You know, despite the fact that a lot of young childhood pictures of myself that included food had me chomping down on a mango, I wasn’t always obsessed with them. In the back of my head, they have probably always been my favourite fruit, but my favourite thing to eat? I don’t think so. That honour goes to plantains especially of the fried variety. I’m not sure if today though if faced with delectable fried plantains on one hand and juicy fresh mangos on the other that I could easily choose between the two.
I’m trying to go back there in my memories to study the evolution of things. When did I have my first mango? When did I have my first plantain? My first bite of fried plantain? Don’t know. Did I eat mangoes in my Angolan toddlerhood? Do they even grow plantains down there? Hmmm! What I do know is that we left Ghana for Germany when I was 6 and I don’t believe I ever had a mango until we returned back to Ghana when I was 11. But plantains we got often. They got served to me baked, boiled, fried, and mashed whether they were green or ripe and I learnt very early that I disliked the taste of the green – not sweet enough.
There were two varieties of fried plantain in my home. The salted and the spiced. Ours (the kids) and Daddys. And as much as I couldn’t handle spice, those things were just yum! Salt, fresh ginger, fresh pepper, fresh onion marinated fried ripe plantains. Go on and salivate, you know you want to.
Back in Ghana where plantains were finally plentiful, my mother stopped putting cooked green plantain on my plate. Yay! To make sure I ate the fufu, she would use much riper plantain than normal still with a little cassava to add the gelatinous hold needed while family members looked on with interest at the attempt to make such a ripe plantain into a ball. When she wanted to show that she was going above and beyond just for me, she would make me pound. I hated that. There her hands were in the mortar folding the mashed stuff, and here I am entrusted with the mission not to hit her fingers. Just because she was able to fall naturally in the rhythm of pounding and folding fufu in a mortar after a 5 year hiatus didn’t mean that I too, who had never pounded fufu, would naturally have a rhythm. So what if other 11 year old girls even know how to fold? They’ve probably been folding and pounding since they were little. But let’s not even go there.
Mangoes being plentiful, I re-learnt how to eat them. Roll them so. Squeeze them such. Now bite off the top, squeeze and suck. I admit at first I too left a lot of pulp on the seed and got accused of wasting the fruit. But in no time I was a pro. In those days, my father preferred the larger mangoes with less “hair”. He called them Ivorian mangoes but I now know they grow in Ghana too. I didn’t take to them as much because you couldn’t be intimate with them like the smaller hairy mangoes. You had to eat them with a knife and fork! Now I know better.
On the roadside, favoured cooked snacks alternated between roasted corn served with dried coconut (abrow ne kube) or boiled corn, or roasted plantains served with roasted groundnuts. Those were what my eyes scanned for when taking a ride anywhere. Around this time though, the words kelewele and alloko entered my vocabulary though I’ve never really had the roadside versions.
Okay, let’s back up. What’s kelewele, you ask? Well it’s that exact spicy fried ripe plantain, except the roadside version is cut into cubes, is seasoned with additional local spices of which I am not privy, is deep fried sometimes in palm oil, and is served with groundnuts in crumpled newspaper through which the oil transfers to your hands. Yep, but I rather have this clog my arteries than that double cheeseburger or fried breaded chicken. But you do agree that mangoes are a healthy alternative to kelewele right?
Alloko (aloco) on the other hand is known to many as Ivorian roadside fried ripe plantain. It is not heavily spiced, if at all, like the Ghanaian version. The plantain is usually riper and it too is deep fried, sometimes in palm oil. However it is served with a spicy tomato sauce and fish. By the way, a lot of western cooking books and blogs call kelewele a Ghanaian dessert. It is not a dessert but rather a snack or an accompaniment.
But back to alloko/aloco. What’s interesting about the word is that it is actually Nzema for “ripe plantain” as in “alloko bana“. When a true Nzema person, like my grandmother for example, asks for alloko, she doesn’t mean that fried stuff unless she’s standing in front of an alloko trader. Did I confuse you? Just like the Nzema food attieke/akyeke (cassava couscous) is more common in the economic (and former official) capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, and therefore is understood to be an Ivorian food, the word alloko has been appropriated by Ivory Coast more so than Ghana because Nzemaland is closer to Abidjan than it is to the Ghanaian economic/official capital Accra despite the majority of Nzemaland falling within the political country Ghana (my theory). By the way, if you are going to try attieke, the frozen kind is much better than the boxed dehydrated ones. In fact, you might as well eat couscous or gari if all you have available to you is boxed “attieke“.
When we moved to the States, I did not lament the mango. Plantains were to be had. When I would come home from college, my mother would time things just right so that there were a bunch of plantains at my favoured level of ripeness waiting for me. Do you know it is possible to eat nothing but plantains all day long? Well it is, especially when you have had none for months. Roasted plantains with peanuts for breakfast. Fried plantains with some sort of sauce, maybe even Red-Red, for lunch or dinner. Boiled (ampesi), roasted, baked (apiti or ofam), cubed and fried with spice or not (kelewele, aloco), mashed and fried (tatalε, krakro), there are a variety of ways to enjoy the ripe plantain.
Such was my obsession with the ripe plantain that my very first website, hosted by Geocities in the late 1990s, had kelewele heavily featured. Yes, I didn’t earn the title foodian for nothing. And when I became the leader of the college’s gumboot dance, I substituted kelewele for one of the calls as the previous leader had graduated and left with the calls. I’m sure any South African person listening to the calls of my era and soon afterwards were left to wonder what on earth kelewele was. tee hee!