Do you adore whiling away summer evenings on a sidewalk café? Enjoy eating out in restaurants? Love sharing a glass of wine with friends on a sunny terrace? Well, it’s the spring of 2020 and most likely you’re out of luck. It sucketh mightily, as the kids would say.
I love funky eating places!
When living the expat life in exotic places, one of my favorite things to do is have lunch or dinner with friends in interesting local eateries, the sort of establishments you might not find in, say, Holland, or America. There are reasons for that, of course, but let’s not go into that. For years my husband and I lived in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa, a town that abounds in fun places to eat. Just look at the photo above by Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah and you know what I mean. So here’s a tale of one of my evenings out with friends. As all expats know, when you live in foreign lands it’s best not to cling too diligently to the rules and manners your mama taught you.
GOING FOR CHOP — HOW TO EAT GHANA STYLE
My man and I are on our way to join a few friends for dinner at the Blue Gate, a fish place somewhere in Osu, the happening neighborhood of Accra, Ghana. We’ve not eaten there before, but as always we are eager for a new dining experience.
We find the eating establishment in a dark, narrow street crowded with people, goats, and food stalls illuminated by kerosene lamps. Outside the restaurant’s gates, along the road, is the enormous charcoal grill with a number of good-looking fish sizzling away, tended by several bored-looking girls. Well, they’re young; they’d rather be dancing.
Inside the gates is the open-air terrace restaurant. We find the gang, already there, drinking beer and sharing a huge fish, eating with their fingers, the proper way. There is no silverware, but plastic bowls with water, a bit of tired soap, and small towels are available for the germ-conscious. Clearly this is not the year 2020. The table is covered with a plastic cloth in garish colors with a fitting design of beer bottles. The lighting consists of a single fluorescent tube. All tables are occupied and the crowd is laughing and happy. This pleases me. I like happy people.
We are a motley crew of three Ghanaians, three Americans, one Canadian, one Swede and one Dutch person (me), in case this is of interest to you.
More beer is delivered to the table. If we want fish, the waitress informs us, we must go to the grill outside and choose one. So we do, selecting a big sucker of a swimmer, its exact identity unknown to us. In the mean time, we are invited to partake of the one already on the table. Also on the table is a plate with banku, pasty-white lumps of boiled, fermented corn mash, their squashed shapes resembling tennis balls tortured by misfortune. Banku has a slightly sour flavor, and is, let us say, an acquired taste. (As are expat delicacies such as pickled herring, Marmite, fried tarantulas, liver cheese, salty liquorice, etc.)
There’s live entertainment!
We pick away at the fish while we listen to the entertainment, a Ghanaian songstress with a cheap guitar. She’s a Rasta Sistah, says our friend Tara, who has recently seen her at a party. The Rasta Sistah has a Rasta hairdo, dread locks, wears jeans and a scarlet blouse with long sleeves. Her black purse dangles off her shoulder while she treats us to her music. Her pretty face sports laughing eyes and a big mouth full of beautiful white teeth. She sings with enthusiasm, vigor and no talent. Her thumb strums the guitar with force, in the key of C only. She’s unabashedly loud, belting out sixties’ tunes and reggae songs, taking occasional liberties with the lyrics. For the fun of it, we join in now and again. “Tell me you lo-o-ove me only…” we all wail and she rushes up to our table to give us the full benefit of her C chord.
We all agree the girl has no singing talent, (but then, neither do we), but we admire her profoundly for having the guts to demonstrate this so publicly.
Someone with more talent is Simon Albury who took this photo of the Sweet Mother Chop Bar, another example of a typical Ghanaian eatery. (Photo used by permission – thank you, Simon!)
How to eat Ghana style
Our mystery fish arrives, head and tail intact, and we all dig in with our fingers and eat to the Rasta Sistah blaring Let’s send praise to the Lord and we will feel awlright, which is comforting to know when partaking of food in a place like this. Fortunately it is not 2020.
The fish, rest assured, is delicious–crispy on the outside and cooked just right. The hot sauce and the vegetables that accompany it are flavorful and we all enjoy, our fingers getting stickier and greasier, as they should.
What do we talk about, you ask?
We discuss spiritualists, juju, witches, and other dark and mysterious affairs. This is West Africa, what do you expect?
Another dark and mysterious affair
The restroom! When at some point I inquire as to its location, some vague hand signals point me into a general direction. As I wander off, a waitress appears and, hoping for a more definitive answer, I ask her where the ‘toilet’ is.
“Come with me,” says the waitress, and I follow her swaying hips into a gloomy building and down a long, dark corridor. It’s a good thing she’s wearing a white blouse–I follow the glow. She turns left, opens a door, walks in and points
“Here,” she states confidently.
In the semi darkness, I see her standing right next to a toilet, indeed. I glance up and see a comatose light bulb on a wire dangling down into the middle of the small washroom. “What about the light?” I ask. It’s not one of my brighter moments, shall we say.
“It has spoiled,” she says.
“Okay, thank you. I’ll do without.” As if I have a choice. I should learn to carry a flashlight in my purse, along with my tissues, duct tape, Valium, stun gun. All right, I’m kidding. About the Valium.
Toilet challenge (not my first one)
The waitress disappears through the door. I close it, finding myself now enveloped in deep darkness, if not in deep silence. The voice of our irrepressible chanteuse penetrates even the bowels of this building, assuring me cheerily, for the second time this evening, that ev’ry little thing gonna be awlright. Let’s hope so. I feel for a key in the door, find one and turn it. The lock works, which is not something to be taken for granted.
I stand for a while, wondering how to proceed, until my eyes begin to adjust. The faintest bit of silvery moonlight is filtering in through a tiny window. After another minute or so, I see the barely perceptible contours of the white toilet taking shape in the darkness. Bingo, I am in business, be it carefully.
I can even find the flusher handle, and it works, it really does. Gingerly I trace my way back to the door, unlock it and move into the shadowy hall way, where I find a small sink, with running water, if no soap or towels.
You think this is bad? Clearly, you’ve led a sheltered life.
Life is good!
Back at the table, I find my friends looking over the bill, checking additions and making divisions. We have nourished our bodies with food and drink, our souls with song and laughter–all for the sum of three bucks a piece.
Ghana, what a wonderful country.
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QUESTION: As an expat living in a foreign country, what local food do you, or did you, enjoy eating there?