My definition of home has often boiled down to a place where I feel I don’t stand out. When I first landed in Ghana, the jovial warmth with which I was greeted emphasised my failure at passing for local, but I felt I belonged.
I had the privilege of being guided around the most vibrant corners of Accra by a close friend, Deborah, who had been on the same course as me at university in London and had recently returned to Ghana, where she was starting a new journey as an artist. Until then my experience of Ghana had been limited to the food from a small shop in Brixton market, where I tried waakye – rice and beans – and shito – a hot pepper sauce made with dried fish, prawns, onions, chilli, garlic, and spices. Deborah showed me her native city as a local.
We drove around listening to Ghanaian-Romanian musician Wanlov the Kubolor singing about humanity in pidgin. Stuck in traffic for hours, we ate roadside kelewele. I loved this unpretentious snack of plantains, cut into chunks, covered with spices and fried to a caramelised brown before being sold with grilled peanuts by the hawkers.
But the dish I most wanted to experience was nkate nkwan, or peanut stew. My mother learned to make it in the 1970s from her Ghanaian best friend and often cooked it for us when we were growing up in Guadeloupe. So as I settled on to a wooden bench in BB’s Chill Bar in the West Legon neighbourhood, I was excited at the prospect of eating this dish in its homeland.
I sipped my Fanta and took in my surroundings: the traffic noise, the laughs, the creaky makeshift furniture, the sound of a football match on an old radio, the sense of joy in simple things.
The dish arrived. A huge bowl of thick, creamy, bright orange soup with large pieces of meat sitting in it – goat, chicken and beef. Smoky, sweet and spicy aromas. A thin layer of bright red oil on the surface. I couldn’t finish the plateful, but that was not for lack of trying or enjoyment.
My memories of that day are of big smiles, abundant food served in large clay dishes, and licking pungent sauces off my forearm as I attempted to master the art of finger-eating. Now, every time I make nkate nkwan, I’m taken back to that bar – and a meal that did more than fill my stomach.
The secret to this recipe is patience and finding the texture you prefer. I aim for silky and creamy, watching with eagle eyes to avoid any dry peanut butter lumps forming. The dish is often served with plain rice, but I can just as happily eat it on its own. The recipe can work with various meats, or even a mixture of proteins.
1 whole chicken
2 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
Fresh ginger, 20g (optional)
3 large ripe tomatoes
1 scotch bonnet or habanero pepper (optional)
300g creamy, unsweetened peanut butter (I suggest ManiLife)
480ml chicken stock
4 tbsp tomato paste
4-5 whole raw prawns
In a blender, puree the onions, garlic and ginger with 120ml chicken stock. Joint the chicken, then heat the oil in a large pot and add the chicken pieces. When the chicken starts to brown, add the purée and stir to coat. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 mins. Add the remaining chicken stock.
Stir in the peanut butter a little at a time, ensuring it breaks down and is incorporated to avoid lumps. Stir in the tomato purée in the same manner.
Cover and leave to simmer for 40 mins, stirring occasionally to avoid the peanut butter sticking. When the chicken is tender and there’s a layer of oil on the surface, add the prawns and chilli, cover and simmer for five more minutes. Be careful not to pierce the chilli.
It’s ready when the sauce has thickened and reduced by about a third. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve hot with plain rice.