By Kim Choe
“I remember when I was with my mum in the kitchen. For me it’s a part of my culture, how I grew up and where I came from.”
The kitchen in Barbara Naadjie’s Bronx home is small and sparse, but its accoutrements spill over into the open-plan living room. Pots and plates of all sizes are stacked in precarious jumbles behind the couch, underneath shelves heaving with spices and bottles of oil.
Barbara spends much of her time here, cooking for her two children and preparing food for her catering business. She still makes the same dishes she learned from her mother before leaving her home in Ghana with her diplomat father in 1992, when she was 16.
“I’m the oldest sibling of four so I did most of the cooking,” she says. “My mum would give me recipes and I used to cook with her in the kitchen, and when she was out of the house I had to cook lunch for my brother and two sisters.”
Food was always a family affair, something to be prepared together and enjoyed together. Even though it’s been more than two decades since Barbara moved to New York, on Sunday afternoons she and her friends still reminisce about what they’d be doing if they were back home.
“We’d have fufu (boiled, ground plantains) and soup after church,” she explains. “Everybody gets together, the whole family – father, mother, nieces nephews – and we celebrate, we talk. We all have fond memories of that.”
Ghanaian food remains an important part of the community in New York, evening finding its way to the table on American holidays.
“Even at Thanksgiving we don’t just have turkey. We’ll have fufu and soup; we’ll have turkey too.”
The West African nation’s food is a true labour of love, often requiring hours of cooking to break down meat or dried beans. There’s certainly no such thing as fast food, Barbara says. Because of this, it is common for meals to be prepared in large batches and frozen for busy weekdays.
“Dinner will take you two, three hours. We don’t have stir-fry or 10-minute dinners which you pop in the microwave – no. Our food has to be made from scratch.”
One of Barbara’s favourite dishes is one she learned from her mother not long before moving to the United States – a simple black-eyed bean stew with mackerel, and fried plantains. The plantains, a relative of the banana that is usually only eaten cooked, adds a sweet accent to the spiced dish.
“Me and my brother and two sisters and my other cousins would basically have this for lunch once every week after school. So it was fun eating this, talking to them, and just being home.”
Barbara has brought up her two American-born children on Ghanaian food and also introduces their friends to it at every possible opportunity, believing it is the best way to keep their culture alive.
“Hopefully my daughter will learn how to make this for her kids one day, even though she’s not interested in cooking!”
Barbara hopes her daughter will one day view being in the kitchen as an experience that connects her to her heritage, rather than just a necessary chore.
“I have fond memories of these dishes because I remember when I was with my mum in the kitchen. For me it’s a part of my culture, how I grew up and where I came from.”