17 December 2010
It started when I arrived in Bongo. I was not very experienced in cooking but liked to try my hand in the kitchen once in a while. My mother and wife, being the typically Indian women, have always been taking care to make the men in the house not to work much in the kitchen. Due to this reason, I did not feel it necessary to spend much time in the kitchen. Back in India, I had always liked cooking, because it reminded me of my chemistry classes and because I liked to know how various ingredients reacted in different media to give the final taste to the end product. I have always been criticized at home for watching too much of cookery shows. During our preparatory training in India, I heard story of one vegetarian Indian volunteer who survived his entire volunteer tenure of two years in some remote part of Africa on peanut butter sandwiches and bananas. I don’t know whether this can be true but I can't imagine myself doing that because I have realized over the time that one should have interest in the subject of food, only then one can develop interest in cooking.
My cooking took off on a full speed after coming here in Ghana as it was a do or die situation. In the first month, I could not digest the fishy smell of food which was available at the chop bars and vendors in Bongo town. I tried my best to make myself used to eating Banku and Kenke but still I don't like their taste and texture. I shall eat them only if there is no other choice. I have started liking certain local foods but certainly I won't prefer the same food at the lunch as well as dinner. I don't have any option but to cook to keep myself not remaining hungry but healthy instead and that too with supply of all the proper nutrients required by the body.
I still remember my first day in Bongo when I was dropped in Bongo by the VSO vehicle. VSO driver Issa, had shown me around the house and provided some really kind words of caution but then immediately drove away. I had not had any lunch and did not dare to go out as I had never eaten any food in the chop bar and street side till that time. Fortunately my house was equipped with gas, stove and a refrigerator. There were two volunteers who had lived in the house before for a shorter duration and had left some utensils in the house. I had given serious thought to the advise of my VSO friend Rose and I had come with ready to eat noodle packets, chivda and ladoos (both of the later are traditional Indian snacks) for my first few days of the placement. I looked at those packets and I felt that they were going to be a highly prized commodity then.
I did not venture much into the market in the initial days, as I tried to survive by miserly use of pulses, spices and ready to eat type of products brought from home. Once I had a look at them and thought that these are not going to do me any good and I have to get free from this attachment. Indian shops in Accra were 850 km away and there was no way I was going to Accra again for some months. I decided to finish those products as fast as I could so that I would be left with no option but to look for the local ingredients and start using them. Once came the day when I had no option but to go to the market and do some real shopping for the kitchen.
As I explored the narrow lanes of Bolgatanga market, I saw a variety of produce, some of it was familiar and some of it was not. After entering vegetable section, the first stall was having tomatoes, onions and ginger. “Hurray!”, I cheered in mind and afterwards by adding tomatoes and onions I could bring some life to my boring Khichadi (rice and pulses cooked together). In the next week entered in my kitchen eggs, cabbage and okra. Cooking eggs was a simple job which I had overlooked till that date. I started getting complete proteins. I had never cooked cabbage and okra before, but after a couple of consultations over the phone with my wife and VSO friend Rose, I was successful in cooking them. My decision of bringing along the cookery book proved useful in this regard. The book is titled “Cooking Made Easy for Men”, it is written in Marathi and gives recipes for various simple Indian preparations. I was invited to house of other VSO volunteers for the meals and I tried for the first time cooking for others. They liked whatever I had cooked and it triggered me to explore some more skills in the kitchen.
Each month I explored more of the market and realized that Indian cooking is possible here without having any need to go to distant city of Accra. Though for bringing real Indian taste, some spices which are not available at all here in Bolgatanga have to be purchased from Indian shops in Accra but I found that these days I can live without them. It is an important learning, which overseas volunteering imparts. It makes one innovative. My friend Jason, who is an American, has been a great inspiration to me when it comes to cooking. Being from a developed country he was not much used to the raw ingredients that are available here in the local market before. Most of the cooking in America is highly dependant not on the use of fresh produce but on the packaged goods. It becomes just a job of heating and boiling the things in the packets. But he has adjusted himself to the local produce so well that I think if somebody gives him some random ingredients, he will be able to make some delicious and healthy preparation.
There are some ingredients which are also available in India and I could make the traditional Maharashtrian recipes using them. The local fresh raw chillies are dark red in colour and very hot. They are certainly better in taste than the ones which we get in India. Most of the vegetables which we get these days in the Indian markets are cultivated with very high use of fertilizers and pesticides. While getting the high yields, Indian vegetables have lost their unique tastes and keeping quality, which new age farmers in India should seriously consider. And yes, there are spring onions available sometimes seasonally but commonly. Ambadi (Indian hemp), locally called as Bito, is a very popular vegetable here. The local Bito soup can not beat the Maharashtrian style Ambadichi Bhaji (vegetable) as far as my Indian taste goes. I downloaded its recipe from internet and could make the vegetable the way it is made at my home. It had a great taste but I felt sad because I was alone in the house and there was nobody with whom I could share the vegetable and the joy of success in making it.
I have been able to work with some other ingredients which are similar to Indian ones but not exactly the same. One is Alefu, a leafy vegetable in the family of Amaranth. It is green in color and available very cheap. It can be cooked in the same style as the local Amaranths in India. There is a gourd which is similar to bottle gourd and it is locally known as Wala. It has similar taste to the one in India. Garden eggs are not the real eggs but egg shaped orange coloured vegetable in the family of brinjal. These are bitter in taste and I don't like them at all but still have tried to cook them by removing their bitter taste by soaking in salt water, boiling in water etc. Fresh milk and milk products is not available here easily. Some Fulani herdsmen (herds-women actually) sell it in the market but looking at the way it is handled, I have avoided it till date. Milk powder and condensed milk are available commonly and many Indian sweets like Kheer, Sheera etc. are possible by use of milk made from them.
Some ingredients are not indigenous to Ghana but are important in the Indian cooking and available here in Bolgatanga, though at the higher price. These are imported from neighboring countries like Burkina Faso. Can you imagine buying 5 potatoes for Rs 66 or one bulb of garlic for Rs.33, but that is the cost we have to pay here. Speaking the subject of garlic, I recall one funny incidence that happened in the market. I was purchasing garlic when one man asked me, “why you white people like garlic so much?”, I answered jokingly, “because garlic brings out the real man in you.” The person could not get that it was joke and actually purchased garlic from the vendor. He told me further that he was going to give it to his wife so that she could add it to the soup that evening. Now coming back to the subject, as against the imported vegetables, which are not commonly eaten by the locals, the locally produced 1 kg of Sweet Potatoes can be purchased for Rs 3 and 0.3 kg of ginger for Rs.17.
Once we all Indian male volunteers were chatting together and started talking about these prices and what could be found where at the cheaper rates. It all started to sound like the talks of typical Indian housewives and we had a big laugh over the fact. Thinking of it afterwards, I can now empathize with my wife, mother and other house makers back in India about how they must be feeling and thinking when they go for shopping for the home kitchen. I think that more than improving my skills in cooking this is one more major change brought about in me by overseas volunteering.