As part of our What Is Black Food? series, we met up with Nadia Boachie, a food writer and blogger, and content creator, who talked to us about challenging the assumption that Black food is unhealthy or lacks diversity and how she stays connected to her Ghanian roots. She also shared her recipe for ampesi with kontomire stew, a popular staple dish in Ghana that’s packed with nourishing greens.
What is your cultural heritage? How does your heritage/culture influence your home cooking?
I’m Ghanaian-Canadian. Ghanaians are very intuitive cooks. I watched the women and men in my family cook over the years, watched them eyeball seasonings, adjust ingredients, and make substitutions. Growing up in predominantly white neighbourhoods for a majority of my life meant limited access to Ghanaian ingredients. Learning how to substitute, scavenge, adjust and overcome any hurdles while cooking are important skills that I use to guide all aspects of my cooking, and honestly my life. Each time I watched my mother, grandma or aunts cook, they taught me that this is the beauty and the art of cooking — knowing your ingredients and flavours so well, and knowing what you absolutely cannot or can do without in a dish. My sisters and I are still in the process of learning all the recipes we grew up enjoying. We stay connected to our Ghanaian roots by continuing to observe and make the dishes we grew up with, on our own, in our own Ghanaian kitchens.
Does the dish you’re sharing today have a story behind it?
This is ampesi and kontomire stew, an extremely popular Ghanaian recipe and definitely a staple that everyone should have in their back pocket. When listing typical Ghanaian foods, I would be surprised if this didn't make everyone’s top 5 list. It is my father’s favourite and if there was one dish he could eat everyday for the rest of his life, it would be ampesi and kontomire. This recipe was learned by observation and after a few phone calls to my mom explaining how best to make this dish. My sisters have also mastered several of the classic Ghanaian dishes and they have been great resources for me. There have been countless voice notes exchanged between my sisters and I when trying to master certain dishes like kontomire. Kontomire stew is typically made with palm oil but because of the lack of palm oil in most grocery stores (and controversy and hesitancy surrounding its use) we have made the stew with vegetable oil.
Kontomire stew is a very popular staple dish in Ghana. It is traditionally made with cocoyam leaves (called kontomire leaves) but can easily be made with frozen or fresh spinach. This stew can be made vegan, but is traditionally seasoned with a variety of dried, canned, fresh, and even cured/fermented fish. Ampesi is just the name of boiled plantain and yam. Since it is made with a ton of greens, this dish is packed with nutrients and can be modified to suit different tastes. It is important to dispel the idea that Black food can’t be healthy or substitutions cannot be made without the dish still being able to proudly claim its African roots.
There are a few unique ingredients in kontomire that may not be familiar to non-West Africans. Momoni, which is fermented fish, is a very funky-smelling ingredient but adds so much flavour and depth to stews like kontomire. It may be hard to come by unless you venture to an African grocery store and some Asian supermarkets may have similar products. Thankfully, momoni is not necessary to make this stew. Egusi is another typically West African ingredient in this dish and it is essentially just ground melon seeds. Egusi is another ingredient that is typically found at a West African grocery store, but ground pumpkin seeds are a great replacement. Lastly, palm oil is a reddish oil that can be found in several Ghanaian dishes and extracted from the fruit of the palm tree and is used in a lot of traditional dishes. In this version you see here, palm oil has been substituted out for regular vegetable oil.
What does the term Black food mean to you?
Black food is anything created by Black people (and yes, Black people are incredibly diverse). To me, Black food encompasses traditional food across the African continent (North, South, East, and West) and elsewhere around the globe, like in the Americas, and Oceania. To me, Black food is family, community, love, and history.
Are there any assumptions made about Black food that you would like to challenge or dispel?
There is an assumption that Black food is always unhealthy or lacks diversity and this is absolutely not the case. Black food is nutritious, full of a variety of starches, greens, herbs, legumes, and vegetables that are not used in Western cooking. That lack of familiarity of these ingredients often makes people jump to the wrong conclusions about what Black food is and isn't. Black food is healthy, Black food can be vegetarian, Black food can be vegan, adjustments can be made to Black food to fit a number of dietary restrictions if necessary. One thing Black food is most definitely not, is rigid.
What experiences and people in your life have shaped your cooking practice and the way you think about food?
Growing up in a city like Toronto was truly the biggest blessing in my life when it comes to my connection with, and knowledge of, food. Diversity is something that Toronto can undoubtedly and proudly claim itself to uphold. I grew up in predominantly white suburbs for most of my childhood. As I became a teenager with a bit more freedom to explore, and later a university student in Montreal (and then grad student in Toronto), I discovered so much about global food and the diversity and similarity of many cultural foods in Toronto’s boroughs. In Toronto, people are allowed to be who they are and are even encouraged to keep the strong holds to their identity because thankfully, more people than in the past realize the richness of cultural diversity. I realize that food is global. I am beginning to understand similarities between cultures and I am motivated to research the historical reasons they exist.
Now, as an amateur cook I love to try recipes from all over the world and share my meals with friends and family. My mother has had a big influence in my life when it comes to cooking. Growing up she was constantly cooking traditional Ghanaian dishes for our family regardless of which city and country we were in (and there were many over the years). I learned from watching her and several mother-like figures in my life.
How do you incorporate joy into your cooking practice?
When I am cooking, I am in my happy place. I get in the zone and I can spend hours on my feet cooking without realizing the time flying by. When I cook, I need to be relaxed and truly tune into the opportunity at hand. I GET to make this meal for myself or others. I have the PRIVILEGE to have access to the ingredients that I do, and the TIME to set aside in my day and use my two hands to produce something. Knowing all this truly makes me happy and content when I cook. Knowing all this allows the joy I feel to shine through in my food. Cooking can be euphoric. There is always a good podcast or soundtrack going on in my kitchen and I am content, happy and focused on the task at hand.
Where do you hope to see the future of Black food in America / Canada going?
I hope that the availability of ingredients used to cook certain Black food becomes more commonplace in local grocery stores. There has been a lot of progress over the last 10 years to get traditionally Black ingredients into big grocery stores and I have honestly been impressed with their availability but I think increasing access to these ingredients will be beneficial to all. For example, access to items like yam, dried fish, and West African legumes and grains, would really improve access to food from the Black diaspora. It would help people from these parts of the world that have migrated to America or Canada, but it will also introduce these ingredients to Americans and Canadians that are unaware of the depth and breadth of global foods.
Nadia’s Ampesi With Kontomire Stew
Kontomire is traditionally eaten with yam, boiled green or ripe plantain, or even rice.
Yield: 4-5 Servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
4 bunches (600 g.) spinach, fresh or frozen
2-3 large tomatoes, diced
1 habanero pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 inch piece of ginger
2 garlic cloves
1/2 large (or 1 medium) onion, sliced
1 tbsp. smoked shrimp powder (optional)
1 shrimp or chicken bouillon cube
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 to 1 inch piece momoni (fermented fish) (optional)
1 canned mackerel in tomato sauce (optional)
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 cup egusi (ground melon seeds)
1/4 to 1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
Boiled yam, or plantain (green or ripe), or rice
- Place ginger, garlic, and habanero in a blender. Add up to 1/4 cup of water to help blend. Set aside.
- If using fresh spinach, remove stems from spinach and roughly chop.
- In your Perfect Pot, heat vegetable oil and add sliced onions. Saute onions for about 3 minutes until they soften and start to brown slightly.
- Add parsley, bouillon cube, smoked paprika, shrimp powder, and momoni (fermented fish) to the oil and saute until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Momoni may break up in oil, so remove any bones if using. Keep stirring to prevent burning.
- Add blended ginger, garlic, and habanero mixture to the oil and saute briefly, about 2 minutes.
- Add diced tomatoes, breaking them up with the back of your Beechwood Spatula. Bring to a light boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stir occasionally to prevent burning.
- Simmer uncovered until the stew thickens and some water evaporates, about 10-15 minutes. Remove cover, and stir egusi into stew. Cover again and simmer for 5-7 minutes without stirring.
- Add spinach and cover. The spinach should wilt after about 3 minutes. When wilted, stir spinach into tomato stew until incorporated.
- Add canned mackerel. Do not add tomato sauce from canned fish to your stew, as it changes the flavour of the stew. I also remove the soft bone in the middle of the mackerel but this can be left in, as it is soft and is not a choking hazard.
- Gently break up mackerel but keep the chunks fairly big. Simmer for 5-10 more minutes uncovered.
- Serve hot with a side of boiled yam, boiled rice, or boiled plantain, an egg, and sliced avocado.