition of giving names corresponding to the day of the week of your birth (in this case, a Saturday) – that embarrassed him. I’ve never found out whether it was some vestige of childhood teasing or something more profound. We seldom ate Ghanaian food or talked about who my grandad was, where he had come from or how he’d ended up falling into the rhythms of a typically British life: a conservatory, TV guides, roast beef on Sundays, a bungalow in Lincolnshire, cups of tea.
I was panicked when my grandad began to die. He had been ill for some time, and while I had been idling away the late winter months as they faded into spring, my graddad’s death began to sharpen on the horizon. A couple of days before he was scheduled to have heart surgery, I was told that he was slipping. I took a train and another train and another, from my then flat in north London to the hospital where he was staying in Nottingham. When I went to visit, with a card and a packet of pear drops under my arm, he didn’t recognise me. I sat at the foot of his bed for an hour, trying to find some way to tell him who I was, but the words stuck in my throat. He glanced weakly at me on a few occasions, but each time ended up turning away in a huff, frustrated by the imposition of this stranger at his bedside. I left in silence, and he died two days later.
This voicelessness and the loss that followed it changed me. I had been happy enough at school to let people twist my Ghanaian surname into knots – Ruby Tandoori, Ruby Tango – and make jokes about the ashy colour I went in the sun, or the woolly tangles of my hair. I hadn’t really known what Ghana meant to my family or who my extended family even was. I thought for a long time that the adjective for those people and things belonging to Ghana was “Ghanish”. But when Ransford died I found that I never wanted to be that rudderless or that acquiescent to people’s everyday bigotries ever again. I wanted a taste of my heritage; I wanted to know who I was.
And so I ate. I’ve always turned to food for comfort: sometimes a Mars bar in a moment of turmoil, other times a nostalgic lollipop or slice of cheap birthday cake – the kind with dense, sweet, bland sponge sandwiched together with a hair’s-breadth line of smooth strawberry jam – when I need to come back to some old familiar feeling. Often this eating is compulsive or unhealthy, and I know in those moments, as I’m mechanically spooning Carte D’Or into my numbing mouth, that what I really need is to feel, be quiet and stay still.
But there was something different about the food I ate in the wake of my grandad’s death. These weren’t mindless feasts. In fact, I’ve never tasted anything more thoughtfully and delightedly as when I first ate fried plantain, or the spicy, savoury weight of a plateful of jollof rice with chicken. I began slowly, methodically to eat my way through as many Ghanaian and West African meals as I could cook. With each plateful of rice, beans, fufu and meat, I felt strength flood my bones.
I made plantain tossed with spice and salt, fried until the outside was crisp and the colour of mottled copper; the inside sweet, sticky gold. I fried fillets of tilapia fish and served it with a relish of chilli and fennel, made huge stockpots of red-red – a dish of beans with onions, tomato and spices – and simmered the stew until it was heavy, rich and rib-stickingly thick. I walked around the Caribbean and West African stalls of my local market so many times that I came to know the messy and magical contents of shelves by heart: crates of okra; some mouldy scotch bonnets and some good, fresh ones hidden underneath; huge sacks of rice; blood-red palm oil in big, battered bottles; little bags of egusi (melon seeds) and sachets of dried, ground crayfish, which makes the meatiest, most delectably savoury jollof rice I’ve ever had. During this cultural reawakening, I had breakfasts of gari foto – fermented and dried cassava, cooked with onion, spices, tomato and egg – and learned, with the help of a tutorial video that my cousin Grace made for me, to make fufu – a dense, polenta-like side dish that I moulded into dumplings for a spicy tomato soup. I’ve tasted the good, the bad and the ugly of Ghanaian food, and bastardised more than a couple of recipes along the way with my clumsy, anglicised attempts at cooking.
But it was my first ever real taste of African food that stayed with me most. It was at a supper club called The Groundnut in London in late 2015: a feast of fat chunks of fried mackerel, black-eyed bean dumplings, berbere-spiced beets and tamarind water. My girlfriend and I spent the whole train journey home fizzing with praise for every last morsel that we ate. And the part I can still almost taste if I close my eyes was a tiny bowlful of Ghanaian groundnut soup – fiery, savoury, rich and smooth. I’ve been trying to recreate that groundnut soup ever since. It’s a search that’s taken me to London’s Ghanaian restaurants, all along the food counter of my cousin’s big West African wedding, through countless African cooking blogs and even, by means of “four or any amount” of tomatoes, to that epistolary cooking lesson from my great aunt Esther.
Water, tomatoes, chilli, peanut butter, maybe garlic or onions or ginger – cut, cooked and simmered to silkiness – that is all groundnut soup really is, but every time I eat it, it throws up new questions. I’m beginning to realise that this is the magic of West African food: it won’t give up its secrets without a fight. I think about all the things that difficult, terse, caring Ransford never told us, and the unspoken histories that my dad has held in turn. The only way I’m going to get answers is if I find my voice and ask. The voice I’m finding is Ghanaian and British – soft, faltering, abrupt and firm all at once. I find strength in it, one bowl of groundnut soup at a time.
Ruby Tandoh’s cookbook, Flavour: Eat What You Love, is out now
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