Happiness is finding kenkey in Oakland - and not just something purporting to be kenkey, but good kenkey. You hadn't realized how much you'd been missing kenkey in your life so you beamed when you saw those corn husks wrapped around those broken pieces of your heart. Call it a restorative. And then to cap it off you notice some good puna yam at the door of the store, "From Ghana", she assures you. Hey it's Ghana's independence day and what better way to celebrate. Your basket was quickly filled with the basics: kenkey, yam, sardines, tilapia, plantains, okro, palm oil, fufu powder, and the old faithful, gari. You had come perilously close to disaster but had remembered that piece of advice that they announce as the plane takes off from Kotoka International Airport: "A Ghanaian immigrant should never run out of gari"; it's like losing your soul.
One of the problems with being an immigrant is getting food from home, a problem exacerbated especially if, like me, your culinary tastes were locked in place by age 8 or thereabouts. Physical displacement can be tolerable - a cosmopolitan disposition helps, but culinary dislocation goes beyond the realm of physical to a certain level of metaphysical angst. Like nostalgia, it's almost a social disease. As that wise man said, "home is where the kelewele is".
I see it as a quality of life issue. Moreover I have a very specific notion of (my culinary) home. I could eat plantain every day (and often do) - and have been known to base my housing decisions on its availability. So the first thing to investigate when in a new town is where the "African" shop is and if my staples can be obtained. My kelewele has to be styled like Auntie Becky's in North Labone - and I've been known to come to virtual fisticuffs with other exiled souls who have the nerve to argue that it was rather 'the woman from Labone junction' who made the best kelewele in town. Good grief. Well, less said on that, I shouldn't blame you if you haven't been exposed to that slice of heavenly taste.
Fruits: mangoes, bananas and pineapples preferably from Aburi and its environs - I am a failed pineapple farmer - and more on that later. Fruits however can be substituted. Banku and kenkey are irreplaceable. When it comes to kenkey, it's Ga kenkey that is essential. I could of course learn how to make kenkey but I always demur, safe in the knowledge that I'll never reach the heights of some of the good kenkey houses in Osu or Jamestown. I believe in division of labour. Sidenote: to avert the inevitable Ga versus Fante kenkey critiques, I'll admit that Fante kenkey off the road from Cape Coast is quite the thing. Tell Mama Akos Esi (or rather, her grand-daughter who tends to skip school to mind the stand) that I sent you.
There's probably a longer feature to be written about the "African shop" abroad that caters groceries, phone cards and serves as community bulletin board to the diasporic cohort. My experience in France is perhaps coloured by the relative lack of authentic African food stuffs where we lived; the substitutes helped but weren't sufficient and French cuisine leaves me completely indifferent to this day. In London in the 80s it was first Charlie's in St John's Wood that catered to our tastes - although Charlie's English reserve and hefty prices were a bit hard to take. Then, as the immigration wave crested, we started to see competition as Africa immigrants opened their own shops - the couple of Afro-Carribbean shops in Cricklewood made my day. Later, Ghanaians and Nigerians took over many parts of South London so that Deptford on a Saturday could be well be Kaneshie market. In New York and New Jersey, there were of course the Korean shops that were early entrants but again Ghanaians and Nigerians have now caught up and compete in the culinary marketplace with groceries and now restaurants. Boston was touch and go - the Ghana shop that I frequented moved a number of times - and even burnt down at one point. Still, I was never too far from plantain, yam, gari and kenkey. And the world was good. Slowly and surely the African culinary colonization is taking place and these days many supermarkets cater to our diaspora. Would that this trend continue.
Downtown Oakland has the Lucky Oriental Mart which, despite its title, is comprehensive in its purveyance of all manner of African and Carribean food. God bless the Filipino owners whose knowledge of our plants and foods is a thing to behold. The only gap in their coverage had been a regular supply of decent kenkey - now resolved. I do hope these soul sisters make it to the continent one day; on this Independence day, they captured my heart with a few balls of kenkey. A small thing perhaps, but I am duly sated. From here on, I only have a few fantasies to fulfill: some chichinga or grilled Guinea fowl - well a man can dream can't he? Everyone needs a taste of Africa.
File under: Ghana, immigration, food, kenkey, wist, culture, taste, nostalgia, life, Africa, toli