When I was in Washington DC I had the good fortune to catch a cab with a driver from Ghana. We began to talk and he directed me to the only Ghanaian restaurant in the city, Appioo. This restaurant is not for the faint hearted, it is in a basement in a sketchy part of town, filled with mid-century formica furniture. That said, they have a fully stocked bar with a great bartender/waiter and two very modern large screen televisions. It is a little intimidating at first but once you settle in, it is more than comfortable. Ghanaian cuisine is the cuisine of the Ghanaian people. Ghanaian main dishes are organized around a starchy staple food, with which goes a sauce or soup containing a protein source. The diners were friendly and very attuned to the nuances of Ghanaian cuisine. I learned a great deal from my fellow diners and really enjoyed my meal at Appioo.
Appioo is located at a corner, 900 U street NW. Apparently, Ethiopian restaurants are more popular than Ghaniain cuisine. There are several nice looking Ethiopian restaurants in the immediate area. However, none of them have a cool Ghaniain warrior mask in front. Inside I met a group of three guys from Ghana eating lunch. We quickly became friends, they even let me photograph their lunch and explained each part of the dish to me, a nicer bunch of guys I have never met.
Kelewele is a popular Ghanaian snack dish of fried ripe plantains seasoned with spices. In English, it is sometimes called Hot Plantain Crisps. In Africa, kelewele is sold by street vendors, usually at night. It is sometimes served with rice and stew, peanuts, or alone as a dessert or a snack. Kelewele is also popular for breakfast. The plantains are peeled and may be cut into chunks or cubes. Usually, ginger, cayenne pepper, and salt are the typical spices used to make kelewele. I can tell you these are addictive. They are sweet, salty and spicy all in the same bite. The peanuts seem like an unnecessary addition but once you start munching, the peanuts become an integral part of the snack. I can really imagine walking down a main street in Ghana at night enjoying this snack.
I love Tilapia and Ghaniains love it as well. For me, there isn’t another fish that is as tasty yet so versatile. Fried, boiled, steamed or grilled, it is always very good. Although rice is the de facto starch of nearby Senegal, the cuisine of Ghana, except for the northern regions, emphasizes fufu: logs of yams (and/or plantains) and cassava traditionally mashed together by mortar and pestle into a thick paste. Also popular is Omo Tuo or Emo Tuo, cooked rice molded into balls. Omo Tuo, pounded rice balls (as seen above) are a staple of northern Ghana origins. It looks like a large dumpling but it is actually made of pulverized rice. Another version of this “dumpling” is made with pounded yams or cassava. A popular dish with Omo Tuo is groundnut (peanut) or palmnut soup with one or two large Omo Tuo or Emo Tuo “dumplings”. This is a variation of Fufu (variants of the name include foofoo, foufou, fufuo) which is a staple food of many countries in Africa and the Caribbean. It is often made with a flour made from the cassava plant or alternatively another flour, such as semolina or maize flour. It can also be made by boiling starchy food crops like cassava, yams or cooking plantains and then pounding them into a dough-like consistency. Fufu is eaten with the fingers, and a small ball of it can be dipped into an accompanying soup or sauce. So the above dish shows an Emo Tuo/Fufu dumpling with grilled Tilapia and fresh red pepper “salsa” with the Ghaniain hot pepper paste, Shito.
The dark brown condiment seen above is the spicy Shitto as it is known in Ghana, which is made of fish (usually dried shrimp) and chilli oil slow cooked for hours giving it a rich umami flavour. The word Shitto means ‘pepper’ and there are different versions of it. Families in Ghana will have their own recipe for this condiment. It is said to have originated from the Ga people of Ghana who lived by the coast and made their living primarily from fishing. The red condiment is a fresh red pepper sauce with fresh tomatoes. This is very much like a Mexican Salsa and like a salsa it comes in green and red varieties. If possible, the Ghaniains make both the fresh pepper sauce and Shitto from Kpakpo Shitto peppers, although just about any pepper with the desired level of heat could be used. This fresh red pepper sauce is thought by Ghaniains to be a perfect accomplishment to Tilapia or any fish and for eggs. Shitto is eaten with kenkey, fried yam or potato, hardboiled eggs, plain rice for a quick snack and any other food you like spicy, for example BBQ food. The Kpakpo pepper starts light green, then turns orange and then bright red. The plant is prolific, it has low heat but the low amount of heat lasts a long time if eaten fresh in salads, salsas, or sandwiches.
Jollof rice is more of a concept than a recipe, because it’s found in various guises all over West Africa. Its other name is Benachin, which means “one pot” in the language of the Wolof people who invented it – evidently throwing lots of lovely food in a pan and letting the heat do its thing has always been a popular cheat. The Wolof ruled an empire from what is now known as Senegal between 1360 to 1549. For a while they were a powerful and wealthy kingdom, even trading with Europe before it fell apart through infighting among the different states. The dish consists of any kind of rice or specifically basmati rice, but most commonly African rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, spices (such as nutmeg, ginger, Scotch bonnet (pepper), cumin) and chili pepper. In the picture above we see a salad, Jollof rice and oxtail stew.
Finally, we get to my order with stewed goat in tomato sauce. The brown rice ball is Waatchy, basically black eyed peas with rice, with a topping of spicy Shitto, the spicy fish paste from Ghana. For some reason, a small amount of spaghetti is commonly included with Waatchy, either on top or to the side. A hard boiled egg is also part of the package. Pronouced ‘Waatchy’ or ‘Waatchi’, a ‘red’ breakfast/lunch combo of cooked rice and black-eyed beans, with the red color produced by a dye from millet leaves in authentic recipes. Truth be told though, there are many ways to make it, in the rice cooker, on the stove top or even a pressure cooker. The yellow paste is Matoke, a pulverized version of yellow plantains. I also ordered a side of Oxtail Stew.
Appioo is a real deal Ghaniain restaurant. The food is delicious and the little details in terms of condiments are all there. If you come from Ghana or have just visited, you will be swept back to the loveliness that is Ghana. I realize that this is a long post but Appioo is not just a restaurant, it is a cultural treasure in Washington DC. Get over the basement location, the sparse furnishings and focus on the fabulous food and the friendly staff. This is not fast food, it is food lovingly cooked for hours and brought to you with all the condiments. Sadly, I have never been to Ghana but after eating at Appioo, I feel like a native. I have rarely had such excellent food, friendly service and the satisfying feeling that I have discovered a culinary gem. If you visit Washington DC, consider lunch or dinner at Appioo.
Jollaf Rice, Jamie Oliver: http://www.jamieoliver.com/news-and-features/features/jamie-oliver-jollof-rice-recipe/
Imo Tuo (Rice Balls): http://betumiblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/recipe-52-rice-balls-omo-tuo-white-and.html
Grilled Tilapia: http://betumiblog.blogspot.com/search?q=Tilapia
Buy Shito Hot Sauce: http://www.waakyeleaf.co.uk/sauces/
Fresh Pepper Ghaniain Sauces: http://betumiblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/recipe-60-fresh-pepper-sauces.html