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Ghana - Eating and sleeping
Local dishes generally comprise a starchy staple and some sort of soup or stew, often liberally flavoured with a hot, red powdered-pepper seasoning. Among the great many staples you’re likely to encounter, the most popular are fufu, kenkey, banku, akple, tuo zafi (TZ), omo tuo (rice balls), boiled rice, and fried yam or plantain. Particularly popular in the south, fufu is made of cassava, plantain or yam, mashed until the starch breaks down and it becomes a gooey ball, then cooked with no water to form an even gooier one. It is normally served submerged in a light soup, or with palm oil or groundnut sauce. Almost identical to each other in taste and slimy texture are banku and akple, both made of fermented maize and cassava, and often eaten with okro stew for double helpings of that gelatinous feel! Akple is particular to the Volta Region while banku is found throughout Ghana. Much nicer, in our opinion, is kenkey, also made of fermented maize, but much firmer than banku or akple for being boiled in a removable wrapping of plantain leaves before being served with a spicy tomato sauce or similar. Largely restricted to the north, tuo zafi is a millet- or maize-based porridge. Fried yam, often sold at markets, is not dissimilar in taste and texture to potato chips – though, when bought on the street, it often has a lingering, petroleum-like taste, presumably a result of using the same oil for too long – and is great eaten with spicy tomato relish, or soft green palava sauce made from spinach-like cocoyam leaves.
Other dishes worth trying include red red, a delicious concoction of rice and beans cooked in lots of red palm oil; kalawole (pronounced ‘keliweli’), soft, deep-fried cubes of plantain liberally seasoned with ginger, pepper and salt; and titale, which is very similar to kalawole, but mashed with flour and deep fried as fritters. Most travellers find Ghanaian staples to be an acquired taste, but stick around long enough and you might just find yourself looking up your local Ghanaian restaurant every now and then when you get back home. If you want to try and cook some up yourself, there’s no better place to start than Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta’s vibrant and comprehensive The Ghana Cookbook (Hippocrene Books, 2015).
Local food can be eaten in small restaurants known as ‘chop bars’, where you will generally be served with a plate of fufu or kenkey or rice along with a portion of meat or vegetable stew. Another typical chop bar dish is jollof rice – a savoury rice dish that shares a common origin with Senegal’s thiéboudiène, where the rice is cooked in a tomato and vegetable stew rather than water, and often paired with some kind of meat or fish. Another easily found and perennially satisfying dish is waakye, which is basically the Ghanaian take on rice and beans, usually made with black-eyed peas. Th e beans and rice are cooked together and served with a complex (and always spicy) sauce known as shito, and usually a bit of fried tilapia on the side. A more interesting way of eating local food, and dirt cheap, is on the street. Most towns have at least one place where vendors sell a huge variety of dishes from informal stalls, oft en near the lorry station or the market. One advantage of eating on the street is you can try a bit of this or that, rather than be confronted with one specifi c dish. In addition to the usual staples, street vendors often sell grilled poultry (chicken or, in the north, guineafowl), spicy beef or goat kebabs, delicious sweet fried plantain with pepper seasoning, smoked fish, hardboiled eggs stuff ed with chilli and tomato relish, and deep-fried doughnut-like balls called bofrot. Sugar kenkey is sold in smaller bundles than savoury kenkey, and is sort of like semolina/tapioca, but more solid and eaten with super-hot pepper sauce. If you’re craving dairy products, wagashi is a farmer’s cheese made by the Fulani that can be eaten raw, but is most oft en available fried on the roadside.
Most towns of substance have at least one restaurant serving exotic dishes, most often straight Western chicken or steak with chips or rice. Quite why, we don’t know, but there are a large number of Chinese restaurants in Ghana, and many of the more Westernised places and superior chop houses serve Chinese-style fried rice and spring rolls. Outside Accra, a meal in a proper restaurant generally costs around US$5–10 per head excluding drinks, so it is a lot more expensive than eating on the street or in chop bars, which will generally work out at anywhere in the US$2–5 range, depending on what you order and which part of the country you’re in. If you are not carrying a lot of cash on you, remember to check the small print of the menu before you order, since many restaurants quote prices exclusive of VAT and service charge – so that you actually pay around 20% more than the stated price. For infomation on tipping etiquette, see Tips on Tipping.
Vegetarians used to have a hard time of it in Ghana, and vegans might still struggle to establish whether any given restaurant dish is totally untainted by animals products, but these days most restaurants that regularly cater to travellers offer a few vegetarian options, and you are also pretty safe with staples like red-red or jollof rice. One vegetarian reader notes: ‘soy beans are available at markets throughout the country, and make an excellent soy milk if blended with water and a sweetener, like honey or sugar, then sieved – most chop bars, hotels and restaurants will offer their blender for use’. Another reader adds: ‘my biggest piece of advice for vegetarians is come prepared with protein bars and nutritious spreads like Marmite, so you get plenty of iron and B vitamins, and multivitamins. Vegetarians should always think ahead when a Sunday or a public holiday is approaching, as many places are shut – we spent a few Sundays with some stale bread and whatever else we could get our hands on, which wasn’t much.’
Most visitors to Ghana drink a lot more than they would at home, thanks to the hot sticky climate, and since tap water is not recommended, you will probably find yourself going through several bought litres of water daily. This can be bought in several forms. Conservative travellers will probably prefer to stick with 1.5-litre bottled mineral water, which is known locally as Voltec (after a well-known brand), and is widely available, inexpensive by international standards, and can usually be bought chilled on request. A far cheaper option, which most travellers drink without any problem, are the factory-sealed 500ml sachets known as ‘ice water’ or ‘pure water’. These labelled sachets contain genuine purified water (often with a strong chemical taste to prove it), are usually chilled, and cost the equivalent of US$0.05 (or if you are based somewhere for a while, you can buy a pack of 30, containing a total of 15 litres, for US$1). Elsewhere, mainly in small villages, ‘ice water’ is sold in unmarked plastic bags and comes from an undetermined source, so is perhaps best avoided. For a change of flavour, you can spice up the water with a sachet of Tang, a powdered orange or mango drink with added vitamins.
The most widespread alcoholic drink is lager, which is brewed locally, generally pretty good (though quite often flat) and drunk most cheaply at local bars, usually called ‘spots’. A standard 750ml bottle costs anything from US$1 to US$3, depending on where you drink, but be aware that the recently introduced small bottles (375ml) are often relatively overpriced, especially at tourist hotels that don’t stock large beers. Several brands are available, most with an alcohol level of around 5%. In the south, inexpensive draught beer (sometimes referred to as Bubra) is widely available. Also widely available are litre boxes of very cheap Don Garcia red and white wines, but imported bottled wine is also increasingly easy to locate, starting at around US$5 per bottle in garages and supermarkets.
If you’re interested in trying local tipples, several are available, all very cheap and generally rather potent. Pito is a type of millet beer, similar to the local beer brewed in villages in many parts of Africa, and most easily located in the pito bars that can be found in most towns, especially in the north. Palm wine, easily located on the coast, is called ntunkum in its mildest form and doka when it is older and stronger. Akpeteshie is a fiery spirit distilled from palm wine. It’s frequently offered to visitors when they visit a village chief – the correct protocol is to spill a few drops on the ground in honour of the ancestors before you swig it down. Akpeteshie is also commonly infused with a variety of roots and bark to create a powerful herbal liquor known as bitters, which is commonly believed to do wonders for your virility. In addition to the home-brew variety, it’s widely available from commercial producers such as Alomo and Kasapreko. Another popular drink is schnapps, which is the customary liquor used when it comes to visiting chiefs and making libations, a preference that dates back several centuries to the Dutch presence on the Gold Coast.
By international standards, accommodation in Ghana tends to be of poor quality and rather overpriced. True, there are a handful of Ghanaian hotels – in Accra, Kumasi, Takoradi and a few of the major coastal resorts – that genuinely conform to international four- or five-star standards, but these tend to be exceptionally expensive, since their main clientele comprises government, NGO, business and other travellers who are not footing their own bills. The country also boasts a scattering of genuinely characterful and attractive budget to mid-range beach resorts and urban bed and breakfasts, many of them owner managed. But the overwhelming majority of accommodation options in Ghana consist of unremarkable town or beach hotels geared primarily to the local market, and characterised by some or all of the following flaws: indifferent staff, aesthetically challenged décor, ugly furniture, low standards of cleanliness, an erratic power or water supply, and slack maintenance (often manifested by broken fittings, leaky plumbing, noisy air conditioning, or advertised facilities that don’t work).
Unless they rent a car, most travellers will find that accommodation is proportionally the biggest drain on the budget. For the most budget-conscious, rooms typically start at around US$10-15, and come with fans, electricity and shared washing facilities, though cheaper dorms are available in some places. In most towns, US$20 will get you a self-contained room with a fan, while for upwards of US$30 you can expect to find a room with air conditioning, television, running hot water and a fridge. Note that in Ghana, rooms with en-suite toilet and bath are ubiquitously referred to as self-contained.
One quirk to watch out for in Ghana, particularly if you are travelling as a couple, is that a room advertised as a single will often have a double bed, while one advertised as double might actually be a twin (ie: with two beds). Occasionally, and more bizarrely, you’ll also find that by single room the hotel actually means a double room sharing toilet and shower facilities, while a double room has exactly the same bed but is self-contained. Generally, a couple will first be shown a room with two beds, presumably because it’s the most expensive option, so if your preference is to share a bed, then ask to look at a single room first. If you’re having trouble making your meaning clear, Ghanaians often talk about big and small beds – you’re less likely to be misunderstood if you ask for a room with one big bed as opposed to asking for a double room.