Monday, February 6, 2017

Fetri Detsi: Ghanaian Okro Soup

Every bit of this soup was made from scratch over hot coals by a class of 11-13 year-olds in an underprivileged public school in the Jamestown neighborhood of Accra, and it is staggeringly beautiful. 


The smells in this classroom were as vibrant, fresh and fearless as Ghana itself, and so were the kids Tyler and I were lucky enough to spend about an hour with. But we'll get to that later. My story of fetri detsi starts the night before, at a restaurant called Buka in the Osu district of Ghana. We got off to a promising start with a greeting from a rather fat and friendly frog.

Once upstairs, we were seated at a patio table with a perfect breeze in the 80-degree evening, and whiled away the wait for dinner watching the semifinals of the Africa Cup of Nations and sipping on palm wine and coconut water right-out-the-coconut. The menu featured Ghanaian and Nigerian specialties, and I settled on okro (same as okra, they just make it more manly I guess) soup with its traditional accompaniment, banku.

Banku is that mound on the left, and it's one of the bajillion Ghanaian staples made from cassava. In this case, it's cassava and corn flours fermented and pounded into this slightly sour, sticky dough. You grab bits with your fingers and use it to soup-scoop. Sounds easy, right? It's a bit more challenging than you might think because the soup itself has certain qualities not unlike pizza cheese in an early-90s Little Caesars commercial. To all my friends who say they don't like okra because of the slime, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Slime in this dish is a point of pride. The word mucilaginous comes to mind but, honestly, doesn't do it justice.

Ghanaians probably watched You Can't Do That on Television and were like "pffft, amateurs." Seriously, whether I was using my spoon or my banku-caked fingers, I would pull and pull, thinking that at some point the slime would break. And time and time again I was proven wrong. The slime is persistent, and the slime is delicious.

I've been a fan of okra since I first had it, which admittedly wasn't until after college when I moved to South Carolina and they were like "this is a vegetable" and I was like "oh cool give me some." I know I'd been previously aware of its existence, but growing up in central California it wasn't exactly part of our everyday (or any day) diet. But since then I've considered myself all-in in any preparation I've had (particularly bhindi masala though - oh man, I want it now). This preparation, I can't lie, was a little challenging. I've never considered myself to be an "I don't like the texture person" but this texture coats your tongue in something you've only previously seen secreted by aliens in horror films and dares you to change your taste paradigm and keep going. The second challenge is the spice level, which is high. This isn't a "what spice level 1-6?" situation, this is a "we make it this way" situation. Even as a big fan of hot things, I had to take a few breathers.

I must reiterate here: okro soup is DELICIOUS. It just takes a bit of reconfiguration.

But it became so much more than delicious the next day. I gained a new appreciation for it when Tyler and I were welcomed by Dominic, the teacher of the cooking class at Accra Sempe 1 Primary School. He gave us time to introduce ourselves and let the kids figure out if they liked us (they were v. cool), and then it was time for us to be simply amazed.

We were shown how the kids start from raw cassava, peeling and hacking it up with a sharp knife incredibly deftly before putting it out in the sun to dry in order to be ground and milled into flour. Seriously, he only looked at the cassava maybe once every 4 or 5 slashes. I was so jealous of his ease.

Eat your heart out, MasterChef Junior.
We were shown the mashing of okro, onions and garden eggs (which do not as I assumed hatch pets for the Cabbage Patch Kids; they're just eggplants) to compose the soup base. 

We were shown the pounding and pressing through a sieve of kpakpo shito, the super spicy peppers that lend their fiery juices to the soup (and also are made into the ubiquitous and addictive red and green pepper condiments served with every meal). And the tough physical labor involved in working the banku dough and forming it into dense, flavorful and uniform little packages.

At the same time, kids at two other stations were busy whipping up other local dishes like total pros. This shouldn't be a total surprise, as Dominic told us most of these kids starting helping cook at their parents' sides when they were 5 or 6 years old. The confidence these kids had in the kitchen - which to remind, was some school room tables, pots and pans, and bowls of coals with grates set over them - left me feeling both inspired and inadequate.

But it wasn't just the skills, it was the fun, too. They were working hard, but one boy whose name was Wele (not sure on spelling there) asked if he could take my phone for a photo shoot, which of course led to some of my favorite photos of the day:

And I got some cute ones of the kids goofing off, as well:

Samuel, who Dominic told us was the best student in class and who told us many times that God would bless our families, took some time to tell Tyler about his favorite footballers (all the while incredulous that Tyler herself had been a goalkeeper):

But overall, with warmth and kindness and joy, in a spare kitchen with no air conditioning when it was over 90 outside and hotter with bare feet literally hovering over hot coals - it was all about the soup.

When everything was completed, the kids proudly showed us what they had made and asked us if we were coming back again on Monday. Nothing made me want to stay as much as this did.

In my life of spending way too much time eating and cooking and thinking about food, this hour will stay with me as one of my all-time favorites. And so will these faces.

Bonus: The wall of this kindergarten we visited depicts both okro and garden eggs - and there are some more cute kids so YOU'RE WELCOME.


  1. Now I wish I had not given up on okra after a couple of years growing it at home. The young fruit was succulent and delicious, but I was deterred by the woodiness of ones left on the plants too long - which happened quite often in our home garden!

    1. Should have signed my name, if you couldn't guess that was Mom!

  2. Okra! I grew up eating it fried, and loved it, but have more or less given it up because my family pretends to be allergic. Wimps.