Neglected & forgotten spices & seasonings of Ghana

Summer in New York City is synonymous with a whole cadre of street festivals where artists and vendors sell their wares and one can usually obtain something cool like the magic wrap skirt. I recently went on an outing with my mother and sisters to the Lexington Avenue Street Fair and came across a display of spices, herbs, and teas from Penzeys Spices. As we clamoured over the various bowls wondering what to gift our kitchen cupboards with, the inevitable “as for this one, we have it in Ghana” was uttered by my mother and followed with a story.

When we got home that day, I decided to press my mother some more as to what spices or aromatics she may have used in Ghana that she cannot easily obtain here in regular grocery stores or even in the African/Caribbean specialty stores. It took some time to get beyond the typical “the ingredients” i.e. the holy trinity of onion, ginger, pepper, +/- garlic that is added to tomatoes, similar to the French mirepoix (celery, onion, carrots) and the Spanish sofrito (onion, garlic, tomatoes). By the way, we’ve got to come up with a cooler name than “the ingredients”. I wonder if it actually has a name in Ghana.

And then it took a couple more minutes to get beyond the “ah you know, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, thyme, Maggi cube, etcetera” but with phrases like “ok, so did your grandmother that you grew up with as a child use Maggi cube” which of course was answered in the negative and with the help of Google images and the internet (a wonderful invention) we started to hit jackpot.

This was a fun evening of bonding with my mother. Yes, I said it. So below, I document my discoveries.

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African bird pepper plant

African bird pepper (Capsicum frutescens, C. annuum, C. chinense)

Also known as African birds eye chili, piri-piri, malagueta pepper, African devil. Not quite sure what the name is in Nzema nor Twi.

This is the spice responsible for this blog post. My mother remembers it growing in the wild in little bushes around the farm. There are always birds around it eating the chili and you know, dropping their chili-laced poop around. It’s very hot, the perfect pepper for enemas. Medicinally, it helps lower blood pressure, eases stomach upset, aids digestion by stimulating peristalsis, and breaks up phlegm. Somehow, we didn’t come around to using it in cooking, so I don’t know if there are certain dishes that one would use this pepper in versus other hot chili peppers like the scotch bonnet.

Grains of paradise & their pods

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta)

Also known as alligator pepper, Guinea pepper, Melegueta pepper (not to be confused with malagueta pepper). In Nzema it may be “essa“. Not sure what it is in Twi.

This was a spice that I had heard of before on Alton Brown‘s TV show Good Eats. Since it is indigenous to West Africa and Amazon’s version is from Ghana, I thought it would be a good starting point to see how it is used traditionally. Surprisingly, it took a few minutes for my mother to figure out what it was and recall that it has medicinal and ritual uses but she wasn’t sure that it was used in cooking. The webosphere says it’s from the ginger family and has a pungent peppery flavour. Medicinally, it has anti-microbial and aphrodisiac properties.

Negro pepper

Negro pepper (Xylopia aethiopica)

Also known as Grains of Selim, Guinea pepper (again!), Senegal pepper, Moor pepper, Ethiopian pepper. Hmmm, I see a trend! In Ghana it is known as hwentea/ahentia.

After being admonished by me for not knowing “grains of paradise” my mother got up and went to the kitchen to bring me a spice she did know! Hwentea. She had found dried whole pods of it in an African store somewhere in the Bronx. Excitedly, she told me that it is commonly used in cooking (as well as for medicinal properties, but at this point this goes without saying). A little bit in stews and soups gives a nice nutmeg-like spicy taste. A little bit more and you have a very bitter mess on your hands. Medicinally, it too has anti-microbial properties.

West African Black Pepper (Piper guineense)

West African Black Pepper

Also known as Ashanti pepper, Guinea pepper (again!), false cubeb, tailed pepper. Don’t know what it’s called in Ghana.

This is a less bitter pepper also used, sparingly, in soups and stews to which it imparts a clove-like spicy flavour. It acts as an appetite stimulant, and is also used for constipation and indigestion.

Prekese (Tetrapleura tetraptera)

Prekese

It is called prɛkɛsɛ in Twi. Can you imagine I can’t seem to find the English name for this. The English-speaking world is just going to have to adopt prekese as the official English name just as they should with alasa.

This too brought a rash of memories to my mother but she has never used it in cooking and isn’t quite sure how it would be used for that purpose. But looking at the Google Image brought a smile to her face as she remembered that it has a nice smell. They would burn it on the coal-pot and like incense it would give off a sweet delightful aroma. The smell is so strong that any passerby knows that somebody is cooking with or burning prekese. For this reason it is a symbol of power i.e. the king whose power reaches into all abodes in his kingdom even though he’s not physically there. Hmmm, I’m going to have to smell this for myself!

 Prɛkɛsɛ is also mixed with “something like awalɛ/clay” and applied to the chest of mothers who have just given birth which makes me suspect it has lactogenic properties. When added to “light pepper soup” for these same nursing mothers it accelerates blood flow helping them to eliminate blood clots.It’s also applied to joints as an anti-inflammatory agent.

I’ve seen this around quite a bit even in African stores in the United States so I guess it’s not as neglected as some of the other spices. But I’m still left to wonder how it would be used in cooking.

Calabash nutmeg

Calabash nutmeg (Monodora myristica)

“Nutmeg!” my mother exclaimed when shown the Google Image. Ok, I guess before nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), native to Indonesia, was brought to our shores, this was our home-grown nutmeg. Do we still use it, I wonder, and how different is it in taste and smell from the common nutmeg. Twi or Nzema name? Don’t know. But the webosphere says this is the Igbo (Nigeria) ehuru.

African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa)
Dadawa/Dawadawa (Hausa), Iru (Yoruba, Nigeria), Soumbala/Sumbala (Francophone West Africa)

Dawadawa

The fermented African locust bean acts as a food enhancer. It is what stood high and mighty before the Swiss-designed Maggi and it’s umami siblings pushed it out of the way. In the words of my mother, “this one, the Northerners use it in everything, we don’t use it”. When pressed as to what our food enhancer is salted and/or smoked fish and crustaceans seemed to be the answer.

I’m familiar with dawadawa though I’m not sure how or why. I know it stinks and looks unpleasant however I wouldn’t mind replacing the ubiquitous Maggi cube with some dawadawa, at least that way I know I’m getting some minerals (riboflavin, thiamine) though I would need to be careful not to get toxins such as aflatoxins too.

Momone 
 
In English = stinking fish. Indeed!

This is in essence fermented fish, fish that has been allowed to almost rot then is placed in brine for a few days then air dried in the sun for a few days. Koobi (dried salted tilapia) is another. Both stinky! Stinky! Stinky! I don’t think my mother uses either too frequently, probably because of the kind of children she had. Also, I’m not sure how much Nzema people in general use this in comparison to other southern ethnic groups. I would guess not as often. Although I’m not a fan of fish in general, and especially not smoked, dried, or salted fermented fish, I do now use Asian fish sauce, another stinky fermented fish condiment, when called for in Thai recipes, and if I can do that, I don’t see why I can’t invite momone into my life too. One day! One day!

It is used in soups, preferred over dawadawa, in southern Ghana. Just to be sure, this is not ethnic rivalry going on. It’s just that in Ghana, the southerners are along the coast where fish is readily available and the Northerners have the African locust bean growing around them.

Smoked/dried fish 
Smoked/dried prawns/crayfish

This doesn’t really fall under the “neglected” nor under the “forgotten” label either but it is a very common food enhancer. As much as I don’t like smoked fish, I do grind these into a powder to use as a seasoning in nkontomire/Palaver sauce (spinach stew) and aboboi (beans stew). I then use fresh broiled mackerel for the former and tuna or beef for the latter to satisfy the carnivore in me. Dried herrings and crayfish/prawns are also the base for shito, a very popular spicy condiment that I am still learning to eat.

Potash

Kaawe/Kanwu/Kaun (potash)

This is potassium carbonate (K2CO3) or carbonate of potash, an alkaline rock salt. You would want to find and use food grade quality of course as it is also used industrially in soap making and in fire extinguishers. It is what I have always called “that stone you use for okro”.

Not only is it used in making okro dishes, it is also used in the preparation of waakye (a specialized rice & beans). It helps okro “draw” more so if you don’t like okro because of the slime, you don’t want to be adding potash.

In waakye preparation, it is used when the beans are boiling to give them that particular soft “mush” texture quickly and it may even help aid in its digestibility.

Potash can also be used as a salt, a food tenderizer, or as a thickener.  

If
you can’t find it in an African store near you, you can try a beer/wine
making supply store as they have food grade quality potash used to
increase the pH of wine. Alternatively, you can use sodium bicarbonate
more commonly known as baking soda.

Pawpaw on a tree

Green (unripe) pawpaw (papaya)


Speaking of meat tenderizers, if you chop up an unripe pawpaw and add it to the pot in which you are cooking tough meat it will soften it up. You can also marinate the meat with unripe pawpaw pulp before cooking. This makes sense to me now as pawpaw contains papain, an enzyme commonly found in meat tenderizers on supermarket shelves.

Waakye leaves
These are sun-dried leaves or stalks of the millet plant used to impart a reddish colouring to true waakye. If you don’t have waakye leaves (and kaun) you are cooking “rice & beans” not waakye.

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As we become rapidly globalized we tend to forget what we have growing in our own backyards and instead ooh and aah over “exotic” spices and industrialized Maggi cubes and the like. Our forests are filled with numerous plants whose flowers, seeds, leaves, and bark offer a wide range of herbs, spices, seasonings, and healing remedies. It’s a shame that we are forgetting them.  I would like to think that those back home are more familiar with them than I am but too often when I see or receive a Ghanaian recipe, the aforementioned nutmeg, Maggi cube, thyme, ginger, etc. are the spices mentioned. So it’s not just me. I even have a copy of Ghanaian Favourite Dishes: Recipes that are Loved Best in Many Ghanaian Homes which was published in 1969 and as “authentic” as it is (the subject of another blog post), it didn’t feature too many spices I didn’t already know. True, it didn’t have the ever present Maggi cube nor nutmeg though it did feature “seasoning” quite frequently which could mean anything.

Ogbono

What are we waiting for? For westerners to say they’ve discovered a miracle plant in the African wilderness, like the magic diet pill du jourAfrican wild mango – before we too get excited? This African wild mango that Nigerians have been drinking as ogbono soup for centuries, that I can get whole or ground from an African food store for about $4, I’m supposed to want to drop $20 for a capsule form?

To my readers, I would really appreciate any input as to the Ghanaian (or other African) names of these seasonings and their use. And if you actually use any of them in cooking, a guide to amount used and when used would be insightful because “add some to your soup” is not too helpful, I’m afraid. Also, if there are other neglected or forgotten culinary seasonings out there that should be highlighted please feel free to mention them. I know that I haven’t even begun to touch the topic of the various native greens ubiquitously called spinach..

All images, except the first, taken from online sources.

Share Your Thoughts

  1. Very informative. Great post. My in-law uses prekese in palm nut soup – tastes delish! I'll have to find out just what quantity is used. This is Agnes, btw.

  2. this is an awesome post. I just went to an African market store to find ingedients for ghanaian food and came across a bunch of spices not labeled in English, which you have mentioned here, so now I know what more of them are. It's awesome, and perfect timing that you wrote this this month:) Thanks

  3. Akokomesa or akokobessa is the traditional name for the rootbark of Carissa edulis, which is used as a spice. But people in Accra apply the name now for African Basil (Ocimum gratissimum)…

  4. So far this is the greatest post i have come across since about three days now. Well done. Keep it up. I will also try and get the Twi names of the spices posted for you.

  5. Really informative Ghanaians need to rise up to protect what they have. Evil ppl introducing GMO foods wants to destroy what we have. We all need to fight against it.

  6. thanks
    Good work done.
    brothers and sisters lets add more infomation below are few vegetables
    kontomire (cocoyam leaves)
    kwawu nsosuaa/abeduru (sosomba/ Solanum torvum)
    ntropo (is abigger type of Garden eggs)

  7. Thank you for this post… i actually came across it looking for the english name for "hwentea" and i did…
    i actually use it in porridge.. the local Ghanaian type made from corn dough.. it adds this savoury taste to it… yummy… thks again

  8. well grains of paradise is fom wesa nd tailed peppers is soro wesa, calabash nutmeg is called wede3 aba in twi, hwentia tastes great in corn dough porridge! hope I was helpful.

  9. What of adode…. It's not oyster I saw it somewhere but didn't pay much attention to it and I lost the site….

  10. There are these two fruits that are normally sols together,It's been a long time I actually saw some…. one is black and round when eaten gets stuck in your teeth and gum,I think the Gas Call it SH>/SH>N not sure about the spelling and the other is yellow and like a mini mango,shape and seed alike,name I don't know… . Need their English Names and proper local names too
    Your blog though,its amazing thumbs up������

    • Velvet tamarind (yooyi) is not what he wants to know. What is being described we normally call "black black" or blackberries. It's succulent. Been quite a while I saw some. And the yellow one too is succulent and small (not alasa). We call it "atamba" in fante. I remember calling it "yellow yellow" in Tema when I was a child.

    • When I was a kid, we called the yellow/orange berries Akosua korkor(Red Akosua) and the black one Akosua tumtum(Black Akosua):)The black berries sometimes has an unpleasant smell, while the yellow/orange berries tasted sweet or sour depending on how ripe it is.

    • Yes, I recall those two “twin-fruits”, the black one is called “SH)” — “)” is the local letter sounding as “or”; the golden/yellow one is called “aardõñ”.
      Hope that sheds a little bit of light.
      If anyone knows of any book that contains these spices and their properties, please post a hint.
      More grease to your elbows for a wonderful job done. Keep it up!

  11. Hello I just chanced upon your site, very well done. The grains of paradise are call…'fom wisa'….The bird peppers are called 'misewa' and the African nutmeg ie monograph myristica. Is called 'awerewa' or 'wedeaba'

  12. I’d like to order & try out some of these exotic spices. Is there a retail source in NYC where one could purchase some of these spices?

  13. I’m busy writing a 3 book set (including a cook book and book of Basic recipes for a Ghanaian resort and the Negro Pepper (of Senegalese Selim pepper) is called Nkunkuya in Ghana. Amongst other used, it is used in Suya Powder, rubbed into skewered meat on street food barbeques. Strangely, there is absolutely no reference to Knunkuya on the internet.

  14. Great post.
    I too have been pressing my mum on African spices…
    Calabash nutmeg is the spice for groundnut (peanut) soup. Just a teaspoon or 2 of the powder form together with chilliest and ginger and your usual seasonings and meat/fish of course is all you need for the perfect groundnut soup.. Enjoy

    Negro pepper is also used in koko ( fermented corn porridge) just crack a few (1-2 in a small pot) and drop in the porridge to give it a fragrant smell and taste.

    Prekese has medicinal values. It looks like a bark and just boil a few about 3 with ginger in a pot and drink daily. Cleanses the blood system.

    Nketenkete I believe comes from the cumin/fennel family but hasn’t got as pungent a smell. Just use sparingly as less is always more.