Banku and Okro Soup, Ghana-Style
Growing up, I was an okra soup fanatic. Whenever my mother made it, I could be continually counted on to eat to excess and then promptly fall into a food coma. I've cut back as I've grown older because okra soup made with palm oil isn't the healthiest of dishes. Several chefs have attempted to adapt the recipe with vegetable oil to make it slightly healthier and reduce the cholesterol impact of the palm oil; however, I believe that the palm oil is essential to rich, deep flavor of the dish. I'm a okra soup purist, if you will. As such, these days, I only eat it sparingly, but relish those rare occasions. If you do choose to adapt the recipe with vegetable oil, I suggest using poultry instead of beef or smoked meat as the flavor is slightly better.
I learned how to make this recipe from my friend Julie from Ghana. We added a few crabs that you can see in the pictures, but I've omitted them from the recipe below.
Okra soup is a fascinating dish because of its many permutations across West Africa and its reinvention in the Americas as gumbo. Creole gumbo usually features a roux (a thickening agent made with a fat such as butter, mixed with flour) and is typically served over hot rice.
This recipe uses garden eggs, which are also called "African eggplants." When I first arrived in Accra, I was very confused as to what exactly the pale yellow "garden eggs" were. I had never seen them before when visiting Gambia or Kenya. After some inquiries, I learned that they are simply another variety of eggplant. In the States, if you're lucky, you may be able to find them at speciality African (and sometimes Asian) grocery stores. They're slightly more bitter than the aubergine (dark purple) eggplants I am used to.
1 medium-sized salmon
1 lb smoked turkey (Note: traditionally most people tend to use beef)
1 pound Okro (Note: Ghanaians call okra "okro")
2 cloves garlic
3 medium tomatoes
1 large onion
1 tsp. grated ginger
2 chili peppers (scotch bonnets or other red chilis are best), ground or finely chopped
3 garden eggs (Substitute aubergines if unavailable)
1/2 cup mushrooms
1/2 cup palm oil
2 cubes of Bouillon cubes
Salt to taste
Chop half of the pound of okra, then grate the other half. The smaller you cut the okra, the better the draw will be.
Cut the stalks off the garden eggs and cut them in half.
Soak the garden eggs and the okra for 10 minutes before transferring them to a pot to boil until the garden eggs turn translucent. Remove from flame.
In a separate pot, pour 1/2 cup of palm oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion, ginger, bouillion cubes, ground chili pepper and garlic. (Optional: add some ground ginger). As the mixture softens, add tomato and mushrooms, and continue to let it simmer over the fire.
Allow the pot with the palm oil mixture to continue cooking for 2 to 3 minutes before adding the smoked turkey and fish. Once the turkey and fish are sufficiently cooked, add the okra mixture.
Add the okra into the mixture by turning it from the bottom of the pot to the top. Allow the mixture to cook for another 10 minutes. The okra is added last in order to avoid over-cooking it.
Serve when ready alongside banku (for Ghanaians) or rice (my personal preference).
Because I was aiming for the full Ghana experience, I also made the okra soup with banku, one of Ghana's staple foods. I'm fascinated by the vast array of starchy side dishes across Africa. In much of West Africa, fufu is omnipresent. In Kenya and parts of eastern and central Africa, the starchy side is ugali, a maize-based side similar to polenta. In Zambia and parts of southern Africa, there is nshima. In Benin and Togo, there is the omnipresent pate (pronounced "pat.") In Ghana, there is the one and only banku. Aside from their starchy consistency, all these foods share the common element of near tastelessness, thereby making them a perfect base to sop up the spicy and earthy flavors of rich stews like okra soup.
2 cups water
1 pound cassava dough
2 pounds corn dough
Salt to taste
Mix the 1 cup of water and cassava dough then pour the mixture through a sieve to ensure that all the unmilled pieces of cassava and any other residue are eliminated.
Add the corn dough to the cassava dough.
Add some salt and mix thoroughly until the mixture thins and becomes smooth.
Put the pot over medium fire and continue to mix. The banku will become more difficult to stir, but continue to mix in order to ensure it does not become lumpy. Add about one cup of water and cover the pot for 5 minutes to allow the water to evaporate and cook the banku further. During this time, stir the banku intermittently.
When the banku is ready, shape it into a small ball using a spoon. Alternatively, if you won't eat all of the banku at once, spoon out portions into small plastic bags and roll up the ends.